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OPINION EDITORIAL:

It is now legal in South Africa to trade domestically in rhino horn, after this country’s Constitutional Court recently overturned an eight-year ban on domestic trade, based on a technicality. This will surely help drive rhinos to extinction in the wild.

rhino
The author somewhere in Africa

Don’t for one minute confuse rhino horn farming with the conservation of wild rhinos – the two have nothing to do with one another, despite what the intensive pro-trade PR campaign may have told you. Yes, private rhino populations are an important backup resource for wild rhino populations. Yes, we have to find additional ways to enable private rhino owners to benefit from their rhinos and recoup the increasing anti-poaching costs. But this model on the table purports to be for the benefit of our wild rhinos – and that is misinformation.

Because local rhino horn trade is now legal, the barn door is wide open for the legal siphoning of horns out of the country and into the bottomless pit that is the Asian markets because of new loosely worded regulations with holes large enough to drive a tractor through. For details on how easy it is now to syphon horns out of the country, read Rhino Bombshell. Juxtapose that information with South Africa’s growing reputation for fraud and corruption at the highest levels, and ask yourself how confident you feel that regulations will be respected.

Some would argue that the demand for rhino horn in South Africa is very low and that local trade won’t be strong. Fear not, because human nature is such that a resource sitting in one country will soon find itself in another country if the incentive is strong enough. And we all know that international borders are notoriously porous when it comes to illicit goods. And in any case, local rhino owners can now legally send two horns out for every willing foreign national they can find to carry them out of the country for them (only for their personal use, of course).

According to BBC News, Rhino farmers like John Hume (who owns about 1,400 rhinos – some of which are in barren feedlot-type paddocks with food being delivered by tractor) will be a major beneficiary of this situation. BBC News also claims that Hume has five tons of rhino horn in his vaults from his private herd’s regular dehorning. They also suggest that horn is priced at about $90,000 per kilogram. Even the calculator on my phone can work out that his stock is worth $450 million.

Plans by South African private rhino owners to set up a central selling organisation (like De Beers did, to manipulate diamond prices) and encourage commodity speculators to buy and sell horn drives terror into the hearts of those who understand how financial instruments disconnect from the underlying commodity and drive processes that cannot be understood or controlled. Let’s roll the dice with wild rhinos, then.

Hume’s intensive breeding operations aside, my concern is this: Selling farmed horn will not reduce demand for wild rhino horn. It’s no secret that the Asian market prefers wild product to farmed product – “Farmers report a strong consumer preference and willingness to pay more for wild-sourced products”, and so there will be no let-up on the pressures that our conservation teams across the country face from the international criminal gangs that are stripping our wild areas of rhinos. And it’s also no secret that creating legal channels will help stimulate demand and provide a convenient channel through which to launder illegal horn.

I believe in sustainable utilisation that is well-regulated and ethical when the model holds up to stress testing and will ultimately benefit populations of animals in the wild (as opposed to in fenced farms and feedlots). Rhinos in small fenced areas are easy to protect; those in the wild are not. Ask any SANParks game ranger.

It boils down to this: Permitting trade in rhino horn will increase the poaching of our wild rhinos and hasten this wonderful creature towards extinction in the wild. If our private rhino owners wish to find additional ways to monetize their rhinos (and who can blame them?), they need to develop a plan that is not so obviously full of holes for our wild rhinos.

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Simon Espley

I am a proud African and honoured to be CEO of Africa Geographic. My travels in Africa are in search of wilderness, elusive birds and real people with interesting stories. I live in Hoedspruit, next to the Kruger National Park, with my wife Lizz and 2 Jack Russells. When not travelling or working I am usually on my mountain bike somewhere out there. I qualified as a chartered accountant but found my calling sharing Africa's incredibleness with you. My motto is "Live for now, have fun, be good, tread lightly and respect others. And embrace change". Connect with me on LinkedIn