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Legalize it?

Ruth Krause, Charlotta LomasDecember 23, 2014

Rhino poaching has dramatically increased over the last decade. How can the animals be saved from extinction? Some propose legalizing the rhinoceros horn trade. But to others, this seems unrealistic.

Nashörner im Krüger-Nationalpark, Südafrika
Image: AP

Rhino poaching numbers in South Africa have increased exponentially over the last decade: In 2004, 10 rhinos were killed, while 2014 set a sad record with more than 1,100 rhinos being poached.

With South Africa as the home to around 90 percent of the world's white rhino population, what happens here might decide the future of the species. Now, South Africa is mulling legalizing the trade in rhinoceros horns.

The 'war on poaching'

Rhinos are poached because of their horn's value: In Asia, many people believe that it cures ailments, from nosebleeds to cancer. Rhino horn on the black market is worth up to $100,000 a kilogram - rivaling the price of gold or cocaine.

A rhino horn has a structure similar to human hair or fingernails. Research has proven that the horn has no medicinal effect - but the superstition persists.

Conservationists are becoming desperate, as attempts to stop the poaching have failed so far. The South African government has employed both ground forces and helicopters to stop the poachers.

But areas where rhino poaching takes place are simply too big: Kruger National Park for example - which is home to half of the country's rhinos - is the size of Israel, which makes it difficult and expensive to monitor.

A Kenyan wildlife conservation official holds a rhino horn (Photo: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)
Rhino horn is worth as much as gold on the black marketImage: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

Other initiatives focus on stopping the problem at its root: in Asia. "Reeducation programs" are to raise awareness amongst citizens especially in China and Vietnam, that rhino horn is useless as a medicine, and highly unsustainable.

But despite these efforts, the rhino poaching crisis is not getting under control.

Legalize it?

Reeducation will not be enough to stop the poaching in time, says South African conservationist economist Michael't Sas-Rolfes. Instead, he proposes legalizing the trade.

"The rationale is to bring the price down to a manageable level through constant, legal supply." A lower price, he argues, would provide less incentive for poachers to kill the rhinos. Right now, the poaching business is too profitable for poachers to stop.

Another benefit of legalizing the trade would be the income that is created, which in turn could be used to protect the rhinos, says Sas-Rolfes. "It has become expensive to protect rhinos, and conservation organizations simply don't have sufficient funds to invest in the level of field protection that is needed to sustain the number of rhinos we have," he said.

Legalizing the trade would provide a legal, market solution that could work, Sas-Rolfes thinks.

Doesn't happen in a day

There are different scenarios for how the trade could be legalized. One option would be to sell of the existing stockpiles of rhino horn that has been confiscated over the years. South Africa currently sits on 18 tons of rhino horn, worth $100 million.

A white rhino killed by poachers for its horn
A white rhino killed by poachers for its hornImage: picture alliance/WILDLIFE

Another option would be to allow the selling of "harvested" horns: The horn of the rhino can be cut off or "harvested" without hurting the rhino, says Sas-Rolfes.

"It's essentially like a haircut, if you don't cut it too close to the nerve ending." The horn regrows within about three years, so they could be harvested regularly. According to Sas-Rolfes, there are already private rhino owners who regularly take the rhinos horns off, without seeing health and breeding rates affected.

But any legalization of the trade won't happen fast. The body that decides on such trade is CITES, or the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species - which has 180 member states. It banned international trade of rhino horn in 1977.

David Morgan, head of the CITES scientific unit, explains: "If there is to be any change in the existing situation, that has to be proposed by one of the member country of CITES at the next conference of parties in 2016.

And in order for any proposal to pass, it needs two-thirds of the present countries' votes. This can only happen if the South African CITES delegates can put forward a convincing proposal - which is by no means a sure thing.

Critical voices remain

The suggestion to legalize the trade in rhino horn is a polarizing one. Dex Kotze, a conservationist and fundraiser for the non-governmental organization Stoprhinopoaching, argues that it won't work.

Smuggled rhino horn intercepted at customs in Hong Kong (Photo: AP /Kin Cheung)
Smuggled rhino horn intercepted at Hong Kong customsImage: picture-alliance/AP

"A big problem is that demand will far outstrip the supply of rhino horn." He estimates that the government could sell 3.6 tons of "harvested" rhino horn a year - much less than his estimate of demand at almost 4,000 tons.

Kotze also points out the problem of corruption in China, and South Africa. "We are afraid that the money would be going into the wrong pockets." He also fears that even if legalization could be implemented, the time for rhinos would run out before this can happen.

More political action

With legal processes still up in the air, conservationists agree that action must happen on the ground, regardless of potential legalization.

"You also still need very strict protection, and you have to have laws in place that prohibit any illegal trade," says Sas-Rolfes.

Kotze adds: "It’s a political problem. Countries need to show more political will and leaders have to enforce that. And CITES as a body needs to flex its muscles, and start applying sanctions to the countries."

Kenyan rangers protect a white rhino (Photo: AP/Karel Prinsloo)
Conservationists emphasize the need for on-the-ground protectionImage: AP