The Rhino Debate – Where is the Plan?
February 2013, Volume 11-1

With over 4.800 black rhino and close to 21,000 white rhino in Africa, there is the potential to harvest up to 20 tons of rhino horn per year. A comprehensive report, A Study on the Dehorning of African Rhinoceroses As a Tool to Reduce the Risk of Poaching, undertaken by the Endangered Wildlife Trust on behalf of the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) in 2012 investigates the impacts and efficacy of dehorning and to identify the circumstances under which the intervention is most likely to be effective at reducing poaching.

Yet the rhino debate continues. In the following sections, we first provide an article by  Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, an independent conservation economist based in Cape Town, South Africa who describes the increase in rhino poaching in South Africa where rhinos are hosted on both state and privately owned land, suggesting that a fresh look be taken at the possibility of re-opening international trade. The article provoked considerable interest and we have therefore invited follow- up contributions from Colman O Criodain of WWF and Mike Knight, Chair of the African Rhino Specialist Group of IUCN/SSC. Colman focuses on enforcement problems relating to illegal trade in one country, while Mike explains more of the background as well as the  dilemmas facing rhino conservationists and calls for a balanced and creative approach. Finally Rowan Martin, an independent wildlife consultant in the Southern African region on a range of conservation and development projects comments that all three articles leave him with a sense of dissatisfaction and stipulates that rhino have the potential to transform land use in southern Africa.


Rhino dehorning has been used historically as a tool to reduce the threat of poaching in parts of southern Africa.  Dehorning is a contentious matter due to uncertainty regarding the effectiveness of the method at reducing poaching, and due to potential veterinary impacts and adverse effects on the behavioural ecology of rhinos.

So where is the plan?  South Africa have released their plan (see National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act, 2004 (Act No. 10 of 2004): Biodiversity Management Plan For The Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) In South Africa 2011-2020 Government Gazette, No. 36096 25 January 2013) The plan was jointly developed by South African members of the SADC Rhino Management Group (RMG). The Vision of this plan is to contribute to the long term recovery of the black rhino population by having viable populations throughout their former range within South Africa.  The target is to have at least 3000 D.b.minor and 500 D.b. bicornis by 2020 with at least 5% growth rates.  Amongst the six components to achieve this is the proposal for a regulated harvesting regime limited to bulls.

Kenya has released its plan (see Conservation and management Strategy for the Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis michaeli) in Kenya: 2012 – 2016, 5th Edition. Kenya Wildlife Services, P.O. Box 40241 – 00100 Nairobi, Kenya). Their Vision is to conserve 2000 East African Rhino with the goal of increasing the national herd from 623 to 750 animals by 2016.  At an estimated implementation cost of Ksh632 million (~US$7.35million), the plan places a heavy emphasis on law enforcement and protection and envisages expanding the range of rhino habitat through establishing additional sanctuaries.  There is no mention of any form of harvesting or trade in rhino horn.

In both cases, the strategies are advocating to continue with the status quo which is extremely costly and has not worked in the long term. Missing from this approach is what to do with the harvested horn.  A paradigm shift if required here if the reduction in illegal trade in rhino horn is to be reduced. This will require that all stakeholders in all range states, from producers to consumers, begin working to the same plan.  Rhino producers in Africa cannot continue to bear the opportunity costs (estimated at US$400 million annually) as a result of decisions at international forums such as CITES.

Either the forum advocating the non-trade approach should fund rhino protection in situ by  paying the opportunity costs imposed on rhino producers like protected areas, communities and private landholders in Africa or support devolving the ownership of rhinos to private, community and state landholders and promoting legal markets for rhino hunting and trade in regulated harvested horn.  This will provide powerful economic incentives for rhino conservation in Africa that will reverse the uncertainty and double the population of rhinos in the next 20 years.