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Rhinos at risk: calls to lift ban on horn trade

 The Big Issue South Africa 31 October 2019

The massive spike in rhino poaching has led to a radical and controversial proposal aimed at stopping the endangered animals being killed for their lucrative horns: lift the ban on rhino horn trade. (709 Words) - By Staff writer


The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) banned the trade of rhino horns in the early 1970s, but some experts say the ban has not had the intended effect of protecting rhinos. Instead, they argue, the ban has only driven up the value of illicit rhino horns, with a single horn fetching up to R1 million on the black-market. This means that, for poachers, a rhino is worth more dead than alive.

Environmental economist Michael't Sas-Roelfes is among those who believe lifting the ban would lead to a decrease in poaching.

"Rhino poachers are motivated by money. Poachers don't kill rhinos for any reason other than it is very profitable for them to do so," he said. "With sustained legal trade, horn production would increase and the price of horn would most likely drop and stabilise. This would reduce the incentives for poaching and illegal trade."

The controversial proposal comes at a time when South Africa seems to be fighting a losing battle against spiralling rhino poaching. In 2008 there were 83 rhinos reported poached in South Africa, according to the Department of Environmental Affairs. This number quadrupled in just two years to 333 in 2010, and 2011 is fast becoming the worst poaching year with 279 rhinos already killed illegally for their horns.

Sas-Roelfes, who is also a fellow at International Policy Network, a network of policy institutes around the world, concedes that lifting the ban won't completely eliminate poaching in South Africa, but believes it will reduce the number of rhinos killed more than the all-out ban.

"As long as rhino horn has value there will be some threat of poaching, but at least rhino custodians would be earning money from sales that they could
reinvest into expensive protection," he maintained.

Pelham Jones, chairman of the Private Rhino Owners Association, also believes the Cites ban is not effective and agreed that a more drastic solution, like legalising and regulating rhino horn trade, is needed to save the dwindling rhino population.

Lifting the ban would enable the horns to be "harvested" without the animal being killed, Sas-Roelfes pointed out. This is because a rhino's horn is made up largely of keratin, which can be found in hair and nails. It is therefore possible to remove a rhino's horn without harming the animal and the horn will grow back.

"Rhino horn production is potentially sustainable and could be ramped up significantly with regular harvesting off live animals.  But for the fact that rhinos are fundraising icons for conservation organisations, rhino horn production is potentially no more controversial or complicated than farming sheep for their wool," he reasoned.

Conservationists opposed

Lorinda Hern of the Rhino Rescue Project is among those animal conservationists staunchly opposed to a lifting of the ban, and argues that rhinos need their horns.

"Not only will the rhinos suffer with this but so will tourism, because people don't want to see a rhino in the wild without its horn," she said.

Hern also maintains the logic behind the proposal to lift the ban is skewed: "This may seem like a harsh comparison but it's like saying 'We can't fight the rapists and murderers, so we'll make it legal'. You can't fight a crime by making it legal'."

Crucially, she said, it has been proved that lifting bans on animal products does not necessarily deter poachers. She referred to Cites' attempt to curb elephant poaching by lifting the ban on ivory. "It instead caused a spike in the demand for ivory," she said.

Study commissioned

The Department of Environmental Affairs is, however, taking the proposal seriously. In August Minister Edna Molewa confirmed the department had commissioned a study to determine whether lifting the ban would reduce rhino poaching. The department failed to respond to requests for further comment.

Jones pointed out that even if the study is in favour of lifting the ban it would only be the first step in a long process. "Government would first need to agree to change the resolution, then they would have to approach Cites and ask them to lift the moratorium on rhino horn trade," he explained, adding that any such proposal would have to be supported by a two-thirds majority of Cites members to be adopted.

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