he only certainty of the impact of legalizing trade in rhino horn in an attempt to save rhinos from poachers, is uncertainty, a review of economic reports on the legal and illegal markets in horn has found. Commissioned by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in late 2013, the report Horn of Contention by Economists at Large reviewed a variety of formal and informal studies into the economics of trade in rhino horn.
“Their conclusion is that legal trade in horn would not necessarily reduce the poaching of rhino and, given that uncertainty, there’s simply too much at risk to take a chance on legalizing the trade,” says Jason Bell, Director IFAW Southern Africa.
In mid-December the South African Government announced that 946 rhino had been killed since January 2013 and during the first weekend of 2014 a further six rhino carcasses were found in the Kruger National Park (KNP). The park bears the brunt of rhino poaching in South Africa with 573 rhinos killed there in 2013 and despite extreme levels of security in place.
While academic, peer reviewed studies show the outcome of liberalizing trade demonstrates a real risk that legalized trade could drive an increase in poaching; less formal “grey literature,” does not apply the same rigorous attention to economic principles, and takes a pro-trade review.
“Those lobbying hardest for trade in rhino horn – mostly the rhino ranching industry – are basing their argument on reports that are unscientific and unfounded. Their concerns are entirely with the profits they believe can be made from farming rhinoceros, and selling their horns, not with the long term survival of the species,” says Bell.
“That is dangerous ground given that we have already reached a tipping point for the species. If we don’t act carefully rhinos could soon be extinct. No decisions on the future of rhino should be made without sound science to back them up”.
Currently all commercial trade in rhino is illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Pro-trade advocates are lobbying for the government of South Africa to propose an end to the trade ban at the next general meeting of CITES in 2016, to be held in South Africa.
“Wildlife crime ranks among the most serious, dangerous and damaging of international crimes along with human trafficking, drug running and illegal arms sales. The only way we can stop the killing of rhinos, elephants and other species is to stop trafficking and stop demand,” said Bell.
As part of a worldwide capacity building initiative IFAW trains law enforcement officers in wildlife trafficking prevention in several countries throughout Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Oceania, and the Caribbean. The organization recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Interpol, the first ever signed by Interpol’s Environmental Crime Programme with an NGO. IFAW and Interpol have collaborated on numerous projects since 2005 including Interpol’s largest-ever illegal ivory trade operation in 2012.