By Mark Carwardine
There’s a feeling of desperation among everyone involved in rhino conservation these days. With increasing wealth in countries such as Vietnam and China, demand for rhino horn is soaring. And with nearly three rhinos being killed every day in South Africa alone poaching is already out of control.
Why on Earth, then, is South Africa proposing to legalise international trade in rhino horn? In particular, it wants permission from CITES (which regulates trade in endangered species and is signed by 178 governments) for a one-off sale of its 16-tonne stockpile of rhino horns (worth some $1 billion).
They argue that legal trade will flood the market with rhino horn, thereby forcing the price to drop and reducing the incentive to poach; that it will generate much-needed funds for conservation (albeit only for South Africa); and that it will take control away from criminal syndicates. Supporters of a longer-term legal trade also argue that rhino horn is a renewable resource (it can be obtained without killing the animal) and that de-horning would mean fewer rhinos available to poachers.
But I think it’s all utter rubbish.
There is no magic solution to the current crisis and, admittedly, efforts to curb poaching, tackle illegal trade and reduce demand clearly aren’t working. Or, at least, they aren’t working fast enough. But introducing a legal trade is categorically not the answer.
For a start, there would be no way of telling the difference between legal and illegal horns. And how would we force end-user countries even to attempt such a distinction? This failure alone would provide nothing less than a laundering service for the illicit trafficking of illegal horns.
Worse still, legalising international trade in rhino horn is more likely to cause an explosion in demand, which will encourage yet more poaching. With only 27,000 rhinos in the world – and a potential market for rhino horn exceeding 1.5 billion users in East Asia - it’ll never be possible for supply to outstrip such insatiable demand. Meanwhile, the criminal syndicates involved would either stockpile the legal horn, specifically to avoid flooding the market and driving the price down, or they’ll compete by offering illegal horn much cheaper. More....