Massive South African Rhino Horn Stockpile Goes on Auction

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KayaFM, Johannesburg, South Africa

South Africa will be home to the world’s first rhino horn auction from 21 – 24 August, 2017. Last minute efforts to stop the auction failed this weekend after the country’s biggest captive rhino breeder won a High Court bid to force the release of his auction permit. South Africa is home to around 80% of the world’s rhino population. Despite rhino poaching statistics showing a decrease in the last two years, conservationists say at least three rhinos are still poached daily.

International Outrage

The Vietnamese government has issued an official statement reminding traders that importing rhino horn is not legal in their country, and anyone caught will face 25 – years imprisonment. One of the world’s biggest rhino farmers in South Africa, John Hume announced a massive online auction soon after South Africa lifted its ban on local horn trade. The Vietnamese government said that in line with the suspicious language options (Vietnamese and Chinese) on the auction site, it wants to reiterate that rhino horn bought through this auction cannot be sold in Vietnam.

Humane Society International – Vietnam (HIS) has now called on South Africa to honour its commitment to protect rhinos by refusing to grant permits for horn auctions ahead of the scheduled horn sale on August, 21. The HSI has described the lifting of local trade bans as a “gift to criminals’’. HSI said despite a legal purchase in South Africa, the horns bought at the auction have a significant risk of being illegally trafficked to big Asian markets. Rhino protection groups have been scrambling in a last minute effort to launch a petition against the bid. The only scientifically proven medical condition that rhino horn treats is fever. Big markets for the world’s rhino horn in Asia also believe that it treats cancer.

“While this auction seems intent on targeting Vietnamese and Chinese nationals, HSI stands with the government of Vietnam in sending a strong message that rhino horn has no medicinal benefits. Consumption and ownership of it contributes only to the extinction of rhinos, and those caught smuggling rhino horn into Vietnam will face up to 15 years in prison. “We hope that the South African government will play its part by denying permits for this auction to go ahead,” the NSI statement said.

There are two auctions planned for the huge stockpile (6 tons) of horns on John Hume’s farm. A physical auction takes place at his farm on September, 19 after the online auction closes on 24 August. Hume’s farm is home to a large number of white rhino which is a species listed as ‘Near Threatened’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

His project ‘Threatened or Protected Species’ or TOPS aims to ensure his rhinos are: “safely and regularly trimmed by a veterinarian and capture team to prevent poachers from harming them”. “The ongoing eradication of rhinos reveals that the demand for rhino horn is large and not going to die down anytime soon.
“Therefore, we believe that it is crucial to encourage the breeding and protection of rhinos; if we don’t, they will be heading for extinction very soon,” said Hume in a statement on his auction website.

The rhinos on Hume’s farm are dehorned and added to his growing stockpile. Unlike elephants that lose their tasks forever, rhinos can grow theirs back.

In response to the Hume’s ‘frequently asked questions and answers’, Wildlife ACT has written an open letter challenging the rationale for horn trade legalisation as a tool for conservation.

“The concern is that people will counterfeit legal certificates and bribe officials to pass through illegal horn using the legal channels you want to open up – meaning we are just opening up yet another channel. This will make it easier to pass illegal horn off as legal product, fancy DNA system or not, and we will end up with increased volumes of rhino horn moving out the country… We live in Africa John, that is unfortunately how things happen and one of the many issues we currently face – bribery and corruption. Oh, and Asia also has some of those issues… Let’s tackle that first. This isn’t Switzerland selling chocolate bunnies to Sweden.”

Regulations for domestic horn trade

South Africa’s current draft regulations allow for a foreign buyer to purchase a maximum of two horns. A buyer will also need to present permits [under the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (Nemba), Act No 10 of 2004, its regulations and applicable provincial legislation] and authorisation. The permit applicant will also need written authorisation from their country’s government assuring the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) DEA that the import will not be in contravention of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) CITES.

It is unclear whether the DEA’s ambition to microchip all horn stockpiles and to conduct a full audit in the country has been completed ahead of the controversial auction. The DEA’s Moses Rannditsheni said that the department’s conditions are that they must be able to access the auction website to enable them to monitor compliance. “We also want the bidders to first obtain permits from the department before they are allowed to buy any rhino horn.

“We want the public to understand that this rhino horn trade is local and not international, meaning that the rhino horn that is bought will not leave this country. Shortly after speaking to Kaya News the twitter handle for the auction stated that a permit would not be needed to bid and buy and could be obtained after.

The DEA later explained that horn will not be handed over to buyers without a permit.

Rhino NGO’s smell trouble

Save the Rhino, a South African based non-governmental organisation, said there is no information on any limitations to be placed upon bidders. “Although the auction website makes it clear that prospective buyers are required to hold a permit – presumably obtained from the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) – to buy a horn, there is currently no mechanism for potential bidders to obtain these permits.“Neither is there any information on whether and how the vendor and auctioneer intend to ‘vet’ potential bidders, though media coverage has speculated the buyers will have to be South African nationals or those with residency status in South Africa,” the organisation said in a statement. “We are surprised that Van’s auctioneers would choose to take part in auctions that have the clear potential to facilitate laundering rhino horn in the guise of permitted sales,” they said.

International criminologists and researchers weigh in on illicit horn trafficking in South Africa

International criminologists and researchers believe that the lifting of local rhino horn trade in South Africa may contribute to illicit horn trafficking and poaching. “Legalising rhino horn trade domestically in South Africa could open opportunities for laundering of rhino horn that can be traded legally in the country and then moved into other counties,” said Hubert Chueng at a press briefing on international wildlife trafficking in Cartagena, Colombia.

The same presser on the sidelines of the International Congress for Conservation Biology would later take a turn when two researchers began an impromptu debate over the rhino poaching crisis. The question posed by a South African journalist was whether the panel thought that the lifting of local rhino horn trade would possibly worsen the poaching problem.