Rhino Poaching – A Contribution to the Debate
February 2013, Volume 11-1

This is a response to Michael t’Sas Rolfe’s article describing the increasing loss of rhinos in South Africa from poaching. WWF agrees broadly with his description of the current situation in the country but we do not agree that resuming trade in rhino horn is the appropriate solution at this time.

We are not ideologically opposed to consumptive use of wild animals; in fact, we are committed to the principle of sustainable use. Nevertheless, we do not believe that the answer to a species conservation crisis always lies in easing trade restrictions, any more than we believe that that the solution always lies in curtailing trade. The realities are more complex and they vary according to the biology of the species concerned, the prevailing legislative and enforcement regime, and the demands of the market.

South Africa did not achieve recovery of its rhino population by simply liberalising ownership and hunting laws and leaving it to the market to do the rest. Such very modest easement of the laws as did occur was a calibrated response to an initially strict regime that was yielding progressive results.

The other factor in this success was the pressure placed via CITES on consumer countries that were implicated in illegal trade.

China banned trade in 1993 and has repeatedly stated that it has no plans to modify this ban. Yemen took steps more recently to curtail the market for traditional rhino horn daggers.

What is now putting South Africa’s achievement at risk is the emergence of a new consumer market in Vietnam (1), a country that is failing to take even the most minimal steps to curtail that market, having lost its last rhino in 2010. It is this market that is driving poaching, thus increasing private owners’ security liabilities. Herein lies the core problem. With Vietnam as the only likely market and with enforcement there so conspicuously lacking, there is no reason to have faith in the premise that poaching and illegal trade would not continue. Rather, the existence of a poorly regulated legal market could facilitate laundering of illegal horn. A comparable situation can be found with ivory markets in Thailand, where an exemption for trade in ivory originating for domestic elephant – without any accompanying burden of proof – has allowed open trade in ivory of illegal African origin, a fact acknowledged in discussions in CITES (2). It has been argued that the existence of a legal supply would be sufficient to divert consumers from purchasing illegally sourced horn. However, the case for this has not been adequately substantiated. It depends, inter alia, on whether or not traders seek to charge a premium for the legal product or to try and undercut the illegal product; in the latter case it also depend on whether or not they are successful.  Therefore, the option of allowing legal trade is a risky one compared to the alternative, which is to exert pressure on Vietnam to enforce its own laws and its obligations under CITES, including via the threat of sanctions.

Author: Colman O Criodain