Rhino conservationists have reacted with alarm and dismay to a South African High Court ruling that lifts a ban on domestic trade of rhino horn within the country.
Judge Francis Legodi today struck down the moratorium on domestic trade imposed by the South African government in 2009, saying the government had failed to properly consult the public before imposing the ban.
He also questioned the effectiveness of the ban, noting that rhino poaching surged to record levels after it was imposed. The country lost at least 1215 rhinos to poaching last year, according to official figures, and this year’s total is likely to exceed that number.
The High Court action to overturn the ban was brought by two rhino breeders, John Hume and Johan Kruger. Wealthy businessman John Hume has been a prominent advocate of legalising trade in rhino horn. Project African Rhino interviewed Mr Hume three years ago, at which time he owned around 800 rhino and bred around 120 calves a year for the game trade. His rhino are dehorned under anaesthesia every 18 months (rhino horn grows back, like fingernails) and the horn stockpiled in secure vaults. At that time Mr Hume had a stock of 1.7 tonnes of horn, and stood to make millions of dollars if trade was legalised.
The breeders’ lawyers argued to the court that it was their constitutional right to sell horn, which they described as a renewable resource. Harvesting the horn from living rhinos at their ranches and selling it legally would drive many poachers out of business, they claimed.
However, Cathy Dean, director of Save the Rhino International, told Project African Rhino that the motivation was ‘financial rather than for conservation reasons’.
‘We can see that rhino owners – state and private alike – are haemorrhaging cash with the increased costs of security, but if ownership of rhino horn is widened to investors, rather than simply game farm, reserve or park managers, there will be even more stockpiles to regulate and monitor.’
‘We’re puzzled by the judge’s comment that the moratorium’s role in adding to the surge in poaching could not be excluded,’ she added. ‘Does this mean that, prior to 2009, the legal domestic trade in rhino horns allowed sufficient “leakage” to satisfy illegal demand from overseas? If so, that leakage must have been significant.’
There is no consumer demand for rhino horn in South Africa, and international trade in horn has been banned since 1977. Opponents of a legal domestic trade argue that the only demand for horn will be from investors speculating on a future lifting of the international trade ban, or criminals wanting to obtain horn to feed the illegal trade to Vietnam and China.
The South African government has said it will appeal the High Court decision, and that the court’s order would be suspended as soon as the government lodged its appeal. ‘In the absence of the moratorium, it must be emphasised that all trade in rhino horn will be subject to the issuing of the relevant permits,’ it said.
Despite opposing the lifting of the domestic trade ban, the South African government is widely expected to call for the global ban on horn trading to be lifted when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meets in Johannesburg next year, though many observers predict CITES will vote to retain the ban.
‘If South Africa does submit a proposal to CITES to trade in rhino horn internationally, and it is rejected, what exactly will these investors do with their newly acquired rhino horns?,’ asked Cathy Dean.