from Africa in Transition

Tracking the Traffickers: Selling Out the Rhinos

July 10, 2013

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This is a guest post by Emily Mellgard, research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program.

There is a debate over whether a tightly regulated legal trade in rhino horn could help stem the tide of rhino poaching in southern Africa. Most rhino horn, like ivory, finds its way to the Far East. The largest consumer of ivory is China. Vietnam is the largest consumer of rhino horn. It’s ground into a powder and used in traditional and modern medicines to cure everything from cancer and the flu, to hangovers, and as an aphrodisiac among the nouveau riche. It is also carved into libation cups for use in temples. The use of rhino horn is a deep-rooted tradition, even though the horn is keratin (as are human fingernails and hair) and has no medicinal properties.

Will legalizing trade in rhino horn decrease the illegal slaughter of rhinos as the legalization and regulation of crocodile farming and trade decreased the poaching of wild crocodiles? Or will it have the same effect on poaching as the one-off sales of elephant ivory; causing insatiable demand and uncontrollable killings?

To legalize rhino horn trade, the Convention of Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) must vote to downgrade rhinos from Appendix I (no trade) to Appendix II (partial trade) as it allowed specific countries to do with elephants in 1997. South Africa, home to over 70 percent of the world’s rhino population, announced on July 3 that they would submit a proposal for legal trade at the 2016 CITES Conference of Parties, which will be held in South Africa.

When elephants were placed in Appendix I, banning the ivory trade, in 1989, ivory demand was partially met by a diversification in the market: mammoth tusks from the Siberian Arctic, animal bone, and the resale of already carved ivory. The one-off ivory sale to Japan in 1999 had little effect on poaching levels. When China became the second approved buyer in 2007, the one-off sales in 2008 caused a massive, and still escalating, demand. Advocates for the sales argued that the influx of legal ivory would decrease demand for illegal ivory, driving down poaching, but the opposite happened. The ivory stockpiles were sold by African governments in bulk, but then broken up into smaller portions and resold by the buyers for astronomical returns, which increased the bottom ceiling price. The increase in available ivory also increased the number of consumers. As legal stockpiles were depleted, demand continued to rise, providing more than enough incentive for poachers to continue hunting.

Proponents of legalizing trade in rhino horn similarly argue that flooding the market with legal horn will decrease poaching; drive out the crime syndicates that control the black market trade; and provide additional funds for conservation. All profits made on the sales would be funneled back to the rhinos. Unlike elephant tusks, rhino horn is also a semi-renewable resource; it continues to grow throughout the animal’s life and can be “harvested,” some say, every three years with minimal risk. So once the current stockpiles are depleted, demand could be met by the live animals. Rather than selling the stockpiles in bulk to governments, the plan is also to turn the rhino horns over to an independent body accountable to CITES, which will sell the horns to registered buyers. It seems to be a win-win situation.

Skeptics of legalization however point to the fact that the current trade ban is not adequately enforced, and partially legalizing the trade would make that task even more difficult. Because of the regulations, illegal horn will also almost certainly remain cheaper than legal horn, so the incentive for poaching does not disappear. The sale of the current stockpiles could also raise the floor of demand, making it difficult for live rhinos to meet the increased demand. There are only approximately 28,000 rhinos in the wild. There are over 92 million people in Vietnam alone.

There is also the fact that many current conservation and anti-poaching initiatives have educational campaigns about the complete lack of medicinal properties of a rhino’s keratin. Legalizing trade might undermine those campaigns by making more accessible a substance people are simultaneously being told has no effect.

As the next CITES Conference of Parties is not until 2016, there is time for more debate, and all sides agree that more research is necessary. There may not be as much time for the rhinos themselves however. If poaching continues to escalate at its current rate, the rhino deaths could outnumber births as soon as 2016.