This is a guest post by Allen Grane, research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program.
The South African government has announced that it will not petition the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) for a legal trade in rhinoceros horn. South Africa formed a committee to determine the viability of a legal trade in rhino horn in February 2015. After nearly a year of deliberating, the committee’s recommendation was “that the current mode of keeping the country’s stock levels be kept as opposed to the trading in rhino horns.”
The decision, announced before the 17th CITES Conference of the Parties meeting in South Africa this fall, is surprising. The South African government owns a stockpile of rhino horn that is valued at approximately $2 billion on the black market, an amount that could contribute to the struggling South African economy.
While South Africa will not be seeking to sell their rhino horn stockpile now, it is not clear if that policy will continue forever. When and if poaching in South Africa stabilizes, the government may then reevaluate its position. As private citizens are allowed to own rhinos in South Africa, there are a number of private parties who have also harvested rhino horn. These private parties, some with stockpiles worth hundreds of millions of dollars, will likely continue to push for a legalized trade. Others have argued, and will continue to argue, that if the South African government were to allow the sale of current rhino horn stockpiles, the price of rhino horn would plummet, decreasing the incentive for people to poach rhinos. This of course, is theory, and can’t be proven until tested.
The decision seems to be summed up by the World Wildlife Funds statement that they “do not believe that a well-managed legal trade is feasible without negative impacts for wild rhinos at this time.” The South African government stated that its “strategic approach entails security; community empowerment; biological management and responsive legislative provisions that are effectively implemented and enforced; and demand management.” As part of this approach, the South African government will often harvest rhino horns to protect animals from being poached. This will continue, and the government’s stockpile will continue to grow.