Following the dismissal of government’ bid to retain a ban on domestic trade in rhino horns, concern has been raised that a legalised domestic trade in rhino horn could result in rhino horn being illegally smuggled out of South Africa to Asia.

Furthermore, should Swaziland succeed in lobbying the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), to allow it to sell rhino horn on the international market, rhino horn from South Africa could make its way to international markets via Swaziland.

Last year, a moratorium on the domestic trade of rhino horn was set aside by a judgment handed down in the Gauteng High Court following a court action by rhino breeders including John Hume, who owns more than 1 000 rhino and has an estimated stockpile of five tons of horn.

The Department of Environmental Affairs appealed the ruling at the Supreme Court of Appeal, but the appeal was dismissed.

“The Minister of Environmental Affairs is considering the implications of the judgment and will brief the public in due course,” the departmental said in a statement on Tuesday.

In a report in National Geographic, Julian Rademeyer, a senior fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, warns that legal trade could feed into criminal networks. "Given the levels of corruption in some provincial permitting offices, there are certainly concerns that legal domestic sales could become a conduit for criminal networks to obtain horns which can be smuggled out of the country and sold on the black market,” he is quoted as saying. “We saw as much prior to 2009 when middlemen for Vietnamese syndicates travelled the length and breadth of the country buying up ‘loose stock’ of horns from game farmers."

The ruling comes shortly ahead of the 17th Conference of Parties (CoP17) of CITES taking place in SA in a couple months. SA had been expected to lobby CITES to lift the current ban on international trade of rhino horn, but Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa announced earlier this month that SA would not.

Since SA’s announcement, Swaziland has submitted a proposal that would legalise international trade of its white rhino horn. “The ban on trade in rhino horn has been in force for 39 years and it is clearly not working –rhino losses from horn poachers are escalating and driving rhinos towards extinction,” the formal Swazi submission to CITES states. “The ban simply sends the trade underground enriching only the illegal black market.”

In the National Geographic report, Hume's lawyer Izak Du Toit suggests that should CITES grant Swaziland permission to export rhino horn on the international market, South African rhino horn could enter the international market. “South African ranchers could quite easily send live white rhinos to Swaziland and then harvest the horns there,” he is quoted as saying. He adds that legally, the countries can export live rhinos.

According to the report, Toit also suggests that smuggling rhino horn from South Africa to Asia would be a reasonable form of civil disobedience because the CITES ban that has failed to protect rhinos. "I've compared it to apartheid," he is quoted as saying. "Black people had to transgress the very law they objected to in order to show it was illegal."

Conservationist Colin Bell has argued that CITES is unlikely to lift the ban. He points out that to get the legislation changed to allow international trade of rhino horn, two thirds of the CITES members need to vote for the change, while only 61 countries are needed to veto any changes. Moreover, he points out that around 70 plus countries have either signed declarations stating no rhino trade or have suggested that they will oppose any changes to legislation.

Do you think lifting a ban on the domestic trade of rhino horn will result in rhino horn being illegally smuggled out of South Africa to Asia? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.