Issue of the Week: Legal Trade in Rhino Horn


SCI Foundation’s African Wildlife Consultative Forum (AWCF) attendees are not afraid to address controversial topics and work to find solutions to real on-the-ground problems. This year, over the roars against the recent lion listing and the stampede of new regulations associated with the African elephant, another hot topic poked through – legalizing trade in rhinoceros horn.

Having just said that, we probably stirred the emotions of many readers who believe that trade in anything rhinoceros is wrong and should not be tolerated.  It is an endangered species after all.  Yet, if one looks at the history of rhinoceros conservation, the failure of rhino trade bans that have been in place over the past three decades, the greatest needs in protecting rhinoceros and the potential capital value of legally sourced stockpiles of horn, legalizing trade might be a refreshing slap in the face.

In the early 20th Century there were an estimated 500,000 rhinos in Africa and Asia. Although there is no way to validate the credibility of this estimate, rhinoceros have certainly declined to about 29,000 individuals living in the wild today.

Rhino horn rivals most black market drug sales and is almost double the value of gold, with demands (primarily from Asian markets) increasing each day. Supporters of a legal trade believe a well-run, centralized marketplace for rhinos could, in theory, cut illegal traders out of the profit loop.  A legal system will decrease its black market value and lower demand for illegally taken horn. It will allow countries to control it as a legal export and provide revenue that can boost their economies. Furthermore, it would produce income that would be invested directly back into rhino conservation.

According to a paper that explores the financial benefits associated with potential legal trade policies in South Africa, a legal trade system could substantially increase human and economic development as well as enhance law enforcement funding. They state: “Without legalizing the trade, maintaining the population above its current size would cost approximately $147,000,000 per year under the most cost-effective scenario. With a legal trade in rhinoceros horn, under the same scenario, the conservation enterprise projected a profit of $717,000,000 per year. By 2023, under the same policy scenario, the net profit generated through the legal trade was predicted to exceed $1,000,000,000.”

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Still, there are some who believe a legal horn trade will only escalate the recent surge in demand. That may happen, but most people would logically choose to spend less for a legal horn than risk spending more for an illegal horn when given an option.

Some experts question if a legal market will have the ability to keep up with the demand before buyers turn to illegal markets and that the recent swell of personal wealth in Asia, the primary consumer, would overwhelm the legal market.  However, a controlled legal market may prevent many buyers from turning to illegal markets, thus creating a reduction in demand. Further, some African countries have rhino horn stockpiles that may sustain a controlled legal market for several years.  Opponents list corruption as another legal trade deterrent. African governments are under constant scrutiny by international partners and some question if they can be trusted with the legal trade process.  Yes, there are bad apples in the bushels, but dealing with bad apples is a part of every business, industry and market known today.  African governments are committed to conserving their own resources and are not going to succumb to criminality.

Ultimately, a legal rhino trade is an issue with gray areas. Is sanctioning the very thing we’re trying to stop the best option?  The solution is just as indistinct as the question. Sanctions have not worked to date.  Alternatively, a legal trade could produce multiple conservation benefits for rhinos as well as other species. It could also establish a blueprint for other legal trade mechanisms such as ivory, if successful. Perhaps the conversation should focus not on the pros and cons, but rather on the mechanisms needed to control legal trade, should it go into effect.  One thing is certain, current strategies to stem rhino poaching are not working. Whether or not legal trade is the answer remains to be seen, but new solutions must be explored since the status-quo is not working.

Twice a week, SCI Foundation informs readers about conservation initiatives happening worldwide and updates them on SCI Foundation’s news, projects and events. Tuesdays are dedicated to an Issue of the Week and Thursday’s Weekly Updates will provide an inside look into research and our other science-based conservation efforts. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more SCI Foundation news. 

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