With the Sumatran rhino officially extinct in the wild, are South Africa’s rhino doomed to the same fate? Earlier this month, the country’s 2009 moratorium on the domestic trade in rhino horn was lifted by the Constitutional Court. This ruling went in favour of private rhino owners and makes it legal to buy and sell rhino horn within South Africa. But with what consequences?
While pro-trader Pelham Jones, Chairman of the Private Owners Association, rejoices, saying they, “are absolutely delighted at the ruling”, Minister Molewa says, “It should be noted that the court’s decision should not be construed to mean that the domestic trade in rhino horn may take place in an unregulated fashion.” But conservationists believe trade could mean disaster for rhinos. They question if the government has, “the funding, capacity or expertise to regulate a legal domestic trade and continue to police an illegal one?”
Dr Jo Shaw, WWF’s rhino programme manager says she is concerned by the court's decision… “Law enforcement officials simply do not have the capacity to manage parallel legal domestic trade on top of current levels of illegal poaching and trafficking.” Susie Watts of WildAid’s Africa Programme agrees. “There is no domestic demand for rhino horn products and, as the pro-trade lobby very well knows, the reason why the moratorium was implemented in the first place was to prevent domestic trade from being used as a cover for smuggling. Legal trade in rhino horn is not the way to stop rhino poaching. All it does is stimulate demand and provide a cover for illegal trade.”
Opponents are also saying the decision undermines the vote held at CITES CoP17 where it was made clear rhino horn trade was not wanted or acceptable. “There is insufficient evidence demonstrating that the necessary conditions with respect to governance in South Africa have, to date, changed significantly enough to ignore the Committee’s recommendation against trade,” says the International Rhino Foundation.
And it is this inability to manage a potential illicit market that has many experts concerned. DSWF CEO, Oliver Smith, says “where a legalised market, domestic or international, exists you will always find a black market, and most likely a far more voracious one as a result.” Morgan Griffiths of WESSA echoes these statements. “If these regulations are promulgated, we will see a significant rise in poaching, as poachers use the significant loopholes to cater for the increased demand for horn in the Far East.”
It is on this note that WESSA warns, “If demand grows again in these markets, it will put upward pressure on the horn price, incentivising poaching. And it is not just South African rhino populations that DEA’s proposal places at such high risk, but also that of Indian, Javan, Northern White, and Sumatran rhinoceros species.”
This does beg the question – what message does a legal rhino horn trade send to Asian markets? “We question whether the purpose of legalising trade is to reduce demand or to try to meet demand. It seems unlikely that a legal trade in rhino horn from one country, even with large stockpiles, could meet the accelerating demand in Asian consumer markets. The new regulation also allows export of two rhino horns per person for ‘personal use’. Allowing export of horn for personal use implicitly lends credibility to the idea that rhino horn has medicinal value, which is not supported by sound science, but has a very real potential to increase demand,” says the International Rhino Foundation. Smith agrees. “Lifting the domestic ban undermines efforts by international institutions and organisations to change a consumer mind set and legitimises the trade in, and consumption of rhino horn.”
Dr Harriet Davies-Mostert, Head of Conservation at EWT, says they are also disappointed that the case will not be going ahead. She says that “the hard work of a large number of law enforcement authorities should not be undone by legal loopholes, and justice must be brought to bear against those who profit from wildlife slaughter and illegal trade”. Despite these long-term threats, the EWT also points out a pressing issue, wondering what effect this could potentially have “on various pending large criminal trials.” It’s a point that has also been raised by the Save the Rhino organisation who says that “The challenge to the moratorium on the domestic trade has already delayed important prosecutions of alleged rhino poaching kingpins or traffickers, such as the cases against Dawie Groenewald and Hugo Ras. Were a domestic trade to be allowed, the defendants might argue that the rhino horns found in their possession were intended for local buyers, rather than being exported.”
This decision opens more questions than answers, creates more problems than solutions and leaves it unclear whether we can really put a price on rhino horn or if the true cost is the extinction of an entire species.