The trade in rhino horn has only recently become legal in South Africa again, after an April 2017 decision reversed a 2009 moratorium.
Since the ban went into effect, rhino deaths at the hands of poachers in South Africa are nearly 10 times what they were, leading some private rhino breeders to argue that international trade should be legalized to meet the demand for horn sustainably.
Conservation groups are concerned that a legal trade would neither satisfy the market’s demand for rhino horn nor stem poaching.
South Africa’s first “legal auction rhino horn auction” opened Monday online, amid a global rhino poaching crisis.
The auction tests the ramifications of an April 2017 court decision to lift a 2009 moratorium on the country’s domestic rhino horn trade. The sale of rhino horn across international borders has been banned under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, or CITES, since 1977.
John Hume, a businessman-turned-game rancher, plans to sell 264 rhino horns. His ranch in the province of Mpumalanga in eastern South Africa is home to some 1,500 white (Ceratotherium simum) and black (Diceros bicornis) rhinos.
Hume and other proponents of the auction say it will provide valuable funding to protect the animals. Others, including conservation NGOs, worry that legal trade only perpetuates demand and could result in further escalations in poaching.
A 2016 study in the journal Current Biology predicted that a similar legalization of the international ivory trade wouldn’t quell poaching because of the issues that governments would likely have in keeping the legal and illegal supplies separate.
The immediate concern is that “horn from this sale will leak into the illegal market and be transported to end-user countries, primarily Vietnam and China,” said Cathy Dean, CEO of the London-based NGO Save the Rhino.
China is the world’s biggest market for rhino horn, where it’s used in traditional medicine. A recent investigation by the Elephant Action League found that Vietnam, in addition to hosting its own market for rhino horn, is also a waypoint in the illicit international trade, from which the horn is then shuttled across the border into southern China.
The auction’s website was live on Monday, allowing prospective buyers can view the wares online, according to auction officials. But after a delay in the delivery of the seller’s permit, bidding was postponed until Aug. 23. Hume plans to hold a subsequent live auction in September.
In previous statements, he has said that proceeds from the auction will allow him to continue to protect the white and black rhinos living on his 8,000-hectare (9,768-acre) ranch. Security alone for the rhinos on Hume’s ranch costs $170,000 a month, according to the auction website. The site also claims that South Africa’s private rhino owners, who control one-third of the country’s rhinos, have collectively paid more than $100 million in security costs over the last eight years.
As Hume sees it, the moratorium has driven demand — and prices — for rhino horn skyward. He said the number of rhinos poached on his ranch has surged. More than 1,200 rhinos were killed by poachers in 2014, according to data from South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs, nearly 10 times the number lost in 2009. Though poaching appears to have slowed, 2016 still had the third-highest total this century, with 1,054 rhinos poached.
Fewer than 25,000 rhinos are thought to live in Africa, according to WWF South Africa. South Africa is home to roughly three-quarters of them. The IUCN lists black rhinos as Critically Endangered and white rhinos as Near Threatened.
Hume argues that poaching became a serious problem in South Africa only after the domestic trade was banned in 2009.
“Up until 2008, we had no rhinos being poached in South Africa because demand was being supplied by legal sales from live rhino,” he said, according to a 2016 article in the Telegraph newspaper. “Then they banned that trade and those sales were mirrored by rhino poaching deaths in Kruger National Park.”
However, rhinos in several other countries, including Kenya and India, have also faced heightened poaching threats in the past decade.
One of Hume’s stated goals is to increase the numbers of African rhinos through breeding on his ranch. Since poaching has become a problem — he has lost several dozen of his rhinos in recent years — he now has veterinarians remove the horns of the 1,500 rhinos on his ranch.
He challenges the notion that he’s cutting the horns only to enrich himself. He told the Telegraph that he would stop the expensive procedure if “his horns were worth nothing and my rhinos won’t be poached.”
“I have no problem with demand reduction,” he said.
His view is that the sale of the rhino horn, which he told the website Job Shadow he expected could fetch $10,000 to $15,000 per kilogram ($4,545 to $6,818 per pound). The recent investigation in Asia found that prices for raw rhino horn in China were as high as $60,000 per kilogram ($27,272 per pound).
“I have a way here, which, if we could spread to all the rhinos in private ownership, will supply a bloodless horn to the market,” Hume said in the video on the auction site.
But organizations like Save the Rhino are concerned about the ultimate destination of the horns. The auction website is available in Chinese and Vietnamese, in addition to English, perhaps indicating who will be buying the horns.
If the rhino horn sold at auction can only be sold within South Africa, “Is it going to be Chinese or Vietnamese with South Africa residency who are primarily buying these horns?” Dean asked.
She said it was also disconcerting that early reports in the press referred to “anonymous” online bidding on the lots for sale.
The office of Edna Molewa, the Minister of Environmental Affairs, issued a statement Monday morning that addressed that issue.
“The Department [of Environmental Affairs] must be granted access to the online auction to do the necessary compliance monitoring,” it read.
“I think that statement is absolutely true,” Dean said, “because if you’re doing to track these horns to make sure they are only sold domestically and not exported illegally, then surely in order to do that, you must know who the buyers are.”
Similarly, it’s uncertain how the release of this much rhino horn onto the market — reported to be 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) —will do to the price of poached rhino horn.
Dean said that her colleagues have found that buyers in Vietnam have a distinct preference for horns from wild rhinos. They argue that the horns from wild rhinos have a higher mineral content from a more varied plant diet than animals that have been living on farms, like Hume’s.
And other questions exist. For example, “Is there a premium for a horn that was harvested from a dead rhino as opposed to a living animal?” Dean said.
She is sympathetic to Hume’s need to finance the protection of his rhinos, and she said his goal of increasing the number of rhinos is “laudable.”
Still, at this point, we don’t know what the repercussions will be of holding such an auction, she said.
“You have to take an evidence-based approach to this,” Dean said. “These are all the great gaps in the research and the knowledge, which is why we feel it’s incredibly dangerous to go ahead with this live auction now without knowing the answers to these questions.”
Lusseau, D., & Lee, P. C. (2016). Can we sustainably harvest ivory? Current Biology, 26(21), 2951-2956.
Banner image of a white rhino by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.
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