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Is It Time To Legalise Rhino Horn Trade?

One of the world’s most magnificent animals, the rhino is in serious danger of extinction largely due to the value placed on its horn – which is presently twice as expensive as gold. Traditional methods to stem the tide have largely failed. Now conservationists and game park owners in South Africa want to legalise and control the trade in rhino horn without harming the animal. Can it work? 

At R536,119 (or $60,000) per kilogram, it rivals the street value of cocaine, and is almost double the value of gold*. It has been carved into Arabian daggers; mounted on walls powdered and mixed into Asian traditional medicine, and – as recent trends suggest for Vietnam’s rising young and restless – included in a cocktail potion as a revitalising tonic.

Strange as it may sound, the magic ingredient is nothing more than agglutinated hair, crusted and sabre-like, perched atop the head of the second-largest land mammal in the world: the rhino. Since the 1970s, an estimated 90% of the world’s rhino population has declined, affecting the five primary species. Asia’s Javan, Sumatran and Indian rhino horns – ideal for grinding into powder form – would be utilised extensively for traditional medicine. The 1970s oil boom also triggered a vast interest in strong African horn, sourced primarily from Africa’s black and white rhinos, for prestigious Yemen daggers.

In 1977, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), listed all rhino species in Appendix I, prohibiting international trade in rhinos and their products. Even though demand began to diminish, the ban created a vigorous black market.

At the time of the CITES ban, aerial mapping documented the existence of 50,000 African black rhinos. Today the number has dwindled to less than 5,000. Swaziland’s ‘rhino wars’ of the 1980s destroyed 80% of the rhino population, a state of affairs reflected in Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, and Kenya.

Though it is known that the average rhino horn can grow to weigh over 60 kg during its lifespan, poachers eager to make a quick buck targeted underresourced national parks and killed indiscriminately.

Despite the ban, or perhaps compelled by it, rhino populations have continued the perilous decline: today, less than 50 Javan and 300 Sumatran rhinos remain in the wild.

Yet thanks to the conservation efforts of the South African government and its private partners, 90% of the world’s white rhino population – estimated at 18,600 – now enjoy a relatively secure future in that country.

But poaching syndicates, responsible for the deaths of over 520 rhinos this year alone, threaten the species once more. Not so long ago, the South African courts sentenced Thai national, Chumlong Lemtongthai, to 40 years in prison when he was found guilty of over 50 criminal charges.

But despite conservation efforts and sophisticated anti-poaching operations, can the tide in the slaughter of one of the world’s most magnificent animal be stemmed?

Some conservationists and private sector operators believe that in the face of the imminent catastrophe, fresh thinking on the war against poaching is needed. They want to legalise sustainable trade in ‘farmed’ rhino horn.

Regulated hunting

Hunting is big business in South Africa, especially where the ‘big five’ lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffalo are concerned. The broader industry employs an average of 70,000 people, including about 3,000 professional hunters, working with taxidermists, translocation specialists, wildlife veterinarians, and other professionals.

While price lists are available for animals such as sable ($10,000), elands ($2,450) and giraffes ($3,600), endangered and ‘dangerous’ species are listed under Price on Request (POR), disclosed only to interested parties.

Companies like African Sky Hunting set charges for hunting large-maned male lions at $45,000. Others like Hunt Africa Now (HAN) offer packages of $29,000 (10 days) for an elephant hosting 50 lbs of ivory ‘per side’. But often, the most expensive item on HAN’s list – similar to that of other companies – is the white rhino: five days, all inclusive, at $80,000 – marketed as a real discount. In fact, the usual price of a white ‘trophy’ rhino is well over $100,000.

From 2008–2011, white rhino product sales generated over $35.5m, represented by one private auction company and two wildlife authorities. These sales are legalised on the basis of limited and regulated decorative ‘trophy’ hunting – an industry widely credited as having a positive influence on expansion, management and protection of wildlife.

Rhino hunting is restricted to one hunt per hunter annually and the importing country must exhibit legislation sufficient to ensure “non-commercial personal effects”.

Yet through the manipulation of legal channels such as trophy hunting, Asian syndicates, chiefly Vietnamese, have tapped into a host of willing South African professionals, including hunters and vets to make fortunes.

Lemtongthai – a middleman for these syndicates – ‘rented’ multiple identities from Vietnamese citizens, posing as legitimate trophy hunters. Yet there seem to be considerable contradictions in law: Lemtonthai’s co-accused, including a hunter, game farmer and a vet, were not prosecuted. Even if they had been, they would not have been prevented from participating in the hunting industry.

Since 1994, the post-apartheid South African government has given the green light for sustainable use of white rhinos. But, as listed in CITES Appendix II, the use of white rhinos is limited to safe trade (example, national parks in other countries), or trophy hunting – totalling just 1,300 animals. Under the law, the only person able to legitimately acquire the trophy is the actual hunter. No other activities or purposes, including medicinal uses, or ‘gifting’ to another, are allowed.

Targeted illegal poaching in South Africa first became evident in 2008, with three provinces – Limpopo, KwaZulu Natal and the North West – documenting 75% of illegal activities during the past five years. This coincided with the closing of a ‘standing permit’ loophole in 2008, which had allowed hunters to access CITES export permit applications, whether bona fide hunts took place or not.

Analysts from TRAFFIC, a wildlife monitoring network, allege that if poaching continues to increase at an average of more than 20% annually, rhino deaths will soon overtake births, accelerating the decline in South Africa. To date, poaching has been largely centred in the Kruger National Park (KNP), holding 50% of the country’s total rhino population, in a protected area of 20,000km2. In 2012, an estimated 60% of illegal poaching occurred in KNP, despite the deployment of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

But internal problems, including a strike in early May, involving 248 field rangers citing salary disparities, may indicate that conservation is an expensive business and not as simple as it seems.

Farming Demand

Between 1970 and 1987, over 100 tonnes of rhino horn was traded internationally – almost a decade after the 1977 CITES ban. The chief driver of demand is the myth that rhino horn has valuable properties in traditional medicines. Surveys by TRAFFIC, for example, reveal that almost 80% of traditional medicines in South Korea’s capital city Seoul contain rhino horn. International pressure on China – the largest producer of traditional medicines – following the near extinction of Asian rhinos, resulted in drastically reduced demand.

“Rhino conservation in South Africa dates back 117 years when the species was brought back from the brink of extinction,” Dr Bandile Mkhize, CEO of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, a conservation organisation, said to African Business. “Since then, a combination of best practice, more land for rhino conservation and protection strategies are responsible for the large population that we enjoy today.” The core of Mkhize’s stance includes legalisation of the trade in rhino horn.

In anticipation of the South African contribution to CITES in 2016, Mkhize, along with businessmen like John Hume, have lobbied the government, putting forward strategies to include regulated trade.

Citing the current Ezemvelo budget at R3.3m ($372,000) – the price of eight black market horns – Mkhize claimes that in order to combat poaching, the budget would have to be increased considerably. But private actors such as Hume are betting on legalised trade. For example, 500 kg of shaved rhino horn, valued at $60,000 per kg, would earn $30m. Shaving involves scrapping off part of the horn without harming the animal.

“We can supply a vast amount of rhino horn from South Africa,” he says. “A single rhino has the potential to produce 60 kilograms of horn in its lifetime,” he told African Business. Hume, who owns over 740 rhinos, is the largest rhino farmer in the world. Each year, he shaves off one kg of rhino horn, as a means of deterring poachers.

“Rhino farming will encourage more people to breed rhinos, incentivise communities and emergent farmers to invest in rhinos; provide the necessary income for rhino protection and management; ease pressure off wild populations of rhino; and increase the overall rhino population,” he says.

However, Mavuso Msimang, the former head of SANParks, South Africa National Parks, and currently appointed ‘rhino manager’, is not so sanguine. He says not all actors are as innocent as they seem. Speaking to African Business, he questioned the motives of officials actively lobbying for legalised trade, before “arguments have been properly weighed and analysed.”

According to analyst Michael Eustace, who was involved in the South Africa study based on a controlled monopoly market of 800 horns, national parks could benefit to the tune of $67.6m annually, and private actors could earn $22.5m. Speaking to African Business, Eustace said prices must be kept as high $60,000 per kg to curb demand in order to create a sustainable market, and that horns could be derived from both stockpiles and natural deaths. “We don’t know how much the demand is, but we do know that from the supply side, there have been 600 horns from poaching, and another few hundred from pseudo-hunts.”

He identified the increase in poaching as a domino effect of the government closing loopholes to pseudo-hunters like Lemtongthai. “Pseudo-hunting took pressure off animals in the wild. This year, when fake hunts were curbed, poachers picked up the slack.’ He proposed a central selling organisation – in the De Beers model – that would produce DNA-profiled horns, sourced from national parks, and private suppliers. The latter hold about 25% of the rhino population. So, is the economics of rhino trade as sound as it sounds?

“The horn that finds its way into the black market is not DNA-profiled or micro-chipped,” said Eustace, “so this way, the market would be highly regulated.” But he backtracked when African Business confirmed DNA profiling as a standard already used for trophy hunting. “Policing trophies is very difficult,” he admitted, and demand-side importers “may not be committed, due to their use of rhino for medical ailments. We don’t really know where they go”.

When asked whether demand would explode if countries like China lifted the ban, he conceded that while supply-side rhino horn factors were known, demand-side factors, including increased demand were “not known, but will be controlled by high prices”.

Eustace is confident that “poaching will no longer be lucrative – black market horn would lose 30% of value on the black market,” he said. But would the black market, bearing a vastly discounted selling price, increase in scale and value, given increased demand? Moreover, what would become of vulnerable rhinos outside South Africa, when increased demand far exceeds the CSO quota? He did not comment.

Hunting poachers

Whether or not the legal rhino trade is approved, the forensic system cited by conservationists and hopeful traders alike is critical to the future of rhino regulation. RhODIS (or the Rhino DNA Index System), provides a central secured database for rhino DNA, facilitating traceability of individual rhinos and rhino horns unique to each animal.

This is accomplished by darting a rhino with a small dose of anaesthetic (about 3ml), and tracking it – running at 35 km an hour from vehicles as the anaesthetic takes effect – an average of eight minutes. Once it is down, horn shavings, hair samples from the tail and blood samples are taken, in addition to the quick and easy micro-chipping process.

“DNA cannot be removed, changed or destroyed,” states Dr Cindy Harper, from the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Veterinary Science, Ondesterpoort. In an interview with African Business, Harper listed the cost of DNA profiling at R350 ($40) per animal, micro-chipping at less than $33, and a sample kit at $11. The overall costs of the procedure, estimated by one vet to African Business, including darting the animal, vet fees, use of helicopter and spotter cars, was around $1,000 more, with a slight increase for black rhinos hiding in dense bush.

“The DNA profiling is a complex test and must be done in an authorised laboratory that has people trained to perform this test and specific skills to do it. It cannot be done in the field. However, people can be trained to collect the samples for the DNA testing,” Harper says. These skills, she adds, were being transferred to Kenyan scientists this year. “Data needs to be standardised to be comparable.”

The system, says Harper, is primarily a forensic tool to assist with poaching investigations, linking horns to poachers, traffickers and consumer countries. But uses also included identifying stockpiled horns, aiding investigations, returning recovered horns to owners – as well as managing the type of legal sale proposed by businessmen like Hume.

“As scientists we provide the tools to make the management of a legal trade system possible and that is what RhODIS provides. The outcome of legal trade has not been tested as a potential solution in controlling rhino poaching – yet other current solutions do not appear to be changing the poaching trend,” she says.

Presently, RhODIS maintains the single database of rhino DNA at the University’s Veterinary Genetics Laboratory, gathering 5,000 data-points within a year, by seeking profiles from a variety of horns. This includes recovered and stockpiled collections, private, national and provincial parks, poaching cases, as well as from neighbouring countries such as Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana.

For private owners and national parks alike, RhoDis increasingly acts as a shared ‘Who’s Who’ register of the world’s largest rhino population. Patrons such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and companies like SABMiller have set the goal registering all 18,000 rhinos on the database.

Though it makes good business sense to regulate the trade, a legal market may generate competition with poachers, and an explosion in demand. As Hume stated, “conservation costs money. Someone needs to pay for it.” The question is who?

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