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South African ban on domestic rhino horn sales in limbo after court overturns it

  • South Africa is at the dead center of a global rhinoceros-poaching crisis, with horns in demand in Vietnam and China for their purported medicinal value.
  • In November, the High Court of South Africa in Pretoria set aside a moratorium on the domestic sale of rhinoceros horn, but the ministry of environment later appealed the ruling, leaving the moratorium in place — for now.
  • The leader of a Vietnamese campaign to stop the use of rhino horn told Mongabay that if the court ruling overturning the ban is allowed to stand it will undermine efforts to decrease demand for rhino horn.

In late November, three South African judges lifted a ban on the domestic sale of rhinoceros horn in the African country, sparking controversy both at home and abroad.

South Africa is at the dead center of a global rhinoceros-poaching crisis. Rhino horns are fed into a black-market pipeline leading to Vietnam and China, where they are used for their purported medicinal benefits. In an effort to protect its remaining animals, South Africa placed a moratorium on domestic trade in rhino horn, effective in early 2009.

On November 26, judges Francis Legodi, Vivian Tlhapi, and Myron Dewrance of the Gauteng Division of the High Court of South Africa in Pretoria set aside the moratorium because of “substantial non-compliance” with the consultative and participatory process.

Two South African private rhino owners — John Hume, who is the world’s biggest private owner of rhinos, and Johan Kruger — had launched the legal action to overturn the ban that the High Court decided.

The country’s Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, appealed the judgment on December 8, suspending its operation and execution, according to a statement on the department’s website.

“The moratorium on the domestic trade in rhino horn thus remains in place,” the statement reads, emphasizing that the ban on domestic trade does not relate to international trade in rhino horn, which remains prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

A white rhinoceros grazes in South Africa's Kruger National Park. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
A white rhinoceros grazes in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Nevertheless, the precarious state of South Africa’s ban on domestic trade has prompted a chorus of disapproval from international groups working to end rhino horn consumption in order to conserve the animals.

Chau Nhi, the leader of a Vietnamese campaign to stop demand for rhino horn, told Mongabay that if the court ruling overturning the ban is allowed to stand it will reinforce Vietnamese consumers’ convictions that the horn has medical benefits. Anti-horn campaigners point out that rhino horn has no proven medical effect and is composed almost entirely of keratin, the same substance as skin, hair, and nails.

Chau, an officer for the NGOs WildAid Vietnam and Change said the ruling will undermine her groups’ efforts to decrease demand for rhino horn in the eyes of many Vietnamese people.

“If they know that SA has lifted the ban, they’ll come back and question and laugh at us,” she said in an email.

Chau said the mix of messages about rhino horn from the pro-trade and anti-trade movements is “fooling around” with Vietnamese people’s attitudes and beliefs.

“Our campaign goal is to end the horn demand in Vietnam so lifting such a ban would cause much challenge to our work,” she said. “We’re opposed to legalizing the trade as it would potentially stimulate the demand for rhino horn.”

Chau said rhino horn consumers in Vietnam know that using and trading the horn is illegal. Vietnam is a signatory to the CITES convention, which makes the international commercial trade of rhino horn illegal.

In South Africa 1215 rhinos were killed illegally for their horns in 2014; as of late August 749 rhinos were killed in 2015. Chau and other experts believe organized crime is responsible for the trade.

The Vietnamese wildlife campaigner said she doesn’t understand how authorities would be able to control a legal trade if they can’t control an illegal trade. Corruption and fake certificates would be “very hard to sort out,” she said.

Demand for rhino horn in Vietnam is very high. “Many people around us are using it and it’s easy to find them. It’s very easy to get,” Chau said. Ten rhino-horn users responded within two hours to a recent Facebook post by one of her groups looking for horn users willing to be interviewed by a journalist, she said. They didn’t want to be identified or photographed, however.

Chau said her campaign is finding it “very hard” to convince the public of its current message, that rhino horn has the medical efficacy of fingernails. And while it is having some success raising awareness among young people, it is failing to reach its targeted audience of Vietnam’s top CEOs, wealthy middle aged, and super rich.

One of the campaign’s goals is to support and strengthen enforcement efforts, but it failed to persuade customs officials at Ho Chi Minh City’s Ton Son Nhat airport, Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport, and Hai Phong’s shipping port to use trained sniffer dogs to search for contraband rhino horn.

In South Africa, rhino horn owners who stand to profit from legalizing the rhino-horn trade are the main proponents of lifting the ban. They blame it for rhino horn’s high price, which hovers between $25,000 and $45,000 per kilogram in Vietnam, and occasionally spikes to $65,000, according to research from the University of Cape Town.

One anti-ban advocate without a vested interest in the rhino horn business is Peter Britz, an expert in illegal South African abalone syndicates with Rhodes University in Grahamstown. He says the court’s lifting of the ban was based on a technical issue not on the merits or rationality of the ban or its effect on local trade.

“The court ruling is a very interesting one as it was a technical ruling stating the ban, which substantially affected rhino owners rights, did not fulfil legal minima for consultation with affected parties,” Britz said in an email. “It needs to be recognised that rhino are not ‘wildlife’ for private rhino owners – they are bred (farmed) for sale (harvest).”

Britz argued that it was necessary to lift the ban because it reduced both the value of privately owned rhino and dried up the sale of rhino hunting permits on privately owned game farms.

“With sunk capital of millions in each rhino, and some facing possible financial ruin, the moral hazard created is that rhino owners sell the horns to the illegal trade illicitly,” he said.

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