22 August 2019
A dehorned rhinoceros is followed by a calf at a game reserve in Klerksdorp, South Africa. Photo: AFP
A dehorned rhinoceros is followed by a calf at a game reserve in Klerksdorp, South Africa. Photo: AFP

South Africa mulls legalizing rhino horn trade

The South African government is considering a controversial proposal to legalize trade in rhinoceros horns in a bid to curb poaching.

The plan seeks to beat the crime syndicates engaged in the trade by forcing down the price of rhino horn and removing the incentive to poach, while at the same time providing cash to support conservation efforts, Agence France-Presse reported, citing a member of a panel of experts tasked to study the proposal.

International trade in rhino horns has been banned since 1977 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

But despite government efforts to curb poaching, the illegal trade has flourished in South Africa, which is home to 83 percent of Africa’s rhinos and 73 percent of all wild rhinos in the world, according to data from UK-based Save the Rhino International.

Demand for rhinoceros horn — which is made of keratin, the same material in hair and nails — has skyrocketed in recent years, largely driven by the market in Asia, where the powdered horn is valued for its supposed medicinal properties.

The wildlife trade monitoring organization Traffic says some 2,000 rhino horns leave Africa yearly — the annual estimate was 1,000 between 2009 and 2012 — each one fetching tens of thousands of dollars.

“For any proposal to be confidently put on the table for other parties to even support, I think one needs to be clear with the facts,” Rose Masela, a senior official at the Department of Environmental Affairs, said.

“There’s very little we can do about the belief in the use of rhino horn that exists in other countries. Legalization would be a more medium-term solution.”

Wildlife conservationists, however, are opposed to the proposal. “There are two lobbies. The government is working with the pro-trade lobby to legalize rhino horn and there’s a whole lot of people that simply believe it’s not going to work,” rhino conservation activist Dex Kotze told AFP.

A kilogram of rhino horns sells for US$100,000 in Vietnam, or about double the price of gold.

Even if the trade is legalized, Kotze said, demand would still outweigh the supply.

“The massive buildup of wealth in Asian countries is a huge deterrent to making the trade legal … the numbers just do not make business sense from that point of view,” he said.

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