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Tighter laws, dehorning, stockpiling, the might of China, and more. There’s a whole lot going on in the world of rhinos.

Over the past few weeks or so, there has been a lot of activity around rhinos. This has been especially so in the southern countries of Africa, where populations of these horned wonders are concentrated. New trade regulations have been published in South Africa, Zimbabwe has withdrawn its threat to leave the CITES treaty, the rate of rhino dehorning seems to be accelerating, and some private rhino owners are shedding their stock while others are buying. What are the reasons behind all of this, and are there any common threads?

Earlier this month, Barbara Creecy, the South African minister responsible for environmental matters, announced that she was tightening up on the provisions around the domestic trade in rhino horn. (Since 2017, it has been legal to trade rhino horn in South Africa, but not for the horn to leave the country except as trophies. And even then only on condition that the horn is not sold on to a third party.)

The new provisions to the biodiversity act close some crucial loopholes. Now no one is allowed to grind horn into a powder, make chips or slivers of horn, or remove parts or layers of a horn. The only exceptions are those fragments arising when a horn is microchipped, a rhino is dehorned, a tracking device is inserted into a horn, or when samples are needed for genetic profiling and scientific purposes. The paperwork required for any domestic sale of horn is set out in detail in the new regulations. Importantly, it is now made clear that the law covers all rhinos found in South Africa: the White Rhino and all three subspecies of Black Rhino.

These new rules come hard on the heels of the conviction of two men found to have illegally possessed and transported 181 rhino horns last year. The event raised more than a few eyebrows given that the guilty parties were moving the horns on behalf of the owner who had, in turn, bought them from John Hume, the country’s most prominent rhino farmer. The horns were allegedly bound for Asian markets.

Hume initially demanded the return of the confiscated horns as he claimed they were still his given that he had not been paid for them. Since then, he has “temporarily” withdrawn the demand. Quite frankly, the whole affair is a mess. It is a perfect example of why domestic trade should not have been allowed in the first place. It lends itself to rhino horns being moved from person to person until, in the end, no one knows where they are. A real-life version of the classic three-card “Find the Lady” trick if ever there was one.

Meanwhile, South Africa’s northern neighbor, Zimbabwe, says that it will stay within the international CITES treaty set up in 1975 to monitor the trade in endangered wildlife species. Zimbabwe, along with others in the SADC bloc, would like to sell stockpiled rhino horn and ivory to consumer countries, but the proposals to do so were roundly stymied at the most recent CITES conference of the parties. The pro traders were incensed, and this led to mutterings about withdrawing from the agreement.

Zimbabwe’s turnabout, however, comes not from a change of heart but ironically from a bit of realpolitik in action. Principal horn and ivory consumer countries in the East, notably China and Japan, have said that they have no intention of leaving CITES. And without their cooperation, any sales Zimbabwe had in mind cannot take place in terms of international law. Significantly, China is the biggest buyer of Zimbabwean tobacco and is the focus of the African country’s Look East Policy. So perhaps it is wise that they don’t poke the giant panda.

Back in South Africa, where around half the country’s White Rhinos are in private ownership, a new study shows that 28 percent of private rhino owners are disinvesting. Perhaps this was predictable. The collapse of tourism in the wake of Covid-19, coupled with the CITES ban on trade in horn, has undoubtedly created a severe strain on owners’ cash flows. It shows the underlying dangers of over-commoditizing wildlife—as with any stock that doesn’t perform, rhinos will get dumped when the market doesn’t live up to expectation. Interestingly, though, some rhino investors are buying. Presumably, they have enough long-term confidence to make acquisitions at low prices and to ride out the storm.

Finally, there is a lot of dehorning going on in the region, in both the private and the state sectors. The reason given is that the dehorning exercise will combat poaching and safeguard the future of this species. Fair enough, but my worry is that there is nowhere for the harvested horn to go other than into private and state stockpiles. And as these troves grow, so they will become progressively more irresistible—an Aladdin’s Cave waiting to be plundered and then laundered into the illegal trade. Call me cynical, but given the systemic corruption in almost all African states, it will happen.

The only safety net against this would be regular and independent audits of all stockpiles in every range state. And there’s about as much chance of that happening as Donald Trump reinstating Obamacare.

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