Guest Column

Legalising rhino horn trade the obvious answer to SA's poaching problems

2019-03-18 11:06


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Those who are opposed to legal rhino horn trading either do not understand the realities of rhino conservation, or have a vested interest in rhino remaining endangered, writes Peter Oberem.

Seven hundred rhino murdered in one year can never be good news. Why must we accept the deaths of almost two rhino a day in South Africa alone when there is an answer? To my mind, and the minds of hundreds of conservationists and game ranchers, the solution is legalising rhino horn trade.

This step will restore the value of live rhino, and give honest users of rhino horn access to legal and sustainable products. As a result, humans and the natural environment alike will benefit from the continuation of South Africa's conservation success story.

READ: Scientists fine-tune method to save rhino

Restoring the value of live rhino

South Africa is home to 79% of Africa's total rhino population, white and black, of around 25 600. When one adds the one-horn rhinoceros of India, the world has – at most – only 28 000 rhino of all species. Of this total population, almost a third are owned privately by game ranchers in South Africa. According to the newly released 2017 survey figures, 46% of all white rhino in South Africa (around 7 500 animals) are on private ranches. 

Ours is one of the few countries in the world where game has commercial value, thanks to two pieces of legislation.

Firstly, the Game Theft Act, Act 105 of 1991, states that when wild animals are certified as adequately enclosed, their ownership is conferred from the state to the owner of the enclosed area. Based on this act, wild animals can be privately owned and, being owned, can be traded. This gives them a value and turns them into assets that the owner is prepared to protect and conserve.

Secondly, South Africa's Constitution enshrines the right to sustainably use the natural resources of the country.

The impact of this legal framework is evident in both the dramatic increase in the area under conservation in South Africa (approximately 20 million hectare, or 20% of formerly marginal and often degraded agricultural land, is now private game ranches), and in the increase of game in the country (from an estimated 500 000 in 1965 to almost 20 million today).

More specifically, in 1895 there were less than 60 southern white rhino in iMfolozi; by 1990, the government's conservation efforts had grown the number to approximately 6 000. The spike to the approximately 20 000 white rhino we have today, came with moving of some of the animals into private ownership once the law allowed it. Consider that during this same period, the number of rhino in the rest of Africa had declined by over 80%.

Sadly, these days wildlife ranchers keep rhino for love alone. One of the many terrible consequences of poaching, has been the destruction of the financial value of live rhino. It costs at least R28 000 per month for anti-poaching security. In addition, some ranchers feed their rhino every night to attract them away from the fences, and dehorn them every two years at a cost of R6 000 per animal. The removed horn needs a permit, which comes at a fee, and has to be stored safely where its presence is not a threat to life and limb of the owner. A secure vault can cost around R3 000 per month.

On top of these costs, the ability to earn money from owning rhino has all but been eliminated by bureaucracy.  While selling horn locally is now legal, it is almost impossible to get the necessary permits from the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA). International trade remains misguidedly banned by CITES.

As hunting is legal again (albeit very strictly controlled), the reality is that a dead, hunted rhino is now worth more than a live one.

The combined impact of massive costs and almost no returns, has seen the loss of more than 200 000ha of rhino-range-land since the ban on rhino hunting and horn sales in 2010.

Legalising horn trade will do much to restore the value of live rhino, as these figures show:

The current price of rhino horn on the streets of Vietnam and China is US$60 000/kg (approximately R900 000/kg). Under legal trading conditions, the Asian retailer could earn R300 000 for a kilogram of horn (one-third), with R600 000 coming back to South Africa. At a tax rate of 29%, the government gets R175 000 to channel towards conservation, leaving R425 000 for the wildlife rancher – ample funds to cover the costs associated with growing the kilogram of horn.

Legal trade makes considerable national economic sense. South Africa's 20 000 white rhino can produce 30 000kg of horn per year, providing R27bn income to the country. The government earns R7,8bn in taxes, leaving R19,2bn for the rhino owners.

The opportunity to earn an income from rhino, will encourage more game farmers to keep and breed the animals, thus increasing rhino numbers and areas under conservation.

Importantly, these benefits will not only accrue to government and private landowners. Communities that keep rhino on their communal land will benefit on equal terms. The R600 000 that one kilogram of legally traded rhino horn can yield, is equivalent to 17 jobs at the new minimum wage rate for farm workers.

Legal access for horn users

Rhino horn is a recognised ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine; a market for it is therefore a given. In a legalised trade environment, access will be controlled and because of a likely downward pressure on prices, practitioners will benefit from supporting legal traders instead of poachers.

Legal trade is easily controlled through DNA identification. Every horn that is removed is matched to the living rhino that was dehorned. This means that any bit of horn found anywhere in the world can be traced to it origin – provided it was legally dehorned and has been through the Rhodis process at the Faculty of Veterinary Science, Onderstepoort. Any horn not identifiable is poached horn, and its traders can be prosecuted.

The conclusion has to be that the demand for illegal horn will fall and eventually disappear altogether.

Is there enough legal horn?

The answer is an unequivocal yes.

A rhino grows 1kg to 1,5kg of horn per year. With 20 000 rhino, South Africa can produce almost 30 000kg (30 tonnes) per year. At the height of the poaching scourge, poachers killed 1 250 animals in South Africa with an average of 5kg horn each. This brings the annual demand to only 6,25 tonnes per year – far below our ability to produce horn for legal sales.

Most importantly, rhino are not harmed by dehorning – it really is like clipping your nails – and ranchers dehorn already in an attempt to prevent poaching.

One cannot but conclude that those who are opposed to legal rhino horn trading either do not understand the realities of rhino conservation, or have a vested interest in rhino remaining endangered. Furthermore, government bureaucracy is destroying the amazing conservation story begun with the wise men who put the right to sustainable use of our natural resources into our Constitution.

I therefore plead with our president, who I know understands this issue, to do the right thing for rhino conservation in particular and conservation in general, and for all current and future rhino owners, including those communities who live on deep rural communal lands.

Please, President Ramaphosa, put your and your government's weight behind lifting the ban on legal rhino horn trade and ensure that the bureaucrats stop strangling our future.

Maz'enethole – may your cows calve.

- Dr Peter Oberem is the owner of Dabchick Wildlife Reserve and managing director of Afrivet.

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Read more on:    rhino horn  |  conservation  |  rhino poaching

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