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Will Keeping the Rhino Horn Trade Illegal Kill More Rhinos?

Photograph by Michael Nichols/National Geographic Creative

Many conservationists are lauding South Africa’s recent decision not to propose the reintroduction of trade in rhino horn, citing concerns that legitimizing it could reignite consumer demand.

Other conservationists, however, fear that keeping the ban in place will paradoxically lead to an increase in the killing of rhinos throughout Africa.

Pro-Trade Rationale

South Africa’s private rhino owners host roughly 33% of the country’s black and white rhinos, while remaining free-ranging rhinos live in state-run national parks.

With the resurgence in rhino poaching over the past decade, trade proponents maintain that a legal market of regulated supply would reduce black market prices, thereby discouraging the incentive to illegally harvest horn.

Furthermore, they assert that profits made from a renewable supply—horn from natural rhino mortality and the sheering off of horn portions from live specimens—could be reinvested into anti-poaching and rural community endeavors.

Both ideas stem from the notion that the trade moratorium has not successfully upended rhinoceros poaching. To wit, a continued embargo would only encourage more illicit activity.

South Africa Backs Down from Trade Proposal

Picture of injured rhino running
A rhino without its horn is on the run. Photograph courtesy of Karl Ammann.

Private rhino owners and a number of state conservation institutions were hoping that South Africa would propose an end to the international trade in rhino horn at this year’s 67th meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

However, the Committee of Inquiry, a branch of South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), recommended that government not move ahead with such a proposal, resulting in a final decision that the pursuit of legalizing international trade in rhino horn was not in South Africa’s best interest.

RhinoAlive, an awareness campaign composed of private rhino owners and conservationists, condemned the government’s decision.

“The only people who will be celebrating will be poachers and ill-informed, misguided animal rightists,” vice-president of Wildlife Ranching South Africa, Dr. Peter Oberem, said in RhinoAlive’s news release.

“This will be the end of the rhino population as we know it. Game ranchers cannot possibly continue to foot the bill for the security of one third to one half of the world’s remaining rhino population.”

Pelham Jones, chairman of the Private Rhino Owners Association and member of the Committee of Inquiry, expressed similar disappointment:

“Government’s cowardly capitulation will have a detrimental effect on both private sector and rural conservation communities—and the ultimate price will be paid by the rhino itself.”

Evidence Supporting the Ban

A healthy white rhino and her newborn calf. Photo courtesy of Quintus Strauss.
A healthy white rhino and her newborn calf. Photo courtesy of Quintus Strauss.

Trade advocates point to 1977, the year that CITES listed all rhino subspecies on Appendix I—a motion paired with the moratorium on the international trade in rhinos and their products—as a grave turning point for the species.

However, trade skeptics observe that the ban was initially put in place to halt rhino killing that had already taken a devastating toll on populations across Africa and Asia.

Anti-traders posit that the increase in public awareness and Asia’s domestic bans helped drive down poaching rates during that time period; so much so that Southern Africa didn’t see much rhino killing until 2008, around the same time when unfounded assertions that horn carried medicinal properties renewed consumer interest.

Moreover, anti-trade proponents observe that South Africa already had permission to sustainably utilize rhino in the form of legal hunting after the southern white rhino was downlisted to Appendix II in 1994.

The caveat is that no trophy can be gifted to anyone but the hunter, nor are any rhino trophies permitted for medicinal use.


A 2014 report issued by the DEA states that, “many of the rhino horns sold with legal permits before 2009 were subsequently smuggled out of the country, meaning that the traders that bought the horn did so with dishonest intentions at the outset.”

The report goes on to mention that poaching began picking up again through, “the legal internal permitting system, either directly from private rhino owners or indirectly through intermediaries…”

Of particular concern is an illegal method of hunting the DEA referred to as pseudo-hunting.

Loosely defined, pseudo-hunting is the hunting of a rhinoceros for reasons other than obtaining a trophy—a method that allegedly started when Asian clients and certain hunting proprietors began circumventing regulatory measures to illegally obtain horn.

In 2014, the U.S. authorities brought indictment charges against Dawie and Janneman Groenewald, two South African brothers allegedly involved in pseudo-hunting and rhino horn trafficking.

Undermining Public Awareness

Rhinoceros on a tourist road in the more open and protected western side of greater Kruger Park. Photograph by David Braun.

One of the biggest concerns with the notion of legal trade is that it  could undermine efforts in educating the public about rhino horn’s virtual uselessness as a homeopathic cure-all, not to mention the cost incurred should trade potentially reignite an unsustainable volume of consumer demand.

Some view the 2008 sanctioned one-off sales of elephant ivory as an example of ostensibly increasing such demand, though there are conflicting reports arguing that what actually escalated elephant poaching was the nine year ban placed on future sales the previous year.

While trade proponents believe that it is possible to minimize poaching through a tightly controlled system of legally supplied horn, trade skeptics do not believe it could ever be adequately enforced.

Even if a legal framework were set in place, some suspect that it would not stop corrupt administrators, private rhino owners with less than noble intentions, and low-level poachers from circumventing the system to enhance personal enrichment.

Similarly, skeptics argue that in spite of promises, profits obtained from legal sales might not necessarily be reinvested back into rhino conservation efforts.

Others surmise that if rhino farmers ever get their way, they would not only have to financially compete with black market traders, but also continue perpetuating the myth that rhino horn has medicinal value.

The DEA’s Conclusions

The DEA report concluded that while both arguments carry the potential to negatively impact South Africa’s remaining rhino population, lifting the ban is not in the best interest of the species at this junction.

Yet it still conceded that the moratorium has not effectively relieved poaching rates, even suggesting that, “restrictions created by the local trade ban may be exacerbating the poaching problem.”

Ultimately, the DEA did agree that private owners from the ranching industry need to have a better incentive to continue conserving rhinos.

Still, the assessment still leaves some unresolved questions.

Do any private rhino owners have duplicitous agendas? What would a hypothetical legal market look like? And who will buy horn if trade is only relegated to South Africa?

Ultimately, will trade be good for rhinos, or will it all but seal their fate?

*Please note that the author has opted to alter this article from its original content in order to provide readers with a more complete analysis.*  

Michael Schwartz is a journalist and African wildlife conservation researcher. With field experience across the continent since 2005, his passion for Africa’s wildlife is matched by his compassion for the people who live there. A significant portion of his field work is carried out in Uganda, where he studies lion conservation.


  1. naomi
    April 26, 2016, 11:27 am

    I would be interested to know the source of the estimated demand being at a total of 1,100 horn-sets p.a. as quoted in the comment from James Field. Is there a reference for this?

  2. John
    April 25, 2016, 10:56 pm

    Whether appropriate or not, I can’t help but compare this to the legalization of marijuana here in parts of the US. You simply cannot stop people from doing something by telling them it’s wrong. With the regulation of the product, those obtaining it illegally for black market trade will simply have less drive to use it for income. It’s a risky gamble, but may be a better option than what has been in place all this time.

    But, naturally, many of the opinions expressed are one sided. If we don’t conform with the popular opinion of animal rights above all else, you’re simply wrong and are chastised for it.

    I agree with Tim’s comment. There needs to be a deeper discussion on the topic and other possible solutions out there.

  3. James FIelds
    April 25, 2016, 5:21 pm

    This is an important issue that has unfortunately been superseded by people who don’t believe in the benefits of SU. My hat off to those who haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid. Eustace gave a great example of an SU model by debunking some of the myths of the anti-SU crowd.

    “It is morally wrong to sell horn if it does not work”

    The Chinese are the main consumers and they believe, or some believe, that it works. Western medicine is skeptical and has said so. There are thousands of different remedies that are sold all over the world that have no proven effectiveness and there are lots of products sold that are actually harmful. Nobody has suggested that horn is harmful. A placebo can have a powerful beneficial effect. Killing 1,000 rhino in 2013 was clearly wrong and if the killing can be reduced by trade then the world will be a better place, regardless of whether horn works or not and any comparatively minor sensitivities around that.

    “Trade will stimulate demand”

    It may do. Some consumers may not buy horn now because it is illegal to do so. But the “Smart Trade” model of a monopoly selling to a cartel of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) hospitals will be able to adjust the price of horn so as to bring the level of demand into balance with a sustainable level of supply. Also, Smart Trade is designed to reduce the appetite speculators now have for buying horn, an appetite that is based on the prospect of the value of horn increasing because of the declining numbers of rhino. Trade should lead to less speculation in horn which will reduce poaching.

    “Trade cannot satisfy the ‘insatiable’ demand”

    Actual consumer demand is limited by high prices and is estimated at a total of 1,100 horn-sets p.a. South Africa can sustainably supply 1,300 horn-sets from stocks (400), natural deaths (400) and farmed horn (500). There are said to be a large number of “intenders” who would buy horn if the price was lower but that is the case with most products. (There is no intention in the model to reduce prices and “flood” the market with horn so as to reduce the poacher’s profit. Reducing the poacher’s profit would be good but flooding the market would be unsustainable and invite speculation. There are other ways of reducing the poacher’s profit).

    “More law enforcement is the solution.”

    Law enforcement is essential but difficult over vast areas and it is expensive. Greatly increased expenditure has not been able to reduce the numbers poached. There are high rewards to poaching and the risks are low. Corruption undermines the process. There are budget constraints. On its own, law enforcement is not working and may never work.

    “Demand reduction is the solution”

    Only about 0.1% of the Chinese population consumes the entire supply of 1,100 horn-sets so a demand reduction strategy is going to have to persuade more than 99.9% of the population or it will not be effective.

    “If South Africa sells horn, it will jeopardize rhino populations in other range states such as Namibia, India and Java”

    The intention of a Smart Trade is to satisfy demand with legal horn which should result in a reduced poaching threat for all rhino populations.

    “The ivory auction in 2008 was said to have increased the amount of poaching of elephant”

    There are some 20,000 elephant being poached every year in Africa which would produce 100 tons of ivory at, say, 5 kg per elephant. Most of that goes to China. CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) has said that there is no evidence of the auction having increased or decreased poaching. 62 tons were sold to China and 46 tons to Japan. The 2008 auction was allowed by CITES on the basis that there would not be another sale for 9 years so the 62 tons sold to China was minimal, is being rationed, and represents a fraction of Chinese demand for the 9 year period. By comparison, the proposed horn trade should satisfy the full annual demand at current high prices.

    “Illegal horn will find its way on to the legal market”

    The proposed model has been structured to prevent that. There will be a clear legal channel and the only place to buy legal horn will be from the cartel of licensed TCM state hospitals. Keeping their retail licenses will depend upon their respecting a “Best Practice” set of rules and they will lose their licenses and a very profitable business if they trade in illegal horn.

    “Poaching will still be profitable given a legal trade and poaching will continue”

    Yes, but it will be much less profitable to the criminals than now and carry higher risks and the market for poached horn will be much smaller. Illegal goods typically trade at a 30% discount if there is a legal market. This relates to the risk of being caught and punished. In addition there will be the risk of buying fake or poisoned horn in the illegal market which will increase the discount to, say, 40%. The Chinese government, being invested in the legal trade, is likely to clamp down on the criminal trade. The expectation is that a legal trade will substantially reduce poaching levels.

    “The trade proposal’s main aim is to enrich a few farmers and some corrupt individuals in government”

    Private ranchers own 25% of rhino in South Africa and have a right to profit from any trade, proportionately. To the extent that they make profits on trade they will pay taxes to the state in the normal way. The other 75% is owned by SANParks and provincial parks; hence 75% of the income from horn sales will go directly to those parks with no middlemen and no corruption possible.

    “More data is needed before embarking on trade”

    It is not possible to collect data when there is no legal trade. The Smart Trade model is based on the De Beers Central Selling Organization (CSO) which worked well for over 50 years. It is a tried and tested model. The CSO was closed because the competition authorities opposed a near monopoly selling to a cartel. With both the rhino horn selling monopoly and the retail (TCM) cartel belonging to governments, competition authorities should have no interest in the horn trade.

    “CITES will never accept the trade proposal”

    CITES was established to regulate trade in endangered species. Unfortunately the organization has become highly politicized, encouraged by donor agencies who influence votes, although they have no vote themselves. These agents, of which there are scores, are universally opposed to horn trade because, perhaps, a rhino crisis makes donor funding easy and the agents live off donor funds. But, are they the saviors they profess to be? The case for trade is compelling and if it is not accepted by CITES for rhino horn it is difficult to see in what circumstances and for which species trade will be acceptable.

    The arguments against trade seem weak and contrived.

  4. Katarzyna Nowak
    April 25, 2016, 3:46 pm

    I am in the “evidence-based” camp and don’t really divide conservationists as you suggest: “sustainable use proponent or animal rightist”. I await your response to how you envision a tightly regulated rhino horn trade to work in light of the various violations of limited legal trade by the “pro-use” lobby. Also, would you show me evidence for social and conservation benefits from this limited trade since 1994 (sheer rhino numbers don’t convince especially if a quarter of rhinos are living in unviable subpopulations in small, fenced, privately-run reserves and need intensive management)? I wonder how a full-out horn trade (which would be costly!) by South Africa would help alleviate poverty in communities in Mozambique from where some rhino poachers originate? There are alternatives: for example “Plan B” which proposes a 1% levy that could generate R1 billion annually to support a Natural Capital Fund (http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2014-02-05-rhinos-its-time-for-plan-b/#.Vx5v2BIrJ7o). Why not embrace this as an option? Doesn’t nature tourism count as “sustainable use”? If it were more equitably regulated, I think wildlife watching tourism, along with “Plan B”, could provide ample conservation resources especially in South Africa. See here: http://sdt.unwto.org/content/unwto-briefing-paper-towards-measuring-economic-value-wildlife-watching-tourism-africa

  5. Adam Cruise
    South Africa
    April 24, 2016, 12:32 pm

    In 2008 the world, through the supervision of CITES, voted for a sale of an enormous stockpile of ivory that had been collected by the southern African bloc of countries. It was thought that stockpiling could reduce conservation risks, as demand peaks are more readily met and high prices smoothed over time. Yet Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa, and Botswana as well as the buyer, the Chinese government, were set to make a substantial financial return, and they did.

    But the sale also triggered an unrivaled interest in ivory, since causing elephant populations in both Africa and Asia to plummet to dangerously low levels.

    However, selling off stockpiles is just the tip of the iceberg: Sustainable utilization embraces hunting—even canned hunting. Trading in lion products provide a window into what may happen when legal trade channels for rhino horn are opened. The idea is to provide enough lions in captive-bred facilities to capitalize on the international canned hunting market as well as that for lion bones in Asia. Asian traders started taking an interest in South African lions in 2008, when the decline in tiger numbers became acute. Lion bones are now filling the gap, and there has been a sharp increase in lion products sold in Vietnam, Laos, and China. There are around 170 captive lion breeding facilities in the country where, at any given time, 7000 lions are in breeding facilities exclusively used for trophy hunting. By stimulating an Asian market for lion products, increased demand will affect lions across the continent as they now have value for poachers and illegal traders.”

    The same can be said with the tiger bone trade. Breeding thousands of tigers in captivity has not halted the decline of wild tigers. In fact it’s created a supply of tiger parts to an increasingly visible market which has stimulated consumer demand for products like tiger bone wine.

    It stands to reason then that rhino horn from ranched rhinos will fulfil a similar role if allowed.

  6. Katarzyna Nowak
    April 24, 2016, 12:32 pm

    If South Africa’s hunting industry is prone to violations – e.g., canned lion hunting (with lion bones entering the lion bone trade), offtake of overly young lions (well under 6 years of age), pseudohunting of rhino (with horns leaked onto the black market) – and not amenable to independent auditing systems, how would you “strictly control” a trade in rhinoceros horns? Awaiting a proposal of how this “tight regulation” might work given recent loopholes in limited legal trade.

  7. Katarzyna Nowak
    April 24, 2016, 12:17 pm

    Some of the resources for conserving rhinos and boosting rural livelihoods have come from non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Dozens of NGOs focus on rhino conservation in South Africa. In fact, the DEA estimates “more than a hundred” based on the registration of “rhino related funders” (which span NGOs, NPOs, other organizations and private individuals) in South Africa. Among these are WildAid and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). WildAid is leading on demand reduction efforts around the world. WWF is helping establish RhoDIS, a database of DNA markers to make rhino horns traceable. Perhaps we could make more of some of these efforts rather than painting NGOs with a single brush and accusing them of self-interest and simplistic messaging.

  8. Yvonne Crawford
    April 24, 2016, 11:55 am

    We still must continue to spread the word throughout the world that rhino horn has no medicinal value. Protection, funding, security, safety, medicines is of utmost importance. I think the world leaders should be involved. Farmers are hopefully protecting them but for sure they too will make a dollar off the rhino. I think they should do all for now, increase campaign awareness, $ for all to protect, $ for orphans, complete ban around the World, farmers could have 5 years to help the rhino. In reality wouldn’t you love to see the rhino roaming free with no one wanting its horn. For the first time China, Vietnam and others are more aware, even young peopleare making some progress but time is a factor here. Farmers should protect for now too but the rhino should roam free in this world. I’d say give farmers 5 years too protect the rhinos. How to work the $ out with farmer is really the question here. It always comes down to the might dollar. Put that aside. Farmers need some kind of payment to protect the rhino. We still must stop the demand and say rhino horn has NO VALUE. Don’t get me wrong anyone at this critical point in time who try’s to protect a rhino is good. In 5 years though I hope we do not need them to be farmed and that they are roaming free. The campaigns can’t end. We should keep burning Ivory too and do ALL we can for both rhino $ elephants. World leaders must provide some $ for this cause. Farmers must do their part for the rhino and not only for $ in which case many probably are.

  9. Tim
    April 24, 2016, 10:14 am

    Kat’s comment is only partially correct. According to Khadija Sharife, “since 1994, the post-apartheid South African government was given the green light for sustainable use of white rhinos. But, as listed in CITES Appendix II, the use of white rhinos was limited to safe trade (example, national parks in other countries), or trophy hunting – totaling just 1,300 animals. Under the law, the only person able to legitimately acquire the trophy is the actual hunter. No other activities or purposes, including medicinal uses, or ‘gifting’ to another, are allowed.”

    I’d say that the panel from Rhinos Alive are correct. Much of the conservation messages have been monopilized by international NGOs who’ve swayed public opinion to believe overly simplistic messages.

    We need further discussion on this.

  10. Katarzyna Nowak
    April 24, 2016, 9:31 am

    There has been legal commercial trade in southern white rhino since 1994, when the animal was downlisted to CITES Appendix II. Over a thousand horns of wild rhinos (out of some 5,000 hunting trophies) and hundreds of live rhinos for zoos have been exported out of South Africa including (and especially?) during the past decade of heavy poaching. This legal trade has not excluded poaching. Neither trade nor privatization has. Time now to move away from this debate and focus on the real drivers of poaching, such as corruption, crime, poor regulation of existing wildlife industries, and medicinal and art markets in the Far East.