A group of international experts comprised of over 30 conservationists, academics, journalists, authors and lawyers from Africa, Europe, Asia and America has warned the Committee of Inquiry commissioned by the South African government to evaluate the feasibility of an international trade in rhino horn that even the suggestion of trade would almost certainly increase the risk of poaching.Controversial committeeThe Committee of Inquiry was established by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) in February. If it recommends that trading rhino horn internationally will be beneficial to rhino conservation, South Africa will table a resolution to that effect at the 17th Conference of Parties (CoP17) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Johannesburg at the end of next year. The international trade in rhino horn has been banned under CITES since 1977.Critics have questioned the composition of the Committee of Inquiry as being dominated by pro-trade advocates and while the Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, has stated that no official position on the issue will be taken until the committee concludes its deliberations, she has previously indicated strong support for trade.Trade would stimulate demand in AsiaIn an open letter addressed to Molewa and Nana Magomola, the chairperson of the Committee of Inquiry, the group of experts cautions that South Africa’s decisions will have far-reaching repercussions around the world.They emphasise that if South Africa were to propose a reopening of international trade at CoP17, this would “almost certainly increase current as well as future rhino poaching risk”.It would undermine efforts to reduce demand in countries like Vietnam and China, where rhino horn is used in traditional medical practices and is considered by some as a valuable status symbol. Legalising trade would remove the stigma that is increasingly attached to buying and owning rhino horn in these countries, legitimising it as a commodity and stimulating demand.The experts’ letter suggests that a proposal to trade the horn of the southern white rhino, the vast majority of which live in South Africa, would result in dire consequences for the world’s other, much more vulnerable species, including the northern white rhino and the Javan rhino. It does not consider this option as a responsible or viable solution for protecting a species that is currently “under unprecedented poaching pressure”. On the contrary, it would open the door for poached rhino horn to be laundered into the legal market.The open letter comes at a time when a group of South African private rhino owners are taking government to court over the current moratorium on domestic trade in rhino horn within South Africa, which was instituted in 2009.A question of ethicsIn Vietnam, rhino horn consumption has experienced a massive upswing in recent times, not least because of a rumour – completely unsubstantiated by any scientific evidence – that the substance has potent cancer-fighting abilities. Spread by the unscrupulous criminal syndicates behind the poaching and trafficking of rhino horn, this myth has led many desperate and often poor Vietnamese to spend large amounts of money on a bogus cure to diseases that are killing them or their loved ones.The experts question the ethical implications for a government that would knowingly promote the trade in such a product at the expense of the well-being of people suffering from acute and chronic illnesses. In effect, they ask whether it would be moral for the South African government to foster a world market in snake oil.Globally, there continues to be strong and widespread official opposition to legal trade. If South Africa were to propose its re-establishment but fail to garner sufficient support from other CITES members – a highly likely outcome – the authors of the letter point out that it would suffer significant reputational damage in the international sphere.Faulty assumptionsThe authors express concern that there has not been a sufficiently full and open discussion of all aspects of the legal trade debate and that important information and expertise from various stakeholders is not being taken into due consideration. They suggest that the arguments for the supposed benefits of trade are unsupported, hypothetical and based on flawed assumptions and a lack of real scientific evidence.The authors of the letter believe that the underlying causes of the current poaching crisis are “criminality and demand” and that “the real solutions are elimination of demand and working to strengthen law enforcement and successful prosecution of poachers, middlemen and end-traders”.It is worth noting that in a number of regulatory, legislative and policy documents published in recent years, the South African government has offered an interpretation of the right to the “ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources” enshrined in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution that is decidedly pro-trade in orientation when it comes to wildlife conservation.The draft Biodiversity Management Plan (BMP) for the White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) in South Africa, which was gazetted by Minister Molewa on the 31st of March, for instance, uncritically accepts the arguments of the pro-trade lobby while giving virtually no credence to contrary views.It accepts the premise that legalisation of international trade in rhino horn would result in reduced poaching – an assumption that has been discredited by Mexican economist Alejandro Nadal who is one of the signatories of the letter and whose research shows that the economics of markets in endangered wildlife are far too poorly understood to make such predictions with any degree of certainty. He believes that legalised trade may in fact have the opposite effect of increased poaching.The group of private rhino owners challenging the domestic trade moratorium in court also make the flawed assumption that trade would reduce poaching, but in their case, even a detailed report commissioned by the DEA and published in 2014 concluded that trade within South Africa in the absence of legalised international trade would very likely have detrimental effects.The draft BMP includes a telling articulation of government’s interpretation of the sustainable use doctrine, positing that because rhino conservation is becoming increasingly costly while “the significant value of the rhino horn trade is currently captured entirely by organised crime”, it is time that “rhinos need to start paying more for themselves”.Makes one wonder if the call for trade is motivated by a genuine concern for reducing poaching or by a wish to extract greater financial profits from rhinos as a “sustainable natural resource”.At the time of the publication of this article, the authors of the open letter had received acknowledgment of its receipt, but no official response from the Committee of Inquiry, despite repeated requests for a reply.