Melanie Verwoerd

The big problem with legalising rhino horn sales

2017-03-15 08:23

Last month Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa made two announcements relating to rhinos in South Africa.

The big news was that there had been a 10% decrease in the number of rhinos killed in South Africa for their horn. This was largely due to a drop in killings in the Kruger National Park and even though the killings in the rest of the country and poaching incidents overall increased, it was truly good news.

Except that in the same month she also published draft regulations to legalise the sale of rhino horn under certain conditions. I was totally gobsmacked.

While I was in Parliament I served on the environmental portfolio committee so I am familiar with the need for political compromises and balancing diverse demands – sadly even when it comes to the environment. But this proposed change in the regulatory framework around rhino horn is truly ludicrous and what is worse it is not new.

The exact same arguments were put to us over and over years ago around elephant ivory. In the end there were a couple of “fire sales” of stockpiled ivory and we saw what happened.

The research was done – and no one can refute today that it resulted in more elephants being poached and killed – despite the arguments from the pro-sell advocates at the time that it would reduce the price and thus the demand for poached ivory.

Yet, here we are again. Same arguments – except this time round it is about an animal that is far more endangered than even elephants.

So what is going on? The regulations came about largely as a result of pressure by some farmers, who farm with rhinos on privately held land. They have stockpiles of rhino horn that they want to sell – as does the government.

Selling rhino horn is a very lucrative business. It is estimated that rhino horn can sell for between $60 000 and $100 000 per kilogram. And with a horn weighing between one and three kilograms – well, you do the math.

The advocates for selling the horn argue that by selling it legally the price will drop as will the demand for illegally obtained horn. They also say that the money that will be made can be used to increase anti-poaching efforts. It is also argued that the regulations are very limiting and that the sale will be strictly regulated.

In a nutshell the regulations allow rhino horn and products to be sold and exported if the necessary export and import permits are held and under certain conditions. The main condition, strongly emphasised at the briefing to the parliamentary committee, is that only two rhino horns per person would be allowed.

Firstly, what was not made clear at the briefing, but is in the regulations, is that this restriction only applies to foreign citizens who travel to South Africa. South Africans or foreigners who own rhinos in South Africa can export an unlimited number. Secondly, the regulations do not mention over what period of time these numbers are applicable – so whether it is two per visit, two per month or two per annum.

The regulations also state that it can only be for personal use. Now one has to ask why on earth would people want rhino horn for personal use? Even though rhino horn really is only of use to the rhino since it is made out of keratin (the same material as our nails), people in Asian countries use it mainly for medicinal purposes. So are we really suggesting that people will sit in their kitchens and every night file a little more of the horn to put in their drink?

Of course people also want rhino horns as trophies, but I have yet to hear of anyone who is interested in a horn as a trophy if they did not shoot the rhino themselves. “Personal use” will almost always result in only one thing – the horn will be sold on to underground commercial traders.

It is clear that this part of the regulations is there purely to circumvent CITES which has banned all forms of rhino horn sale since 1977. And while I am on CITES, it is worthwhile noting that South Africa will go against the wishes of 100 other countries who voted last year against the sale of rhino horn.

So what then about the argument that a regulated sale will reduce demand and thus reduce the price and so make it less profitable for poachers? This is where we have to learn from what happened with the limited sales of stockpiled ivory.

All reputable studies and conservationists have shown that demand went up and poaching increased during and after the sales. It is really economics 101 – supply fuels demand. If people see others having it or using it – they want it too. To argue that the sale of horn from a few farms and parks in South Africa will be able to satisfy the enormous existing and increasing demand in Asia and thus saturate the market is just ridiculous.

Secondly, I have no doubt that those with stockpiled rhino horn will want top dollar for it. Otherwise why bother? Now if they agree to a fixed price of say R100 per kilogram, well then perhaps there might be some validity in their argument. But of course they won’t and so, as we have seen with the elephants, the prices won’t fall. 

And even in the very unlikely scenario that the prices do decrease, it will only mean that the poachers will poach more. After all, it is not as if the poachers are going to sit back and politely allow the rhino farmers to sell only their stockpiles.

Lastly, if the money from the sale does go toward poaching prevention (a lot of money from the ivory sales did not end up in poaching prevention as was promised), but the poaching increases as a result of the sale, it seems pretty much like a zero sum game.

The only way to curb rhino poaching (as we learnt from elephant poaching) is a sustained campaign to ban all sales and consumption of rhino horn. After decades the Chinese government has finally made the carving, buying and selling of ivory illegal from the end of this year. We have to seek the same outcome for rhino horn and not fuel the demand and confuse consumers with these kinds of sales.

The only people that will benefit from this sale of rhino horn are the rhino farmers, the speculators/traders and possibly officials and politicians who might get illegal kick backs. The one stakeholder that won’t is the rhinos.

So if you are one of the thousands of people who have continued to give money to save the rhinos – know that these regulations are really making a laughing stock of us all.

At the same time as we have been spending our hard earned money to save the rhinos our minister is willing to allow the sale of their horn – an action that will put them right back into more danger than ever before. 

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland. 

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Read more on:    edna molewa  |  rhino poaching  |  rhino horn

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