A Step Back for South Africa?

In a move that would prove a disastrous step back for the country's conservation efforts, South Africa's high court has upheld a decision to legalize domestic sales of rhinoceros horn.

In the November ruling, Judge Francis Legodi of the North Gauteng High Court said the government had failed to properly consult the public before imposing the ban in 2009.  Although the South African Department of Environmental Affairs immediately applead the ruling made by the court, this appeal was dismissed last week on Wednesday. The South African government will now appeal the ruling in the Supreme Court of Appeals which will keep the ban in place until a decision has been reached.

Rhino horn trade has been outlawed in the country since 2009, and internationally since 1977.  For the first time in eight years, 2015 saw rhino poaching figures decline in comparison to preceding years in South Africa.

The push to lift the ban on selling rhino horn comes from game breeders, John Hume and Johan Kruger, who claim that legalising the trade within the country will reduce rhino deaths.  Hume currently has 1,200 farmed rhinos and has stated that if the ban continues he will no longer be able to afford to keep them.

National Geographic’s Rachael Bale presents the arguments and history of the debate here

Lifting the ban on the domestic trade of rhino horn will be counterproductive for a number of reasons.

The main source of demand for rhino horn comes from overseas markets in Asia, not from within South Africa.  Allowing domestic trade of farmed rhino horn will enable illegal traders to take advantage of reduced trade regulation.  Border control authorities will find themselves under greater pressure from the increased availability of rhino horn and will face a difficulty of not being able to distinguish between what is legally farmed or illegally poached.

Flooding the market may well reduce the price of rhino horn but rather than push poachers out of business, this will merely make the product available to a new tier of consumers now able to afford it. 

Farming rhinos under the extreme conditions in which Kruger and Hume operate also does not meet the needs of so large an animal that is used to roaming free in the wild.  In 2014 Hume’s rhino population suffered an outbreak of blackquarter disease caused by the bacteria Clostridium novyi.  A total of 35 rhinos died as a result and ecologists pointed to the unnatural conditions under which the animals are kept and their large numbers (then 1000) as a cause of the outbreak.

It is our firm belief at Tusk that lifting the ban on rhino horn trade will perpetuate the myth that rhino horn has medicinal properties.

Instead of feeding the demand, organisations and authorities must work together to halt the demand by increasing security in the field, tightening illegal wildlife trade laws and regulations, and re-educating current consumers about their harmful behaviour.

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