South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal has legalised domestic rhino horn trade. This overturns its prohibition in 2009 aiming at tackling rhino poaching. According to National Geographic the court rejected an appeal by the government to keep the ban on rhino horn.
International rhino horn trade was banned in 1977 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (Cites), but local trade is now set to begin again. Some say the lift on the ban is necessary in order to save the species, as illegal poaching is on the rise with 1,175 rhinos killed last year. Having the rhino horn trade legalised means that the horns can be removed without killing the animal; a worrying prospect.
The decision to lift this ban could not come at a worse time for the South African government. In September, South Africa is hosting the triennial meeting of Cites, where it was thought the country would fairly negotiate the ban on rhino horn trade. South Africa has clearly decided to take matters into its own hands on this occasion.
South African farmers raise rhinos in a similar way to how westerners raise dairy cows. Farmers periodically tranquilize the rhinos and saw off their horns. Rhino horn is made of keratin, the same protein as fingernails. As long as the horn is removed above the root it will grow back fully.
The primary markets for rhino horn are in China and Vietnam.
Julian Rademeyer, a senior fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, believes that the rhino horn will almost certainly be smuggled out of South Africa illegally.
“Given the levels of corruption in some provincial permitting offices, there are certainly concerns that legal domestic sales could become a conduit for criminal networks to obtain horns which can be smuggled out of the country and sold on the black market. We saw as much prior to 2009 when middlemen for Vietnamese syndicates traveled the length and breadth of the country buying up ‘loose stock’ of horns from game farmers”, Rademeyer said.
Rhinos are already a species under threat. In the last year alone, a record 1,338 rhinos were killed and 2015 is the sixth year in a row in which poaching has increased. This is according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s rhino specialist group.