Whether or not it would be sensible and wise to open a legal trade in rhino horn is one of the most debated and divisive subjects in today’s conservation circles. Influential opinion leaders, organizations, governments, and academics argue the case on both sides of the divide, and tempers frequently become frayed. On occasion, the debate has, regrettably and to the advantage of neither side, turned nasty and personal. This is particularly regrettable given that now, more than ever, there is an urgent need for a united, global environmental/conservation front.
NO TRADE—PRO TRADE
The Great Debate
The pro-trade lobby, with its epicenter in southern Africa, where most of the continent’s rhinos currently occur, presents a sound commercial rationale for a legal market. But the opponents of such a move, including most of the CITES Parties, supported by many influential global NGOs, put forward compelling arguments as to why a legal trade, currently and/or in the future, could have negative consequences for rhino conservation.
Both stances are based mainly on opinion and assumption. There are no guaranteed outcomes, and any number of unintended consequences are possible.
The considerations for and against legalizing trade in horn are set out here so readers can be appropriately informed and decide on which side of the divide they fall.
SETTING THE SCENE
Before addressing the pros and cons of a legal trade in rhino horn, it is important to understand some of the background issues around wildlife crime, international and state laws, horn stockpiles and what to do with them, and the value of horn.
A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report states that environmental crime is now the fourth-largest crime sector behind drug smuggling, counterfeiting, and human trafficking. Even more concerning, it is growing two to three times faster than the global economy. Because of its highly secretive underground nature, it is hard to place an exact value on environmental crime. Still, it is thought to total anywhere from US$91 to US$258 billion annually—a thousand times more than the money spent on combating it. UNEP estimates the illegal wildlife component to be US$7–23 billion annually. Combating such crime is made more difficult because there is no legal standard across all nations. For example, a crime might be punished harshly in one country while regarded as little more than a misdemeanor in another. Criminals are quick to exploit this lack of international consistency in crime fighting. Endemic corruption in many parts of the world is another major crime-enabling factor. There is a need for far stronger political will, legal uniformity, and cross-border cooperation for any crackdown on environmental crime to succeed in the longer term. The ramifications of environmental crime are huge. It compromises the already over-extended resources of the planet, robs future generations not only of wealth but also health and wellbeing, and poses a serious threat to global security. UN reports indicate that the ill-gotten proceeds from crimes against nature support armed groups and quite possibly terrorists as well. However, it is also argued that the association between ivory smuggling, extremist organizations in Africa, and global terrorism is overplayed, inferring that the strategies against both are undermined by conflating them.
The world’s fourth largest crime sector
Robbing future generations and funding war and terror
A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report states that environmental crime is now the fourth-largest crime sector behind drug smuggling, counterfeiting, and human trafficking. Even more concerning, it is growing two to three times faster than the global economy.
Because of its highly secretive underground nature, it is hard to place an exact value on environmental crime. Still, it is thought to total anywhere from US$91 to US$258 billion annually—a thousand times more than the money spent on combating it. UNEP estimates the illegal wildlife component to be US$7–23 billion annually.
Combating such crime is made more difficult because there is no legal standard across all nations. For example, a crime might be punished harshly in one country while regarded as little more than a misdemeanor in another. Criminals are quick to exploit this lack of international consistency in crime fighting. Endemic corruption in many parts of the world is another major crime-enabling factor.
There is a need for far stronger political will, legal uniformity, and cross-border cooperation for any crackdown on environmental crime to succeed in the longer term.
The ramifications of environmental crime are huge. It compromises the already over-extended resources of the planet, robs future generations not only of wealth but also health and wellbeing, and poses a serious threat to global security. UN reports indicate that the ill-gotten proceeds from crimes against nature support armed groups and quite possibly terrorists as well. However, it is also argued that the association between ivory smuggling, extremist organizations in Africa, and global terrorism is overplayed, inferring that the strategies against both are undermined by conflating them.
So, does it really matter if such information—speculative or otherwise—is bandied about? Possibly not, but the African Rhino Specialist Group specifically asks writers and editors to refrain from doing so, noting that such speculation can be wildly inaccurate and have serious unintended consequences. Rhino Review respects this appeal.
· Poaching and illegal trade would be stimulated. For example, new criminal networks might be drawn into horn smuggling, perceiving it as low-risk and high-reward.
Possible downsides of price speculation include fears that:
· Poachers might use references to high market prices in consumer countries as an opportunity to negotiate a higher share of the revenue pie. More money might incentivize even more poachers to proffer their services.
· High price speculation could create an impression that rhinos are near extinction and boost demand—a “get in while stocks last” mentality.
· Horn prices might indeed rise based on fears of increasing scarcity.
· Poaching and illegal trade would be stimulated. For example, new criminal networks might be drawn into horn smuggling, perceiving it as low-risk and high-reward.
All five rhino species are listed in CITES Appendix I, which means that any international trade in either live specimens or their body parts (including horn) is prohibited. Therefore, any cross-border trade is illegal.
In 1995, the South African population of White Rhinos was downlisted to Appendix II, allowing for trade in live specimens to approved destinations and as hunting trophies. In 2005, this Appendix II status was extended to include Eswatini’s White Rhino population.
Although the Black Rhino continues to be listed in Appendix 1, in 2004, an exception was granted, allowing South Africa and Namibia small trophy-hunting quotas. Although a trophy may be exported to the hunter’s home country, it must remain in the owner’s possession and may not be sold—a difficult condition to enforce (See “The Journey of a Horn”).
Changing the CITES status for rhinos
The convention’s supreme decision-making body is the CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP). At each CoP meeting, every two to three years, any member country may submit proposals to amend the appendix status of a listed species. These proposals are discussed, voted upon, and only accepted if two-thirds of the Parties present are in favor.
At recent CoP meetings, proposals have been put forward to change the listing status of rhinos to open the way for legal trade in horn. However, these have failed to gain the majority required to be accepted, albeit sometimes by the narrowest margins.
The next meeting of the Parties, CoP 19, is planned for Costa Rica in November 2022.
There are stockpiles of rhino horn worldwide, coming from several sources.
Many horns are taken by the staff of national parks and other government-run conservation areas from rhinos that have died in the wild of natural causes. These are then stored in secure vaults in secret locations to minimize opportunities for discovery and theft.
Private rhino owners and reserves similarly collect and secure horns from natural mortalities.
Horns legally removed by dehorning are also added to these stockpiles.
Rhinos in zoos and sanctuaries also die from time to time and their horns, too, have to be securely sequestered.
There are also horns, some antique and worked into art pieces as part of museum and private collections, including those taken as hunting trophies.
Horns (whole or in pieces) are also seized from poachers and smugglers attempting to move them across national borders and through transit destinations. These, too, have to be secured.
Of course, there are illegally taken horns that escape detection. Some of this contraband is sold to consumers in end-user countries, but much ends up in the stockpiles of criminal syndicates investing in the future value of horn.
Finally, there is the “lost stockpile” of the wild, the unknown amount of horn from undiscovered rhino carcasses in remote conservation areas.
So how much horn is out there?
Undiscovered horns from natural rhino mortalities and those secretly held by criminals make a realistic estimate of the total amount of horn “out there” virtually impossible to establish. However, the situation should be different regarding legally gathered horns, given the stringent procedures and recording of information required. DNA samples are also taken. (A complete set of recommendations for cataloging all legally collected horns is set out in great detail in Rhino Horn Stockpile Management: Minimum Standards And Best Practices From East And Southern Africa, published in 2005 by TRAFFIC.) Most stockpiled horn is held in Africa, where 10 range States have a reported 87.3 tonnes of rhino horns and pieces.
The need for a comprehensive “horn audit.”
Most conservationists would agree, whether they support a legal trade or not, that a full, independently conducted, and transparent audit of all legal stockpiles everywhere, whether in a state agency or private hands, is an urgent requirement. Given the legal, step-by-step requirements of recording horns, this should not be particularly difficult or time-consuming, but it has proved frustratingly slow. South Africa (state and private owners combined) remains the custodian of the overwhelming majority of horn and should be obligated to conduct accurate, regularly updated audits of all stockpiled horns. This has not been forthcoming.
There have been instances of horns being stolen from museums as far afield as in the United Kingdom, France, Ireland, and the United States. One of the most brazen crimes was in 2014, when some 112 pieces of rhino horn weighing about 80 kilograms were taken when thieves broke into a safe at the Mpumalanga Tourist Agency in South Africa.
Should horn stockpiles be destroyed?
Some countries, including Mozambique, Kenya, and Vietnam, and zoos have already destroyed all or part of their stockpiles. Protagonists say that burning or crushing horns sends a clear message that horns belong to rhinos, not to people and that they should have no value other than being attached to the nose of a living rhino. It is also suggested that the destruction of existing stockpiles would reduce the illegal market value of horn, thereby making poaching a less profitable pursuit. For example, the late conservation icon, Richard Leakey, noted that its price dropped rapidly after Kenya burnt stockpiles at the end of the 1980s.
There is also an argument for destroying horns as soon as they are recovered, especially in countries and reserves where resources are few and endemic corruption is rife. This might prevent the horn from entering the contraband chain. To do this, a system just as rigorous as recording stockpiled horns would need to be in place—an unlikely scenario.
“Yes” would be the immediate and emphatic response from countries and private owners who are pro-trade and see their stockpiles as an increasingly valuable asset if a legal market was established. This commercial imperative is bolstered by the argument that a major portion of the proceeds could be used to meet the already high and rising cost of rhino protection, thereby creating a win-win situation.
But the keeping of horn stockpiles is not just about revenue and how that might be applied. DNA can be retrieved from horns and linked to individual rhinos. Such genetic evidence can and is used in the trials of alleged smugglers.
Some of those opposed to destroying horn and ivory stockpiles contend that the destruction events are little more than publicity stunts. Furthermore, far from reducing demand, they simply drive up the price by creating a greater sense of rarity. Also, they advertise stockpiles and the institutions, such as zoos, where they are kept.
In 2008, 52 rhinos were poached in South Africa. Then, in 2009 when the figure jumped to 84, the South African government placed a moratorium on any trade in rhino horn to halt the trend.
The moratorium seemed to have no effect on poaching, which over the next decade was to soar dramatically. It was also highly unpopular with South Africa’s pro-trade lobby, principally the private rhino owners, who saw it as a further impediment in their quest for a legal trade.
After a lengthy battle to have the moratorium set aside, spearheaded by John Hume, South Africa’s most influential rhino breeder, the complainants achieved their aim when, in 2015, a high court judge found in their favor. The judge maintained that the state had not followed the process of public participation before imposing the moratorium.
The minister of environmental affairs announced her intention to appeal the decision, and the judgment was suspended until the case had been heard. In April 2017, this was refused, thereby allowing rhino horn to be traded domestically for the first time since 2009.
In anticipation of the Supreme Court ruling, the South African government had already started to draft new rules to govern trade within its borders.
The anti-trade lobby reacted with dismay, predicting that lifting the ban would result in even higher poaching as criminals found ways to use loopholes in the law to smuggle horn to markets in Southeast Asia.
TRAFFIC commented that while it sympathized with the frustrations of private rhino owners, “… there is insufficient evidence to suggest that South Africa’s domestic rhino horn market would benefit rhino conservation. Instead, it is likely that the new legislation might further exacerbate the potential for criminal involvement, creating further enforcement challenges or even helping to drive higher levels of consumer demand.”
The objective of the auction was clearly to realize much-needed cash for Hume, who for years had borne the high cost of protecting his rhino herd without any commercial payback. Any takers would be trading in a futures market, banking on an eventual legal market when they could realize a return on their investment.
The auction results were disappointing for Hume, who blamed the minister’s obstructiveness in only issuing a permit for the auction to go ahead at the eleventh hour. This, he believed, had discouraged potential buyers from registering in time.
Those opposed to ending the moratorium and the auction criticized Hume for translating his auction website into Mandarin and Vietnamese. They said this was sending mixed messages from South Africa to consumer markets in Asia, implying that buying horn was a good investment, thereby undermining demand reduction efforts in the region.
The High-Level Panel.
On October 10, 2019, The Minister for Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, Barbara Creecy, appointed a 25-member High-Level Panel (HLP) to review several pressing and controversial wildlife issues. These embraced regulatory measures, practices, and policies related to the hunting, trade, captive keeping, management, and handling of elephants, lions, leopards, and rhinos.
The Panel’s deliberations ended in December 2020, and their 600-page report was presented to the minister.
Given the widely divergent views within the HLP, finding consensus was a remarkable achievement, and most within the conservation industry were pleasantly surprised by the report’s comprehensive assessment.
In terms of rhinos, the Panel made it clear that the country would adopt the recommended position on rhino horn trade and not make proposals to CITES for further trade in these derivatives. This pleased those opposed to a legal trade in rhino horn but greatly angered and frustrated those in favor, including many influential private rhino owners.
The process of lobbying and consultation continues.
A LEGAL TRADE - THE ARGUMENTS FOR AND AGAINST
It is sometimes difficult to see how the pro- and anti-legal trade factions could ever be reconciled so entrenched are their positions.
Hardcore pro-traders view opening a legal, regulated trade in rhino horn as the way to go. Although they don’t see trade alone as a “silver bullet” solution, it is viewed as a practical response that could go a long way towards saving rhinos from extinction. In their eyes, those opposed to it are at best well-intentioned but essentially idealistic, naïve and impractical. Those against trade are seen as being aligned with animal welfare and animal rights movements, which are an anathema to pro-traders who, in turn, see themselves as rational pragmatists whose solutions, though unpalatable to some, are the only way forward.
On the other hand, protagonists of no trade argue that a legal market could lead to an even greater demand for horn, thereby opening a veritable Pandora’s Box of unforeseen circumstances. They contend we have no fundamental knowledge of the potential market’s extent and don’t understand how the dynamics of supply and demand in a market with legal and illegal components might operate.
The distressing thing is that as long as this impasse exists, the conservation movement as a whole is weakened; precisely, when faced with the significant challenges of our age, it should stand united.