Has the CITES ban on selling rhino horn failed? Furthermore, has it not also helped to create a vast illegal crime network that remains beyond the reach of the law?


Rhinos were hunted and killed for horn and trophies for centuries before 1975 when CITES came into being. By that time, with the exception of the Black Rhino, rhinos in Africa and Asia had already been brought to their knees. There was no ban in place then and the CITES restrictions were agreed on in response to the unsustainable slaughter of rhinos and so many other species. 

Furthermore, between the early 1990s (which marked the effective end of the Yemeni demand for dagger handles fashioned from rhino horn) and the current onslaught, when the CITES ban was in full force, poaching (particularly in South Africa) was minimal.   

It is true that the US prohibition on alcohol sales did not work, and that the long and continuing war on drug criminals has not delivered the desired results. But to compare these situations with the illegal rhino horn market is somewhat disingenuous. For a start both alcohol and narcotics are chemically addictive, creating desperation on the part of users to access them. Horn does not possess these attributes. Also, despite legal sales of alcohol in most countries and hard drugs in some, alcoholism remains a huge social problem with drug syndicates continuing to peddle their misery with impunity. Furthermore, even the market power of “Big Pharma” cannot staunch the illegal supply of prescription drugs.

Then there are the horrors of human trafficking and gunrunning. No one would suggest that lifting the ban on such practices would lessen their occurrence. Also, the legal, though morally questionable, trading of arms among governments has certainly not eliminated or hampered underground trading. All over the world there are many instances of legal and contraband products being sold side by side.


The ban on selling rhino horn has, with minor exceptions, been in force since the inception of CITES. The intervening decades have witnessed periods of heavy, sustained poaching which have deeply affected all five rhino species. 

A massive effort has gone into imposing the ban, but it has not worked and will not work going forward. Instead of the market being eliminated, as was intended, it was simply driven underground, opening up a lucrative opportunity for criminals.

We should learn from history. Other trade bans have not worked either. For example, the US prohibition on alcohol sales in the early 20th century and the ongoing attempts to curb the illegal drug market (estimated at US$13 billion a year) through legislation and crime fighting. This experience suggests that a strong demand for a product or service, even when illegal, will always triumph over attempts to thwart it.

All the trade ban has achieved is to create a highly profitable opportunity for criminals as it “protects” them from vendors who could and would provide alternative, legal sources of horn.