South Africa May Trade Rhino Horn Legally
June 2013, Volume 11-3

South Africa’s rhinos are in peril.  Since 2009, over 2000 rhinos have been poached with over 300 killed this year alone. CITES, as useful as it has been for endangered species since its inception, has clearly been ineffective in this case.  Some say now that the strict rules of CITES must be applied even stricter. However, what is stricter than strict?  Some say that the legal hunting of rhinos should now be banned.  But why forbid the only legal way for private rhino owners to earn some money from and for their rhinos?

Under the current strategy there is an imminent danger that many rhino farmers can no longer afford the costs of protecting rhinos. The consequences of this strategy are obvious.

So, if an unsuccessful strategy has been followed for 30 years, it is probably a good idea to change it. Many experts are therefore proposing to follow a market-oriented strategy. There is a demand for horn in China and Vietnam, and there is a stock available in South Africa that can be replenished on a sustainable basis. Every economist would see an opportunity for trade here. If the demand can be met legally and at the same time the producers earn revenues to look after the natural resource on which they depend, the net result for conservation is likely to be positive.

The International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation (CIC) has therefore adopted a pro-trade-resolution at its recent general assembly in Budapest. The CIC

1.  Proposes to replace the ineffective ban of trading rhino horn with an effective legal trading system for rhino horn under the auspices of CITES;
2.  Calls on the Parties of CITES, governments of rhino range states, owners of stockpiled rhino horn and private rhino owners in Africa, as well as the governments of Asian countries where rhino horn products are consumed, and relevant national organizations for the integrity of
traditional oriental medicines, to cooperate in creating the management framework for legal trading of rhino horn.

During the budget debates in parliament at the end of May, the South African government announced that they indeed intend to follow this route. They will propose to the next CITES Conference of Parties (COP), which will take place in South Africa in 2016, to lift the ban and to allow trade in rhino horn. I am not sure whether we have the time to wait for another three years. However I predict that there will be no two-thirds majority for South Africa’s proposal.  At the COP there will be too many delegates with an anti-use-bias and not enough governments with the stamina to take rational pro- conservation decisions against media-supported emotional campaigns.

However, the Convention itself offers a short-cut. My personal interpretation of the CITES text is that South Africa is allowed to start legal trade without the need to seek a decision from the next CITES COP. The reason is that the South African square lipped rhino (Ceratotherium simum simum) is listed under CITES Appendix II as far as hunting for trophies and trading live animals are concerned. All other parts or products of these rhinos fall under Appendix I. The basis for the marketing of horn from captive rhinos is to be found in Article VII(4), where it is said: “Specimens of an animal species included in Appendix I bred in captivity for commercial purposes… shall be deemed to be specimens of species included in Appendix II.“ A definition of “breeding” according to CITES is specified in Resolution Conf. 10.16.  A number of conditions are provided there which apply to the case of the rhinos. They must for example be born in a controlled environment.

In terms of these CITES sanctioned rules, several operations in South Africa qualify as captive breeding operations which means that captive bred square lipped rhino products can be exported legally on the basis of a South African Appendix II export permit.

South Africa has been applying this ruling in exactly the same way in the case of captive bred cheetahs (Acinonynx jubatus): between 1995 and 2012 South Africa exported altogether 857 live cheetahs for commercial purposes. Two commercial breeding enterprises have been successfully included in the register of captive breeding operations in accordance with provisions embedded in CITES Resolution Conf. 12.10 (Rev. CoP 15) ‘Registration of operations that breed Appendix I animal species in captivity for commercial purposes’.  Therefore, registering some of the captive breeding operations for white rhinos in South Africa would be another option to facilitate the export of rhino horn without the need to seek the agreement of the CITES COP. Whatever is possible in the case of cheetahs should also be possible in the case of rhinos.

The South African authorities might hesitate to make such a decision. They attracted quite a bashing on the international scene, when they sold – completely legally – live rhinos to China a decade ago. They might not like to undergo the same political stress again, especially as the radicals are quick to call for international boycotts. This is a rather totalitarian and un-ethical approach, but many media do not hesitate to provide the needed publicity.

I do not claim that a controlled market supply with rhino can end all poaching. However, it may help. Time is running short for the rhinos. Decisions should not be shelved and the agenda should not be driven by ill-informed western animal lovers and by NGOs that make their money with emotional campaigns. Instead, the sovereign Government of South Africa should sit in the driver’s seat. After all, these are South Africa’s rhinos, aren’t they?

Note: This editorial appears under the sole responsibility of the author, and it does not necessarily imply that the other editors or CIC as an institution share the opinions contained. For further references and information about CITES regulations pls. consult the 9th edition of “The Evolution of CITES”, written by Willem Wijnstekers and published by the CIC in English, French and Spanish. Downloads from the CIC website.

Author: Rolf D. Baldus