Rhino poaching is currently at crisis point! The southern white rhino is listed as nearly threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list, the northern white rhino and black rhino are both critically endangered.
Since 2008, poachers have killed at least 5 940 African rhinos. In response to the rise in rhino poaching, government imposed a moratorium in 2009, banning all trade of rhino horn in South Africa but the Supreme Court of Appeal in South Africa has once again legalised it. Opinions vary greatly as to whether this will save the species or doom it to extinction.
This leaves rhinos in a difficult position as, while the ban itself is considered constitutional, the way it was passed violated the administrative elements of South Africa’s National Environmental Biodiversity Act. Since John Hume (who sued the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs in 2012) is the world’s largest rhinoceros rancher, the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs (DEA) had a duty to consult with him before implementing the 2009 ban. In a ruling issued on 26 November 2015, South Africa’s High Court in Pretoria agreed with Hume and invalidated the moratorium.
The DEA appealed to the Pretoria High Court, which denied leave to make the appeal and then turned to the Supreme Court of Appeal. The government’s application was dismissed last week in three terse sentences, concluding that “the requirements for special leave to appeal are not satisfied.”
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), the body that governs international wildlife trade and international, has banned trade in rhino horn since 1977 amongst the 182 member countries of CITES. Unfortunately, this does not apply to trade within a country’s borders.
Later this year, in September, South Africa will host the triennial meeting of CITES. Many anticipate that the South African government will use this as an opportunity to push for removing the international trade ban on rhino horn, due to previous pro-trade statements at previous CITES meetings by our wildlife negotiators. However, the environment ministry has announced it would make no such proposal.
Shortly before the CITES deadline on proposal submissions, the tiny landlocked monarchy of Swaziland within South Africa, has submitted its own proposal to sell rhino horn on the international market.
As things stand now, exports of South African rhino horn to Swaziland would violate both South African and Swaziland law, as well as the countries’ CITES commitments. But, if Swaziland were to win the right to export rhino horn on the international market, South African farmers would be able to send live rhinos to Swaziland for their horns to be harvested there because both South African and Swaziland maintain an exception to CITES’ rhino horn trade ban. This would then allow them to export live rhinos to “appropriate and acceptable destinations”. This undefined phrase is a potential loophole, allowing Swaziland to become the most popular country in the world for live rhino.
Experts agree; there is virtually no market for rhino horn in South Africa. The unpleasant reality is that the horns will almost certainly be smuggled out of South Africa into Asia.
So what is it about rhino horn that makes it so popular amongst Asians? Rhino horns are made of keratin, the same protein found in hair and nails. Ranchers in South Africa raise rhinoceros as they would dairy cows and periodically anaesthetise them to saw off their horns which, if removed above the root, grow back.
The main markets for rhino horn are China and Vietnam where the horn is ground into a powder and falsely believed to cure headaches, hangovers, cancer and as an aphrodisiac (amongst others).
There are concerns that legal domestic sales will become a conduit for criminal networks to obtain horns to be smuggled out of the country and sold on the black market, similar to what occurred prior to the 2009 ban.
Supporters of the rhino horn trade say that money earned from sale of rhino horn COULD be used for conservation purposes, as well as paying for security. Opponents claim that legal trade will tempt poachers who kill rhinos to harvest their “blood” horns to launder it with clean supplies.