By Taylor Tench, Assistant Policy Analyst
Today on World Rhino Day we join scientists, conservationists, and wildlife enthusiasts around the world in celebrating these iconic species. Yet perhaps more importantly, World Rhino Day provides an opportunity to reflect on the plight of the world’s rhinos and address the alarming movement to legalize the rhino horn trade.
Just last month John Hume, the owner of the world’s largest rhino farm, successfully pulled off the first rhino horn auction in South Africa, selling 264 horns from his stockpile. Hume has been regularly dehorning the more than 1,500 rhinos on his farm and storing the horns, more than 6 tons worth, while awaiting the day the country’s ban would be terminated.
That day came on April 5, 2017, when South Africa’s domestic rhino horn trade moratorium was officially lifted. Four months later John Hume’s much-hyped online auction was underway, complete with language settings that encouraged his Vietnamese and Chinese target consumer base to place bids in their native language. China and Vietnam are widely recognized as the two primary destination countries for illegally trafficked rhino horn, and if the horn sold at the auction leaves South Africa it is all but certain to end up on the black market.
When confronted with the likely reality that his buyers would be operatives representing the highly organized syndicates responsible for the bloodshed ravaging African wildlife, Hume remarked that he would be “happy” to supply the criminals driving rhinos toward extinction with a legal alternative. Criminal syndicates undermine wildlife conservation efforts and selling rhino horn to those involved will mean surrendering to transnational organized crime, thus deepening the problem of corruption and further endangering rhinos.
Simply put, legal trade in rhino horn would be the death knell for rhinos. As we’ve witnessed with similar attempts to legalize international trade in elephant ivory, rather than reducing poaching, the illegal trade and associated poaching actually increase. Legal trade serves only to boost demand while making it easier for criminals to launder illegal products onto a legal market, and with only approximately 25,000 rhinos left in Africa the world cannot afford to make this same mistake.
More than 7,100 rhinos were poached in Africa over the past decade, and in South Africa alone more than 1,000 rhinos have been slaughtered every year since 2013. The latest data indicate 2017 is on pace to continue this trend.
At the international level, certain rhino range countries have kept up the drumbeat to rescind the international trade ban. Swaziland issued a formal proposal at last year’s 17th CITES Conference of the Parties that would allow the country to sell its white rhino horn internationally. Notably, the nations of South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, which together possess 90 percent of Africa’s rhinos, supported the proposal, while several Asian rhino range states voiced opposition and concern over the impact that their smaller populations would face should trade be legalized.
Thankfully, the CITES parties rejected the proposal with 100 countries against and only 26 in favor.
Legalizing trade would cause poaching rates to rise, strengthen transnational criminal syndicates, undo years of demand reduction efforts, render enforcement nearly impossible, and undermine newly minted conservation laws in countries around the world.
If the world is serious about protecting rhinos, the international trade ban must be upheld, domestic rhino horn markets must be shut down, and pro-trade arguments must be abandoned.
When a trade ban is properly implemented and enforced it works. For example, past EIA investigations into China and Taiwan’s rhino horn trade prompted the countries to shut down their rhino horn markets in the 1990s, and rhino poaching rates subsequently dropped dramatically.
EIA remains committed to extinguishing the rhino horn trade and will continue to fight so that future generations will still have something to celebrate on World Rhino Day.