This is a guest post by Allen Grane, research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program.
On February 10, the South African government announced the formation of a committee to determine the viability of legalizing the trade of rhino horn.
As any international trade in rhino horn is illegal, if the committee were to determine that the trade is viable, the South African government would have to seek approval from the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) at their upcoming conference in 2016. There is precedent for granting such permission in the form of a one off sale. In 2008, CITES allowed Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa to sell over 100 tons of ivory to Japan and China. However, CITES is highly unlikely to approve a more regular trade.
The government claims that the move may help alleviate the rhino poaching crisis in South Africa. They argue that legalizing the trade would dampen illegal demand and thus decrease the targeting of rhino populations. However, many conservationists, citing the increase in elephant poaching since 2008, disagree and contend that legalizing the trade would only boost demand and endanger South Africa’s rhino population.
Regardless, it seems that the South African government’s decision to consider legalizing the rhino horn trade is motivated by a variety of motives. The South African government possesses a twenty ton stockpile of rhino horn that is worth approximately R11.6 billion (roughly $1 billion) on the black market. In an economic environment where the rand has steadily fallen against the U.S. dollar. Hence, the sale of rhino horn would be financially beneficial for the government.
It is feared that the government has already made its decision to pursue legalization. On February 16, the Citizen, a South African newspaper, released a report claiming that it had obtained a copy of the agenda for an upcoming meeting of the Environmental Affairs Portfolio Committee. At this meeting scheduled for March 3, one of the planned discussion topics was “Progress in mobilising Rhino Range States to support South Africa’s proposal for a limited regulated trade in Rhino horns at the CITES COP16 meeting in South Africa.” While the discussion has now been removed from the agenda, the Citizen cites the topic’s inclusion on the agenda as proof that the South African government is leaning toward approving the trade.
Another major sign that the government is dead set on legalization is the composition of the committee. While it includes a number of respected conservationists, there are also several members of questionable reputation who the opposition party have asked to be removed. For example, committee member Lourence Mogakane, was fired as the financial director of the Bohlabela district municipality in Limpopo for gross misconduct and financial mismanagement. More importantly, committee chairperson Nana Mangomola was suspended from her directorship at the National Gambling Board, and subsequently resigned, due to a forensic report that alleged misconduct.
On February 12, South African President Jacob Zuma lauded the cabinet, announcing in his annual state of the the nation address that the “Cabinet has adopted vigorous and integrated interventions to combat the vicious rhino poaching in the country.” It is unclear what interventions he is referring to. One can only guess, but based on the formation of this committee, these measures may not be good news for South Africa’s rhino population.