A rhino mother and her calf run

Extinction Tourism: Rhino Horn Pills and Tourist Trinkets Are Not the Answer to South Africa’s Rhino Poaching Crisis

On 8 March, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE) published a draft National Biodiversity Economy Strategy (NBES) for public comment. The stated purpose of the NBES is to optimize biodiversity-based business potentials and contribute to economic growth while “maintaining the ecological integrity of the biodiversity resource base for thriving people and nature.” 

This all sounds well and good, but buried on page 41 of the document is a proposal that, if implemented, could have devastating impacts on the conservation of rhinos, elephants, and other threatened species. 

Proposed Action 10.4 of the draft NBES seeks to “Develop and implement a strategy for a market for regulated domestic trade in high-end parts and derivatives (e.g. rhino horn and elephant ivory) for local value-add enterprises based on processing and use of products.” 

In layman’s terms, DFFE is proposing to establish a domestic market for rhino horn products and expand the existing trade in ivory products. 

This reckless and shortsighted proposal would significantly threaten rhinos and elephants by jacking up the demand for their horn and ivory, and would be disastrous for rhinos in particular given that rhino poaching is on the rise once again in South Africa.  

There is currently no local demand for rhino horn within South Africa, which is why the draft NBES explains that “[i]nnovative approaches are needed…to develop the necessary local markets.” The draft NBES goes on to essentially promote the creation of a consumptive form of tourism, identifying rhino horn medicine for tourists from the “Far East” and carvings that can be exported as souvenirs as examples of processed wildlife products that could become lucrative cottage industries for South Africa. 

Establishing a market for worked rhino horn products would be akin to shooting oneself in the foot. Time and again, it has been shown that legal markets for wildlife products of threatened species like rhino horn and elephant ivory stimulate demand which can lead to increased poaching and illegal trade. 

Rhino poaching is ramping up once again in South Africa, and its depleted rhino population cannot afford a new wave of poaching pressure driven by a government-backed scheme to artificially generate demand for rhino horn. Today there are less than 2,000 white rhinos left in Kruger National Park, which was home to more than 10,000 nearly 15 years ago. The massacre of rhinos in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park has resulted in two consecutive record-breaking years of rhino poaching in KwaZulu-Natal, with one rhino poached nearly every 24 hours on average in the province last year. 

Rhinos are synonymous with South Africa and are a fundamental component of the country’s national heritage. If not for South Africa’s past heroic rhino conservation achievements, there would be no southern white rhinos left on the African continent today. Catering to privileged rhino horn speculators and foreign tourists at the expense of the rhinos’ long term survival and recovery would be a tragic stain on South Africa’s conservation legacy.  

Aside from the conservation implications, proposed Action 10.4 ignores massive legal and enforcement obstacles. 

Under South African law, only legally acquired raw rhino horn can be possessed or traded in South Africa provided that the necessary permits have been secured. Special regulations have been drafted to explicitly prohibit the production or trade of carved, powdered, or any other modified rhino horn (there are exemptions when powder or fragments are produced due to veterinary procedures such as dehorning).

These regulations were not drawn up arbitrarily. Ensuring legality and traceability of carved rhino horn and rhino horn powder is nearly impossible short of conducting expensive and time-consuming DNA testing. The risk of laundering poached and illegally acquired rhino horn into legal trade streams and the significant enforcement burden required to ensure legality is simply too costly and too resource intensive for government authorities. DFFE already struggles to keep track of private stockpiles of raw rhino horn – which would presumably comprise much of the raw materials for the proposed rhino horn market – and stockpiles themselves present a major enforcement risk. The prospect of monitoring, managing, and securing a legal domestic trade in processed products is simply unrealistic. 

At the international level, commercial trade in rhino horn has been banned since 1977 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). According to CITES provisions, the trade in rhino horn and elephant ivory tourist trinkets the NBES envisions would require the issuance of CITES permits by both South Africa and the importing country if a tourist tries to bring them home, which can only happen after both governments are satisfied that the product was legally acquired and that trade will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild. CITES carve-outs for personal effects do not apply to Appendix I specimens – like rhino horn and elephant ivory – that are acquired outside an individual’s home country. 

If South Africa moves ahead with a domestic market for rhino horn, it will create an unnecessary enforcement headache not only for its own enforcement agencies but also for customs and police departments in other countries. The NBES is not shy about targeting foreign tourists with these new markets, and it is not difficult to imagine a situation playing out like that which currently exists in Japan. Japan maintains a robust legal domestic ivory market that results in dozens of seizures each year, accompanied by administrative penalties and criminal charges, by authorities in countries like China who intercept ivory from tourists attempting to bring these products back into China where the trade is illegal. 

DFFE is accepting comments on the draft NBES through 5 April 2024. For the sake of South Africa’s rhinos and elephants, and South Africa’s international reputation as a top destination for sustainable wildlife tourism, the government needs to know this perhaps well-intentioned but extremely misguided proposal to establish new markets for processed rhino horn and other products from threatened wildlife would be a disaster for the country’s remaining rhinos and other threatened species.