David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation’s position on the international and domestic trade of rhino horn

In less than a decade more than 7,000 rhinos have been lost to the poaching epidemic in Africa alone with their horn now rivalling the price of gold. Used in traditional medicines and as a status symbol, consumer demand is higher than ever before and it is imperative that measures be put in place before we see the extinction of this iconic species.

There is much debate and controversy surrounding the trade in rhino horn but DSWF strongly believes that allowing a legal trade would normalise it, stimulate the existing markets and set a dangerous precedent for consumers and consumptive markets. Furthermore, legally obtained rhino horn will not satisfy the consumer demand at current or future levels and would further proliferate the existing poaching epidemic.

As a result, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation (DSWF) actively campaigns and works to support:

  • A total ban on the international trade in rhino horn
  • An end to the domestic trade in rhino horn
  • Ending any future discussions on possible rhino horn trade

There is significant international scepticism regarding how the trade of rhino horn would be sufficiently regulated both nationally and internationally. With lax law enforcement, resources and funding, DSWF predict that the legal trade will simply create a resource for the illegal trade to be laundered into. Legal markets exacerbate economic and political issues and make the trade impossible to monitor. With the implementation of a comprehensive and total domestic and international ban, the issue is simply one of law enforcement. Why convolute a system that is already hard to monitor, measure and enforce?

The ‘one off experimental’ ivory stockpile sales in 1999 and 2008 to Asian markets emphasise a failed attempt to fulfil consumer demand with disastrous effects. The sale created a new consumer market that couldn’t previously afford the ivory, spiked its demand and fuelled a dramatic and deadly explosion in poaching contributing to the death of 100,000 African elephants between 2010 and 2012. Although market dynamics are unclear, flooding markets to satisfy demand could deeply aggravate the already dire position of rhino populations worldwide.

There is an element of empathy attached to rhinos, an affinity for these majestic creatures and, by legalising the domestic and international trade, we alter this perspective, we normalise it and promote its progression towards extinction.

What is legally harvested rhino horn?

With a burgeoning demand for rhino horn from consumer markets, preparations for the harvesting of rhinos has become a prevalent practice in South Africa. Many private rhino farmers are breeding rhinos, strategically removing their horns for the sale into domestic trade, a now legal practice in South Africa, or storing them in stockpiles pre-empting their commercial aspirations of a revival of the international trade in rhino horn.

What are the consequences of the legal market in South Africa?

The recent legislative changes and subsequent removal of the trade moratorium regarding the domestic trade in rhino horn was surrounded with worldwide scepticism due to the disastrous ramifications for rhino populations. Whilst the ruling by South Africa’s high court only had the remit to lift the national trade ban, the almost immediate translation of ‘domestic’ rhino horn auction websites into Vietnamese emphasises the murky motivations, desire and deadly potential for trans-continental sales in the imminent future.

The legal trade risks normalising consumption through reduced stigma from destination countries at the heart of the poaching epidemic. DSWF believes that this will result in stimulated demand, incentivise poaching and the creation of new consumer markets, promoting the rhino’s already dire path towards extinction.

Although there is a train of thought that the legalisation of rhino horn trade could economically discourage poaching initially, its accessibility would open up new consumer markets stimulating a demand that the legal market couldn’t fulfil for biological, enforcement and management reasons. The counter argument hinges on the notion that an increase in supply will lead to price reductions. However, the positive effects of these price reductions are largely uncertain, unproven and too high risk for a species so close to the brink of extinction.

Can legally harvested rhino horn be kept out of illegal domestic markets and can domestic trade be sufficiently regulated?

DSWF believes that where legal wildlife markets exist, black markets and the illegal markets flourish.  In a region which suffers from political instability, a lack of funding and resource for wildlife departments and endemic corruption, the idea of a centralised or devolved system to regulate a legal domestic trade with such a high value ‘commodity’ is a fallacy. Conditional trade in any guise cannot be sufficiently regulated and pressurises an already struggling system.

What horn devaluation and protection methods are being trialled and implemented?

NGO’s and governments are trialling and implementing numerous rhino horn devaluation techniques to counter the ever-growing poaching epidemic in Southern Africa. Demand reduction aimed at consumer countries lies at the forefront of longer-term solutions to sustaining rhino populations. DSWF believes that demand reduction, alongside education, is key for both consumer markets and local communities.

Short-term solutions however are also needed, to run in parallel with longer term strategies, in order to stem the bleeding of this rampant crisis. The de-horning of rhinos has been used as a widespread deterrent technique used to discourage poaching. However, to be effective, it must be coupled with extensive anti-poaching security and monitoring efforts. With only 90% of the horn being removed safely, the sad reality is that although less profitable, poachers will still kill rhinos for the stub or simply to avoid re-tracking it in the future.

Infusions are another devaluation technique where horns are infused with a composite that pollutes the horn, rendering it useless for ornamental or medicinal use. Whilst the concept is relatively new it is proving fruitful as a deterrent and offers a pro-active solution.