Unsurprisingly, opinion is divided regarding the CITES ban on selling rhino horn which has been in force since 1975. Rhinos were hunted and killed for horn and trophies for centuries before 1975, and the CITES restrictions were a response to their unsustainable slaughter.


By the early 1990s (which marked the effective end of the Yemeni demand for rhino-horn dagger handles), the CITES ban was in full force, and poaching (particularly in South Africa) was minimal. This situation lasted for more than a decade until the current poaching wave started in the late 2000s. During that time, White and Indian Rhino numbers continued to increase, and so did Black Rhino populations after their nadir in the mid-1990s. This strongly suggests the ban and its enforcement had a real impact. However, bans need to be backed up by effective security measures. When the current wave of poaching started in 2008, it was heavily focused on southern Africa, particularly South Africa. The country was woefully unprepared and responded inadequately, allowing poaching syndicates and smuggling routes to become rapidly entrenched.

NOTE: Alcohol and drug prohibitions are frequently cited as examples of bans not working. While 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, comparing 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, and drug syndicates continue to peddle their misery with impunity.
Furthermore, even the market power of “Big Pharma” cannot staunch the illegal supply of prescription drugs. Similarly, the horrors of human trafficking and gunrunning persist despite international and national legal networks to contain them. 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 not eliminated or hampered underground trading. Many instances exist of legal and contraband products being sold side by side.


Since the inception of CITES, the intervening decades have witnessed periods of heavy, sustained poaching, profoundly affecting all five rhino species. A massive effort has gone into imposing the ban, but it has not worked. Instead of the market being eliminated, as was intended, it was driven underground, opening up a lucrative opportunity for criminals. In short, trade bans don’t work. In effect, the trade ban “protects” criminals from suppliers sustainably providing alternative, legal sources of horn.

NOTE: The US prohibition on alcohol sales in the early 20th century and the ongoing attempts to curb the illegal drug market suggest that strong demand for a product or service, even when illegal, will always triumph over attempts to thwart it.