Allowing trade in rhino horns in South Africa will undercut enforcement efforts in rest of Africa, China, Vietnam and other Asian countries. It is a major setback in tackling trafficking in wildlife, a renowned wildlife advocate has said.
"We see this as very dangerous and threatening the future existence of rhinos in many countries," US-based global advocacy Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Vice President for International Policy Susan Lieberman told IANS in an e-mail interview.
"There is no reason someone would need horns for personal use -- this would be a cover for trade, and would likely stimulate further trafficking and poaching," she added.
Breeder John Hume, who owns more than 1,500 rhinos on his private ranch in South Africa, has announced an online auction of horns August 21-24, saying "revenues will be used to further fund the breeding and protection of rhinos".
Admitting that there's a possibility that the limited trade in rhino horns will initiate demand to legalise its trade in other countries too, Lieberman, who has worked on the international wildlife trade for more than 25 years, said "poaching would likely increase, not decrease."
The government of South Africa, home to 80 per cent of the world's 25,000 rhinos, has prepared draft regulations for a limited export of rhino horns. It would allow foreigners to export up to two horns apiece for personal use.
The guidelines come in the wake of a constitutional court ruling in April overturning a 2009 moratorium on domestic trade in rhino horns.
India too is home to over 2,500 one-horned rhinos, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature. Indian wildlife advocates fear it could also lead to a surge in the demand for the horns of Indian rhinos in the international wildlife trade.
Lieberman, who has also worked with the US government, said "a legal trade in rhino horns stimulates demand and stimulates the market, which facilitates increased poaching and trafficking".
"It creates a flow of horns into which rhino horns from poached animals can be laundered. We have seen historically that the only thing that curbs poaching of rhinos and illegal trade in horns is a shutdown of the market," she said.
About lifting the ban with the aim of helping to generate revenues, she said: "Lifting the domestic ban in South Africa is about revenues for private reserve owners, and is a major setback in efforts to curb trafficking and poaching."
"There is no market to speak of in South Africa and allowing these sales will undercut enforcement efforts in other African countries with rhinos and those where horn is trafficked, besides China, Vietnam, and other Asian countries."
The international wildlife trade, which generates approximately 14 billion euros per year, is believed to be the fourth largest illegal trade in the world after drugs, weapons and human trafficking.
"Just as with ivory trade, there is no effective way to regulate the trade in rhino horns. In some cases, there can be a regulated commercial trade in species; under CITES, that is not allowed for Appendix I (threatened species) species. Rhinos are Appendix I, and there should be no commercial trade," said Lieberman, who foresees no domestic demand for rhino horns in South Africa.
"South Africa may allow export of rhino horns but that does not create a legalised international trade as they still need to be legally imported elsewhere and most source countries have banned the import of rhino horns, e.g., Vietnam and China," she said.
Saying that she cannot predict which country would be the main buyer of these legalised rhino horns, she added: "It's against the law in China and Vietnam to purchase or sell rhino horns or products with rhino horns; this would undermine their enforcement efforts."
"If South Africa proceeds with this, it could (be the end of rhinos) lead to an increase in poaching of wild rhinos in far too many countries, as well as undercut efforts aimed at curbing the trafficking of rhino horns."
On the demand of those who favour legalising the horn trade as this will help raise money for conserving rhinos, she said: "This is a commercial venture, and there is no evidence it will benefit conservation."
"Many countries and NGOs are working hard to change consumer purchasing behaviour in Asia, for example, and this will undermine those efforts. Many countries and partner organisations are also working hard to curb the trafficking of rhino horn and this will also undermine those efforts," she advocated.
A research finding published in Science Advances, an online academic journal, says the rhino horn is more valuable by weight than gold, diamonds or cocaine.
The rhino horn -- thought to have powers as a cure for cancer, an aphrodisiac and a cure-all in some Asian nations --currently goes for $60,000 a pound, says lead author William Ripple, a professor of ecology at Oregon State University.
Vishal Gulati is a Special Correspondent with New Delhi-headquartered news agency IANS. He was in Cartagena for the Internews' Earth Journalism Network Biodiversity Fellowship Programme at the International Congress for Conservation Biology. He can be reached at [email protected]
Photo: Jacques Marais