This is a guest post by Allen Grane, research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program.
Last week, South African High Court Judge Francis Legodi ruled against the Zuma administration moratorium on the country’s domestic trade in rhino horns. As it is possible to harvest a rhino’s horn without killing the animal, there is discussion about the potential for a regulated trade in rhino horns. In light of the dramatic increase in rhino poaching, the argument that legalizing trade in rhino horn could help save the species has been gaining steam. The high court ruling is a reflection of this thinking. However, the decision from the judge may not actually mean much.
Legodi’s decision is based on due process. He found that in 2009, when the moratorium was imposed, the then minister of environmental affairs did not give adequate notice of plans to impose the moratorium or allow proper public participation in the process. In the past, rhino farmers have argued that their right to sale rhino horn is guaranteed by the South African Constitution and its bill of rights which promises the “…use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.” The rhino breeders who brought the case before the court argue that rhino horn is a renewable resource, as a rhino that is dehorned will grow the horn back (rhino farmers are able to harvest several horns in a rhino’s lifetime). And, because the South African government has long allowed people to ‘own’ rhinos, the breeders do have property rights to the animals.
The South African Water and Environmental Affairs Ministry quickly announced its intention to appeal the decision. This action effectively suspends the High Court’s ruling, meaning the domestic rhino horn trade is still not legal in South Africa.
The court’s decision, and the recent headlines it has made, may prove more significant than the domestic trade. Indeed, the demand for rhino horn within South Africa is relatively low, and rhino breeders (and the South African government) do not stand to profit much from a domestic trade. The largest markets for rhino horn are in Asia, where rhino horn can go for as much as $65,000 a kilogram. Many view the petition by rhino breeders as a way to convince the UN’s Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) to legalize the trade internationally. It is not a coincidence that the next meeting of CITES will be in South Africa next year.
In light of the upcoming CITES meeting, the South African government has already formed a committee to determine the viability of a legalized trade. As rhino horn is renewable, this committee is meant to research whether or not a legal trade will alleviate the current pressure on rhino populations from poaching. It is believed that this committee’s recommendations will influence the South African governments decision whether to appeal to CITES for a legal international trade in rhino horn. Critics of this plan say that legalizing the trade would make the market for rhino horn larger, while proponents argue that by legalizing the trade the supply will increase and reduce the extravagant prices that currently drive rhino poaching. Both sides of the argument have merit.
While the High Court’s decision may or may not stick, the end result may be a harbinger of what’s to come on an international scale.