A version of this post originally appeared on the Africa in Transition blog. The views expressed are the author's own.
This year has had a bad beginning with respect to the preservation of Africa’s remaining rhino populations.
The South African government announced that by Jan. 17, some 37 rhinos had been killed in South Africa. According to the Jan. 31 Washington Post, over 1,600 have been killed worldwide in the past two years. There could be fewer than 25,000 rhino left worldwide.
Conservationists, activists, governments, and many others are putting forward resources, manpower, and strategies to combat this slaughter for profit.
The South African government made a public call for conservation and anti-poaching strategy submissions. One strategy that is receiving increasing attention is the possibility of legalizing the trade in rhino horn – of farming rhinos – to feed the growing demand in Asia.
The debate is necessary, but so is caution. Should the door of legal trade be opened, it could prove impossible to close; even if it backfires on conservation efforts.
A recent report, commissioned by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and published in November 2013, will fuel debate over the pros and cons, and the known and unknown consequences of legalizing the trade in rhino horn. Already the proposal has proponents and critics.
The fundamental argument of the report is that there are too many unknowns about legalizing the trade; more research is necessary. Legalizing could flood the market with legal horn and at the same time facilitate the continued (or increased) trade in illegal horn.
Or, it could work as advocates intend and undercut illegal horn prices, driving poachers and traders out of business; we just don’t know.
Given the outrage over the recent auction held in Texas for a black rhino hunt in Namibia, and the continued anger over Spanish king Juan Carlos’ Botswana elephant hunt -- popular opinion, in the West at least, is firmly against legalization.
There are strong arguments that the legal sales of 102 tons of elephant ivory to Chinese and Japanese traders in 2008 fueled the explosive expansion of the ivory trade in Asia, a trade which currently feeds the serious escalation of elephant poaching in Africa. The legal ivory provided the very smoke screen for illegal ivory it was intended to undercut.
Given the currently numerous and growing initiatives against poaching, for conservation, and for exposing Asian consumers of rhino horn to information on its lack of medicinal properties and the horror of its trade -- perhaps the strongest arguments against legalization are its unpredictable consequences.
And then there is the unfortunate precedent of the bad consequences of the legal sale of ivory.
Emily Mellgard is a research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program.