To Legalise or Not – a Look at Rhino Horn Trade

In mid-September 2015, the Conservation Action Trust said rhinos are heading for extinction. They said “That the tipping point will shortly be reached between the survival and extinction of the rhino is no longer up for debate.”

The Trusr referenced a report by South African ANC minister, Edna Molewa. “According to Minister Edna Molewa’s report, back in May 2015, by the end of April 2015, South Africa had lost 393 rhino nationwide, to poachers. Of these, 290 were poached in the Kruger National Park (KNP). At this point in time in 2014, 331 rhino were lost to poaching across the country, with 212 lost in the KNP alone. While there were 36 more poaching related arrests that were made by April 2015 than by April 2014, one must wonder if the penalties that are in place, are enough of a deterrent. One must also question the approaches that are being taken to tackling this crisis.”

According to a conservationist/businessman, Dex Kotze, the numbers reported by the government are actually much worse. The Conservation Action Trust reported, “While the Department of Environmental Affairs have not published updated rhino poaching statistics, OSCAP’s latest statistics, compiled from verified sources or gathered from newspaper articles and other social media, put the loses as at May 2015 at 550. Businessman, conservationist and founder of Youth 4 African Wildlife, Dex Kotze, says the numbers are already far higher, and that we are being misled about the successes in curbing rhino poaching, and that the penalties are certainly not enough.”

rhino horn trade.
Rhino horn.

A Call for Harsher Sentences for Rhino Poachers

Kotze says that rhino poaching and the trade in rhino horn has escalated to such an extent that positive action from the South African Government, on the highest political level, is necessary and justified, before an entire species becomes extinct. It is also likely that it will have a big impact on the tourism trade in South Africa, namely Safari tours such as It is for this reason that he is petitioning The Department of Justice and Constitutional Development to urgently intervene in the rhino poaching crisis, by amending the relevant legislation that governs the bail applications and the prescribed sentence for the crime of contravening Section 57(1) of the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act 10 of 2004 – Restricted activity with a threatened or protected species.

In the ‘Demand for Proposed Amendments to South African Legislation to Combat Rhino Poaching and Crimes Involving Threatened or Protected Species,’ he comments that it is commonly accepted that rhino poaching is a crime committed by organised criminal syndicates, who act in the furtherance of a common purpose. He goes on to say that up until now law enforcement has failed dismally to detect and curb the poaching in South Africa and that the policy of releasing poachers on bail and the sentences that are ultimately imposed are highly unsatisfactory. In his request for amendments, he suggests that a message is sent to poachers that if they are apprehended and prosecuted they will be dealt with harshly in the circumstances. He calls for a prescribed minimum sentence of 15 years imprisonment for a restricted activity involving a rhinoceros, elephant or any threatened or protected species with a value of R100,000 or more; the categorisation of the offence under Schedule 5 for the purposes of bail applications, in order to reflect the seriousness of the offence; and he further recommends that the hand of the prosecution and the court is strengthened when dealing with such offences. He adds to his recommendations that a person found guilty of the illegal killing of a rhinoceros or elephant should be penalised by having to refund the owner of the killed rhinoceros or elephant at market related prices.

Legalised rhino horn trade won’t reduce demand

The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) recently stated, “There’s very little we can do about the belief in the use of rhino horn that exists in other countries. Legalisation would be a more medium-term solution.” In response, Kotze and the organisers of The Global March for Elephants and Rhino’s question whether the (DEA) has any vision beyond the medium term, and whether it has accurately considered the potential everlasting effects of legalising the rhino horn trade – a potentially catastrophic decision.

As with all things, looking to the past can help predict the future. A TRAFFIC report from 1992 for example, shows that 62,000 black rhinos disappeared from East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) between 1972 and 1992. The report highlights official export figures of black rhino horn totalling 56,694 kg between 1949 and 1976 to Hong Kong (23,852 kg), South Yemen (9,007 kg), Zanzibar (8,101 kg), China 7,619 kg), US 2,642 kg), United Kingdom (1,686 kg), Japan 1,601kg, Others (2,186 kg). The report also highlights mismatched figures between official export data from East Africa and import data from Japan being 4 to 12 times more, with the conclusion that smuggling was rife to circumvent import taxes in an era before the creation of CITES and the rhino horn trade ban.

Kotze says that the insatiable demand for rhino horn from Vietnam and China has resulted in nearly 4,000 rhinoceros being killed since 2007, and says that it is no secret that China has emerged as the world’s leading driver of illegal trade in ivory since CITES approved the once-off sale of ivory in 2008. He highlights comment from the Kenya Wildlife Service that says that 90 percent of seized ivory has had ties to China and that since 2007 the amount of illegal ivory seized has gone up by 800 percent. This clearly shows that legalisation neither reduces demand, nor does it reduce the black market trade. This begs the question: if this is what happened with ivory, would a once-off sale of rhino horn have a different result?

The demand is increasing for a number of reasons, but it seems to boil down to two very important ones – population explosion and an increase in disposable income in countries with higher demand, such as China or Vietnam. In 1950, China’s population stood at 550 million, and grew to one billion by 1981. Current estimates suggest the Chinese population will peak at 1.5 billion this century. More people equals a greater demand. It is simple mathematics.

The TRAFFIC figures of black rhino horn trade are mostly from when trade was legal, CITES did not exist, and the world population was less than half of what it currently is. There were no online platforms reaching billions of people, and most importantly China’s population was half its current population, where the vast majority were extremely poor. Today, China is the second largest consumer nation of luxury products after the United States. There is more disposable income than ever before, and projections suggest that China’s economy will overtake that of the United States by 2025 and will be double the size by 2050. According to Bain & Company, China remains the largest nation of luxury buyers worldwide, with purchases that make up 29 percent of the global market. Explosive growth and an obsessive compulsive need for luxury and status do not bode well for any legalised trade in rhino horn.

Kotze’s presentation to the Commission of Inquiry into Rhino Horn Trade highlights that “priced in excess of $75,000/kg and up to $100,000/kg on the black market, it is fait accompli that legal trade in rhino horn will facilitate a surge in demand for the most sought after product in the ubiquitous obsession for status symbols amongst Asian people.”

Reversing the ban on rhino horn trade

For South Africa to effect a reversal on the ban on rhino horn trade, it will require a two third majority vote of the 180 members of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). It is highly doubtful that the required majority will be obtained. Even if the required two-thirds majority of member countries agree to legalise trade, it will take more than 8 years to create the necessary mechanics and legislation around the world to enact legalised trade.

Kotze says in his presentation that South Africa’s poor record of governance and control of corruption at the highest level under President Zuma is a major obstacle for a legalised trade to work. Stockpiles of rhino horn worth millions have already been stolen from government offices where safe custody, security alarms and electric fences were blatantly absent. The government and pro-­-trade lobby’s concept of a “transparent” central selling organization regulating rhino horn trade is a pipedream that could never curb illicit rhino horn trade.

Anne Lawson
Anne Lawson is a British writer who keeps her eye on business and trending issues that affect us all. She loves to delve into the real story and give us interesting tidbits we might otherwise miss.