There are five species of rhinoceros and they are in danger of being hunted to extinction for their horns. South Africa is home to around 20,000 white rhino (about 80% of the world’s population) and 5,000 black rhinos. South African courts have repealed a 2009 act that prohibited the poaching and sale of rhino horns.
Map of rhino black market via Elise Shivamber
This ruling will allow for non-commercial in-country trade of the rhinoceros horn. The case battle began in 2012 when a rhino rancher, a safari operator, and the Private Rhino Owners Association of South Africa (PROA) challenged the 2009 act in court. According to the PROA, legalizing rhino horn trade would help protect the animals from poachers who kill the animals for their horns. The legal trade would allow rhino ranchers to anesthetize rhinos and saw off the horns that would grow back if properly removed. According to Save The Rhino, “As white rhinos in South Africa were placed on the Appendix II listing of CITES in 1994 with special exemption for sport hunting, export of hunting trophies remained a legal mechanism for the international movement of rhino horn. It has been noted that these hunters were generally unskilled and inexperienced and prepared to shoot even young female rhinos as long as they came away with a horn.”
Graph via Save The Rhino
Conservationists disagree, the practice will only increase demand and subsequently stimulate poaching. Furthermore, there is little demand for rhino horn within South Africa. Demand for rhino horn is much greater in areas like China and Vietnam. Even if South Africa overturns the ban within their boundaries, internationally, rhino horn trade has been prohibited since 1977. The International trade in rhino horn is banned under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora). Therefore, legal rhino horn within South Africa would only lead to illegal international trade.
Deeply concerning. There’s no market for rhino horn in SA, so anyone who buys it would likely be thinking about selling it abroad illegally https://t.co/xOizn3Qmya
— WWF News (@WWFnews) April 6, 2017
But why is there a demand for rhino horn at all? This luxury item is often collected as a status symbol of wealth. The Education for Nature in Vietnam released a PSA telling wealthy purchasers of illegal rhino horns that “rhino horn does not make you special in any way“. In fact, “poaching rates have surged since 2005, and Vietnam has rapidly grown into the world’s largest consumer of rhino horn. Asia’s rhino horn trade appears to be linked directly with economic development and increasing levels of disposable income. Over the past decade, Vietnam has experienced rapid economic growth, with demand soaring for wildlife products.”
Watch the Vietnamese PSA featuring celebrity comedian Chi Trung:
A secondary cause of the international demand for rhino horns (though not nearly as massive as those purchasing for aesthetics) is the link between rhino horn and Eastern medicine. Rhino horn has been used in Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years and is used to treat fever, rheumatism, gout, and other disorders. There are those who also believe it has cancer curing properties as well as curing hangovers and strengthening the liver.
Rhino horns are similar in structure to horses’ hooves, turtle beaks, and cockatoo bills so it is interesting to see only the horns of rhinos being so coveted. They are made of keratin similar to the composition of our own nails; we can see pseudoscience and old wives tale at play here but they are no longer just fantasy tales. At around $132,000 a pound (six times the value of a pound of gold), a piece of rhino horn given to lower income families means insurance for the future to many in China and Vietnam.
The new South African ruling will require regulated permits but the news does not sit well with conservationists worldwide. It may be that South Africa sees this as a possible market boosting plan considering the economic crisis but what is to be said about the possible interference with the international ban of rhino horns? How can governments and organizations work to debunk false medicinal beliefs surrounding the horn as well as boost conservation morale of this endangered species? Does legalizing rhino horn trade within South Africa support protecting the species through monitored horn harvest and sale to deter illegal practices? So many questions…
Title image from Scientific American
Written by Iman Lynn Mamdouh