Defend Truth


The global ban on the trade in rhino horn does not, and will not, work


Jane Wiltshire is a Post-Doctoral Fellow of the African Wildlife Economics Institute at the University of Stellenbosch.

There were 29 rhino range states when the ban on trade in rhino horn was imposed in 1977. Today, only five range states remain with evolutionarily viable rhino populations.

At the end of April 2023, the owner of the largest rhino herd in the world put his whole rhino breeding operation up for auction. Will John Hume find a philanthropic billionaire who will buy his 2,000 rhinos and shoulder the heavy burden of protecting them from poachers as well as providing them with habitat?

The conservation world is rightly concerned about the potential impact on rhino numbers if there is not a “happy ending” for Hume’s rhinos. But this is only a part of the tragedy that is playing itself out all the time in South Africa — the Private Rhino Owners’ Association’s Pelham Jones estimates that already 80 private rhino owners have ceased owning rhinos, decreasing the land available to rhinos in South Africa by 430,000 hectares.

The cost of protecting these rhinos is simply too much for most private custodians.

Read on Daily Maverick: Shaky future for 2,000 rhinos after mega-breeder’s auction fails to attract bidders

Demand for rhino horn for traditional medicine, status gifts, and jewellery continues to be high; the only way this demand can be satisfied is via the procurement of illegal, poached horns as there is currently a 46-year ban on the international sale of rhino horn, binding on South Africa.

Billions of dollars of donations have gone into diverse, innovative and intensive anti-poaching campaigns and well-crafted demand-reduction campaigns.

But still, the relentless slaughter of rhinos continues.

The demand for rhino horn seems not to respond to education campaigns, and the incentive for poaching to supply this demand is enormous.

Meanwhile, rhino custodians are prevented from utilising sales of their rhino horn stockpiles and regular poaching-prevention horn-trimming to raise funding for anti-poaching and conservation of rhinos by the ban on international trade in rhino horn.

Legalising the international sale of rhino horn would mean that proceeds from this permanent demand would sustain rhino custodians, contribute tax to the South African Revenue Service, drive the growth of rural economies and create employment opportunities.

State conservation would receive a greatly needed shot in the arm and could become viable and self-sustaining.

Ecological benefit

Importantly, trade would result in an overall ecological benefit. A growing rhino population means the area in which rhinos are kept will increase. This would drive an increase in protected areas and the biodiversity they contain.

In addition, legal trade in rhino horn has the potential to satisfy five to eight times as much demand as poaching from the same number of rhinos because:

  • A rhino’s horn can be harvested sustainably without harming the animal in any way, making the horn a renewable resource; and
  • An adult rhino can produce between 0.75 and 1.5kg of horn per year — between five and eight horn sets in a 45-year lifetime.

In 2016, the government considered the results of a commission of inquiry (COI) to deliberate on possible trade in rhino horn. The COI, comprised of 22 panel members and incorporating the input of a further 65 dedicated experts, lasted two years.

After considering the options presented, the Cabinet concluded: “By facilitating a legal and well-regulated trade, it will be possible to supply some of the demand … [for rhino horn] from legal sources and generate funds for the conservation of rhinos…” and further decided that  “an effective trade model” be developed once “governance issues were addressed”.

Why has the government not implemented its decision based on this robust and rigorous process that it initiated and paid for? As we await implementation, the slaughter of our rhinos continues — 3,684 rhinos were reportedly poached between 2017 and 2022.

Unfortunately, the government is not the only decision-maker in this process. CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) determines the ability of member nations (parties) to trade in wildlife products. A change in the classification of the products from a particular species requires a vote of at least two-thirds of the 184 parties.

Only five parties currently have viable African rhino populations (range states), but their vote counts the same as the non-range states.

The parties (especially non-range states) are influenced by animal rights NGOs which argue that the “precautionary principle” (PP) must be applied to any decision to lift the ban. The PP states that “the Parties shall, by virtue of the precautionary approach and in case of uncertainty … [of] … the impact of trade on the conservation of a species, act in the best interest of the conservation of the species concerned”.

It is odd that CITES has taken this to mean that the ban should not be lifted. The ban has patently been deleterious to rhinos:

  • There were 29 range states when the ban was imposed in 1977. Today, only five range states remain with evolutionarily viable rhino populations; and
  • The population of rhinos in the Kruger National Park, formerly home to the largest population of rhinos in the world, dropped from 10,621 in 2011 to 2,607 in 2020.

Despite this incontrovertible evidence of the harm that has come to rhinos during the ban, there are still those who argue that a bit more time, more vigorous implementation of anti-poaching and/or more stringent police and judicial processes will somehow remedy the dire and deteriorating situation.

After 46 years, billions of dollars spent, hundreds of conservationists’ lives lost and thousands of rhinos poached, it is clear that the ban on trade in rhino horn does not and will not work.

As long as the ban is in place, rhino custodians will be lumbered with the unsustainable, unfunded burden of protecting them — our rhinos will cost too much to keep.

Why not lift this deplorable ban on trade and make our precious rhinos once again worth more alive than dead? DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • James Larkin says:

    Dr Wilshire should perhaps look at the economics associated with the rhino horn trade. From the following paper, A Quantitative assessment of supply and demand in rhino horn and a case against trade. Dr Barbara Maas, published in about 2016 a number of calculations were carried out. The following is a brief summary.
    “All of South Africa’s privately owned white rhinos put together only have enough horn to provide a single dose of 3, or 50 grams to 0.97%, or 0.06% of adults in Vietnam and China.
    Rhino horn derived from annual dehorning could at best service 0.12%, and 0.007% of adults in these countries with the same prescriptions”.
    “There are simply are not enough rhinos left left anywhere to satisfy the demand”.
    “A well regulated trade, it will be possible to supply some of the demand”.. there in lies the rub, there are a number of examples of were the legal trade in wildlife has had undesirable consequences. Vicuña being one example, another is farmed bear bile. There is a strong preference in the user markets for the ‘wild-type’ product ( bear bile, rhino horn, etc) as it is believed to be more potent.
    Legalising trade would vastly outstrip supply, because illegal rhino horn would continue to be laundered into legal flows, exacerbated by a continued market for rhino horn sourced from wild populations due to expressed consumer preferences. Lifting the ban will hasten the demise of rhinos across all range states”.
    The figures speak for themselves, trade won’t work.

    • Charles Denison says:

      Instead of finding problems with other aspirations, why don’t you make a recommendation then James of what would work? What is your solution. As clearly 29 range states to 5 is a policy failure.

      • Zoe Lees Lees says:

        What about your suggestions Charles? Unfortunately numbers and theories still don’t recognise the fact that commoditizing wildlife or wildlife parts in the name of “sustainable use” only normalizes the practices and the consequence is that sentient beings are brutally exploited for cash. Their welfare and their ability to live a natural life is not even a factor, never mind the loss of biodiversity and our apex species. Some of the private rhino breeders, like John Hume, did not breed them for the love of rhino. John bet on the legalization of the trade so that he would have a stockpile to get wealthy. He (and people like the Groenewald brothers) have very likely been selling horn into the illegal trade for years – why else would he have pushed for horn to be traded “locally” – and then where would the horn go? Now he is crying foul because his gamble didn’t pay off, thereby creating a crisis. And who suffers the most ? Those poor rhino…mostly cows because mature bulls in close proximity to one another would kill each other as they are very territorial – so they get sold or shot – all in the name of “conserving the species”. Populations and genes are manipulated, and that is most definitely not conservation…the system is corrupt and that is enabling the poaching to continue and intensify. This is not about trade at all. It’s about money & a corrupt chain, just as we are seeing with all other natural resources which are being plundered with little intervention.

        • William Stucke says:

          Ooh! Did this comment pass the test of “Civil”?
          Definitely actionable libel, IMHO.

          And please explain, once you’ve got over your righteous indignation, how dehorned rhinos are “sentient beings (who) are brutally exploited for cash”?

          Do you have a better suggestion? It’s clear that SANParks can’t protect rhinos. A few private individuals have been successful, But, it costs obscene amounts of money. R180,000 PER DAY in the article by Helena Kriel, also in DM.

        • Charles Denison says:

          My solution is clearly John’s solution. You don’t have one. Instead you decide to defame John Hume without providing any evidence. Unless you have evidence Dr Zoe Lees?

          • Luke Benincasa says:

            I think you all are sensible people who don’t want to see these giants go extinct in the wild.

            Given the distastrous state of affairs we find ourselves in, could the solution not be to open the market to a regulated trade for, say five years and see if that would work? You are asking for solutions and ideas – here it is. A limited loosening up on the restrictions to see if a regulated market can stamp out an unregulated one.

            The status quo does not work and regulated trade may work. We’ve got to try something…

    • William Stucke says:

      “There are simply are not enough rhinos left anywhere to satisfy the demand.”

      Yes, and every day we listen to foolish people who publish meaningless statistics is another day that our rhino population decreases. How long until there are no rhino left? What then is the benefit of 46 years of a totally useless ban?

      Did it work? No, it didn’t. Clear evidence has been presented in this article and many others. As is often (mis)attributed to Einstein: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

    • Johan Buys says:

      James: you forget about the economics. You can’t use as your basis against sustainable use that there is only x of something which is 1% of the demand so therefore it is pointless. That determines price, just like a flawless pink diamond of is extremely expensive. Rhino horn apparently goes for $100,000/kg.

      John must have an enormous stockpile from dehorning. What I would love to see is a crowdfunding campaign. Slice rhino horn, poison it, encase it in discs of resin and let people buy a slice to use as art or coasters. The poison makes it useless for the current market. An NPO that runs this can fund John (and other outfits) to at least ensure a longterm viable gene pool until the world runs out of the neanderthals that believe what amounts to fingernail material is black magic.

      Or, grow rhino horn. We are now growing burger meat, how hard can it be to grow rhino horn, and thereby cut the legs off the market for real rhino horn.

      • Gray Maguire says:

        Thanks Johan. It blows my mind that people with apparently zero common sense, let alone economic rationality are publishing papers and getting PhD’s. Does James think everyone that wants rhino horn wouldn’t access it for free?

  • Phil Baker says:

    There are many innovative protein synthesisers especially on the West coast USA who are producing chicken, beef , blue fin tuna and other commercial proteins that are nature identical – could they not be invited to produce Rhino Keratin or for that matter Donkey skin collagen and flood the market with identical product? Just a thought – we could even do it in SA?

    • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

      It has been proposed and even tried before, I think, but the consumers do not want it. They want the “real thing”. There is even a difference between the horns of rhinos living in the wild and farmed ones.

    • Johan Buys says:

      Yes Phil! Grow lab certified rhino horn for the idiots. I might still be inclined to lace it with DNA that causes the user’s nose to shrivel, dry and fall off.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    It won’t work only because humans can’t control themselves,and are selfish and money lovers,and governments are easy to bribe.

  • William Stucke says:

    The problem is clearly one of armchair conservationists. Emotion overtaking logic. Those 179 countries have no skin in the game at all. Their views should, therefore, be irrelevant.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    Dr Wiltshire is spot on. Sadly Rhinos have to become an asset and not a liability for landowners who have Rhino in their care, through making sale of their horn. It is no more complicated than that.
    Arguments about supply and demand etc show a lack of understanding of the issue on the ground.
    Dehorning Rhino, at great expense, has proved to be the only effective measure to prevent their death by poaching.

  • Johan Buys says:

    find a way (putin could finally be of use), to poison wild rhino horn.

    Nothing stops the appetite for a product faster than stories about users whose noses, ears, fingers, penises, whatever dried up and fell off.

  • Alex Wood says:

    I fully agree that the ban on the sale of rhino horn must be lifted, but until the voting system is changed it remains s loosing battle.

  • David Walker says:

    I totally agree with Dr Wiltshire. At last, we are having a proper reasoned argument. It is ludicrous that we sit on a potentially huge resource but are banned from using it. And banning legal use has caused an explosion of criminality and the dramatic decline of rhinos. We are being dictated to by well-intentioned but ignorant greenies from the first world who have no idea of the wildlife conservation issues in Africa.

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