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Book extract: ‘The UN’s Lone Ranger: Combating International Wildlife Crime’

In the ‘Rhino racketeering’ chapter of his book ‘The UN’s Lone Ranger: Combating International Wildlife Crime’, author JOHN SELLAR describes the incredible increases in rhino poaching in South Africa during the late 2000s, accompanied by other criminality around the world where hunting trophy horns and antique horn-based items were being stolen from museums, taxidermists and auction houses. These crimes were thought initially to be prompted by a belief that crushed rhino horn could treat cancers. What’s next, though?

It was inevitable that someone, at some point, would suggest that the answer to all these problems would be simply to legalise trade in rhinoceros horn. Such proposals began to be voiced in around 2008. Proponents argue that since rhinos can be de-horned, owners should be allowed to do so, and to sell the horn to consumers. It appears that the government of South Africa is considering this approach. One wonders whether there is any link between the major crisis presently facing South Africa and its offer to host the next CITES Conference of the Parties, scheduled for 2016. Several questions have come into my mind when considering the legal trade option:

  • Will there be enough horns to meet the current demand, which presumably may continue to increase, especially if prohibitions on consumption were to be lifted?
  • Could demand be met if the nature of the demand alters, moving, for example, from crushed horn, which requires small amounts to be taken from a whole horn, to a desire to possess whole horns as status symbols?
  • Presumably, if legalised, prices for horn will lower. If so, will the trade be financially viable?
  • While South Africa might, in terms of the Convention, argue that it could regulate exports in a sustainable manner, which are to be the importing countries? It takes two to tango and, at present, no country in Asia allows legal domestic trade in rhinoceros horn. Unlike the situation with elephant ivory, there are no assessed, authorised or regulated domestic markets elsewhere in the world to which traders in South Africa could sell trimmed horn. By early 2013, no Asian country and no nation elsewhere in the world had announced its interest in resuming legal trade in rhinoceros horn.
  • If I were a criminal in Asia, might I not wish to undercut trade from Africa and kill rhinos in my own area instead? Given how close some rhinoceros populations in Asia are to the extinction tipping point, this would require very careful consideration.

However, what resonates with me most is that there seems something almost immoral in legalising this trade. Its purpose, if the efficacy of rhino horn as a medicine is as questionable as it currently appears, would be to sell a non-peer-reviewed treatment to victims of one of the world’s most debilitating and fatal diseases, a treatment that would do them no good whatsoever. The fact that rhinoceros horn may, on occasions, have something of a positive, placebo-like impact on a cancer sufferer is surely no justification for making it available to others. I am also troubled by the unspoken undertones in these discussions, involving one part of the world supplying another, which, to my mind, might be seen as straying perilously close to discrimination or, at worst, racism.

Is an end in sight?

Regrettably, I see none. Although appreciation of the seriousness, organisation and sophistication of crimes affecting rhinoceroses is now much more widespread, rhinos continue to be killed. The numbers poached seem set, as I write this in 2013, to outstrip the totals of previous years. One hopes that the days are long gone when an intercepted smuggler, carrying five rhino horns between Africa and Asia, was allowed to proceed on his way, customs officers having confiscated the contraband. And yet that occurred as recently as 2008. The follow-up to interceptions or the exchange of information between agencies, nationally and internationally, appears at times as dismally inadequate for rhinos as it has sometimes been for elephants, tigers and so many other endangered species.

I remain concerned at the potential for fraud within the antique world. There is clearly a legitimate trade in antique rhino horn products, especially Chinese libation cups. Although some of these products and old trophies, sold through English auction houses, for example, were undoubtedly intended for clandestine purposes, the prices paid for others were far too high for them to be crushed down into powder for medicinal use. This, in itself, is what makes me anxious. As I mentioned before, organised crime has many tentacles and they stretch far and wide. Their aim is to seek out every crevice or corner where another situation can be exploited for profit. Experience has shown us that items carved from fresh elephant ivory have been disguised and passed off as antiques and subsequently sold at high price. Personally, I believe it is only a matter of time before the counterfeiting of antique rhino horn items is uncovered. The very significant increase in both the value of, and interest in, Chinese objets d’art offers criminal exploitation opportunities. It was, however, when I learned that a single rhinoceros horn libation cup had sold at auction in the United States in 2010 for over 900,000 dollars that I became utterly convinced: it can only be a matter of time before fraud is detected. (NOTE: In May 2014, the author’s concerns were shown to be well-founded when a Chinese national was sentenced to 70 months’ imprisonment in the United States for acquiring horns for just such a purpose.)

During the period since my retirement from CITES, I have read that crushed rhino horn is now being taken in parts of the southeast and far east of Asia as a treatment for a hangover. Some horns are apparently also being acquired as a status symbol for their owner, just as some buyers seek a tiger skin for display in their homes or offices.

As I prepare to move away from species-specific issues, I am conscious of another concern which has long troubled me. The consumption of wildlife has, over the whole of man’s existence, taken myriad forms, with many different demands and motivators. Some of these have almost been like fashions, emerging for a period and then drifting away. Who could possibly have predicted that rhino horn would one day be thought of as a cure for cancer? Importantly, who can predict what bizarre or unexpected demand might suddenly appear next?

It is this history of use and abuse which convinces me that we must halt our current species-specific approach. We must stop thinking of wildlife crime but think, instead, simply of crime. If we do not, then we will constantly be running to catch up, as we have done in relation to elephants, rhinos and tigers, whenever some new illicit demand presents itself and begins to drive yet one more species from the conservation-concern category into one of extinction-endangerment. DM

The UN’s Lone Ranger: Combating International Wildlife Crime is published by Whittles Publishing.

John M. Sellar OBE was an officer of the Scottish Police Service for 24 years before moving to the United Nations. He served there for fourteen years, retiring in 2011 from the post of Chief of Enforcement with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). He now operates internationally as an Anti-Smuggling, Fraud and Organized Crime consultant. The UN’s Lone Ranger is available from


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