On 5 April 2017 domestic rhino horn trade was legalised in South Africa. This decision followed the Constitutional Court’s ruling against an appeal to maintain the 2009 ban on domestic trade. National Geographic said in an article published on their website on 5 May titled “Breaking: Rhino Horn Trade to Return in South Africa” that South African rhino farmers and smaller courts have been pushing for the ban on domestic trade to be lifted for many years and that the trade needs to take place within strict regulations governed by Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA). SA’s Minister of the DEA, Edna Molewa, told Traveller24 “that all domestic trade in rhino horn will be subjected to the issuance of the relevant permits.” This permit will also allow for foreigners to export a maximum of two rhino horns for “personal purposes,” according to National Geographic. The DEA reported to Traveller24 that its laws, regulations, and systems have been strengthened since domestic trade has been legalised.
Although domestic trade is legal, international trade of rhino horn will remain illegal. Despite this, there is concern that domestic trade could serve as a platform for smuggling rhino horn internationally. According to National Geographic, there is “almost no domestic market for rhino horn in South Africa,” yet a huge market for rhino horn in Far Eastern countries.
Many believe the poaching epidemic will increase because of the domestic legalisation of trade, including Kim Da Ribeira of Outraged SA Citizens Against Poaching (OSCAP). Da Ribeira says that many believe that trade will “provide a solution to the poaching crisis,” but that “OSCAP does not agree with this assumption.” She says that illegal trade will still be profitable and therefore poaching will not decrease. Instead, legal trade will only “create avenues for illegal horn to be traded or laundered.” Da Ribeira adds that the South African Government first needs to tackle the issue of corruption before trade can be regulated. In OSCAP’s response to the Constitutional Court’s ruling they say that they “welcome the [DEA] Minister’s undertaking that domestic trade in horn will be well regulated, but question her Departments ability to do so.” OSCAP also questions whether the DEA has properly addressed regulatory loopholes. OSCAP adds that the “draft regulations for trade were in many instances inconsistent and lacked vital detail.”
However, it is not only OSCAP that holds this sentiment. Dr Douglas Crookes of Asset Research and James Blinaugt, who is a part-time professor at the Department of Economics at the University of Pretoria, have conducted extensive research concerning the topic of legal rhino horn trade. Their Economic Research of Southern Africa (ERSA) Brief, entitled Towards conserving rhinos: an economic analysis, ultimately says that legalised rhino horn trade will not solve the poaching crisis. The research includes multiple factors such as rhino abundance, rhino demand, a price model, an income model and a supply model.
Dr Crookes says, “Legalised trade is a supply intervention. It is intended to increase supply, thereby reducing price (and supposedly, therefore, poaching). However, because poaching costs are less than game reserve costs, and poachers have a legal avenue to sell poached horn, poaching will increase.” In their ERSA brief, Crookes and Blinaugt saw the similar trends in abalone trade (abalone is a large sea snail that accounts for a large portion of South Africa’s aquaculture industry). The brief stated that both abalone and rhino horn have a high value industry in terms of volume, but stocks are vulnerable to illegal harvest. Dr Crookes says that “legal trade [of abalone] enabled poachers to sell their goods without encumbrance.” Furthermore, Crookes and Blinaugt’s ERSA brief states that “although a legal trade scenario boosted profitability for game farms [profits] were higher for the scenario that led to the extinction of rhinos.” This is especially of concern as South Africa is home to about 70% of the world’s rhino population. Crookes says that the legal domestic trade may have a positive short-term impact on South Africa’s economy, but in the long-run there may be no rhino left. This becomes even more likely, should international trade be legalised.
On their website, the conservation organisation Save The Rhino, that advocates for sustainable use (believing conservation efforts must generate income) says, “There will always be criminals who will try to undercut the ‘official price’ of rhino horn, by continuing to illegally kill rhinos in Africa. Rigorous anti-poaching and monitoring activities will still be needed to protect wild rhino populations, as will environmental education and community conservation programmes in key rhino areas. There is no single silver bullet that is going to solve the rhino poaching crisis.”
The fight against rhino poaching has been a long one for South Africa. Da Ribeira said that the poaching epidemic sky-rocketed in the mid-2000s. She says that during 2007, “13 [rhinos] were poached in South Africa and in 2014 the official poaching statistics sat at 1 215.” Perhaps only time will tell whether the legalised domestic trade will affect the poaching epidemic. In the meantime, however, many critics such as Da Ribeira and Dr Crookes have expressed concern for the future of South Africa’s rhino.