To Legalise or Not to Legalise? Rhino Horn Trade

by Lucy Hagger

SA rhino poaching at record high

This week the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) are meeting in Bangkok to discuss the current and future threats to wildlife. The ivory trade is set to be a hot topic at the conference. This has been proven already with the announcement of a ban on the trade of elephant tusk in Thailand last week. A highly controversial proposal is also being put forward this year, calling for the legalisation of the African rhino horn trade.

A ban on the trade of rhino horn has existed since 1977, but it is failing to protect the rhinos which are being illegally slaughtered for their precious horn. The demand for rhino horn is rapidly increasing as buyer countries like China and Vietnam become richer.  With the ban in place, the only way this huge demand can be supplied is by illegal poaching.

With rhino numbers ever dwindling and demand ever increasing, horn is becoming more and more expensive. One kilogram of rhino horn can fetch $68 000 in the illegal markets; this makes it more valuable than gold. This combined with the inadequate enforcement of penalties by often corrupt governments means the benefits of poaching far outweigh the potential risks. Wealthier poachers mean the use of more technologically advanced and efficient methods of poaching. The conservation efforts are struggling to keep up and therefore, rhino populations are falling dramatically.

A Legal Market

Dr Biggs and his colleagues at the University of Queensland believe that legal trade is the only way to supply the “insatiable international demand” for rhino horn, whilst simultaneously protecting the rhinos. They suggest that a highly regulated and monitored legal trade could fulfil these needs as the profits made from this legal market can go directly to the conservation of the rhinos.

The reason this legal trade could be possible is due to the fact that rhino horn is made of keratin and therefore constantly grows, much like our own fingernails. So this means that rhino horn can essentially be harvested. Most illegal poachers kill rhinos for their horns, but Dr Biggs and his colleagues state that “sedating a rhino to shave its horn can be done for as little as $20.”

This kind of approach has seen success in the crocodile skin market, but can it be applied to rhinos? The researchers believe it can, but there is concern that legalising will only increase the demand further so that the legal market alone is not enough.

However, Dr Biggs and his colleagues believe that if the trade is controlled solely by one central selling organisation (CSO), successful legal trade could be possible. They believe that selling in this way will enable much easier identification of changes in demand and the presence of illegal traders and suppliers.

Legal trading should drive down the high prices and tempt buyers away from the more risky illegal suppliers. This should in turn lead to a huge reduction in the levels of illegal poaching and enable more efficient protection of these unique animals.

Dr Biggs has stated that he believes the rhino horn trade “is an urgent issue, we must start the process of getting a legal trade evaluated and put in place soon.” It has been predicted that it could take up to six years to get this system into place. The big question here is whether the rhinos can continue to be exploited for that long.