South Africa legalizes sales of rhino horn: Will this help save rhinos?

South Africa recently legalized the domestic trade of rhino horns, inciting passionate responses from the former ban's proponents and opponents alike. 

Robin Clark/AP
A white rhino from Kube Yini Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal is captured and moved to a truck after its partner was killed by poachers near the town of Hluhluwe, South Africa in 2014. South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal legalized the domestic trade in rhino horn Friday.

South Africa's Supreme Court of Appeal legalized the domestic trade in rhino horn Friday, opening a flood of feedback from both proponents and opponents of the ban – both of whom say they want to save the animal.

The domestic trade of rhino horns was legal until 2009, when the government imposed a seven-year moratorium on the trade in response to a dramatic rise in poaching. The moratorium was up for review this year, and after a lawsuit by two prominent rhino ranchers, the country's high court rejected the government's appeal to keep the ban in place. 

The Minister of Environmental Affairs said Tuesday it is "considering the implications of the judgment" and "will brief the public in due course." If the government strongly disagrees with the legalization, it could launch a legislative front against the judicial ruling. Officials told Reuters that the government may make the issuing of trade permits required to buy, sell ,or possess rhino horns "so onerous that domestic trade is effectively stifled." 

The ruling has no affect on the international trade of rhino horn, which has been illegal since the signing of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) by 182 countries in 1977. 

But despite the opposing strategies of those for and against the ban, both sides are looking to effectively protect shrinking South African rhino populations. 

"The reality is the trade ban has not worked by any reasonable measure and on the contrary has helped create a vast illegal market dominated by transnational crime syndicates that remain untouchable. Like the illegal drugs trade, will demand go away?" asks Pelham Jones, chairman of the Private Rhino Owners Association (PROA), in an article he penned for the group RhinoAlive. "Despite the number of poachers shot and killed or arrested, and despite our best efforts at huge financial and personal costs to rhino owners, the syndicates remain relentless." 

Rhino horns are made from keratin, the same protein found in human fingernails, so they will grow back if removed above the root. Ranchers in South Africa raise rhinos like cattle, periodically tranquilizing them and sawing off their horns to sell. 

And ban opponents may have statistics on their side: Poaching rates have risen dramatically in recent years. The South African Department of Environmental Affairs has reported a steady increase in the number of rhinos poached each year since 122 were killed in 2009, when the moratorium was put in place. By 2012, 668 rhinos were poached; by 2015, it reached 1,175. 

"I believe that once [ban proponents] actually understood the intricacies of the rhino poaching crisis; once they understood that with a legal trade in horn, very few rhinos (or their custodians) would ever have to die a brutal and cruel death again, their minds would be open enough to consider the possibility that this option may in fact be the very best thing for all the rhinos in the world," Tanya Jacobsen, from the group RhinoAlive, tells The Christian Science Monitor. "The required paradigm shift that would be necessary for [the ban] to be effective is probably decades away – our rhinos simply do not have the luxury of time." 

The demand for rhino horn is largely in Asian countries, such as China and Vietnam, where some buyers believe ground-up rhino horn can cure a variety of ills, from cancer to hangovers. In South Africa itself, however, there is no virtually market for rhino horns.

Because of this mismatch, ban proponents say rhino ranchers' arguments don't add up. 

South African buyers are likely to be investors, according to Cathy Dean, director of Save the Rhino International. "We do not believe that these investors will be content to let their rhino horns remain, unsold, in a stockpile for years," she tells the Monitor. "It seems obvious that there is huge potential for leakage into the illegal trade, and we're deeply concerned by these new developments."

This makes the court ruling "a serious blow," Jo Shaw, rhino program manager for the World Wildlife Fund South Africa, said in a press release. The lack of a domestic market means "lifting the domestic moratorium can only encourage illegal activity, especially as it is likely to be misconstrued as a lifting of the current international trade ban." 

John Hume, who owns the world's largest rhino farm with about 1,300 rhinos, admits that he has roughly five tons of rhino horn stockpiled, according to The Telegraph. But Mr. Hume, 73, says he regularly dehorns his herd of rhinos to not only save them from poachers, but also to reduce the market value of the illegal trade.

"Up until 2008, we had no rhinos being poached in South Africa because demand was being supplied by legal sales from live rhino," Hume tells The Telegraph. "It's not the demand for rhino horn that's killing our rhino, it's the way the demand is currently supplied."

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