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Legalising rhino horn: The South African perspective

15th November 2011

By: In On Africa IOA


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The number of rhinos killed as a result of poaching in South Africa has been on the rise again of late, due to a high demand for rhino horn emanating from the East. It is estimated that more than 460 rhino have been poached in the country between 2009 and 2010 alone.(2) This has sparked major concern within domestic and international conservationist circles and from other stakeholders; bringing about a debate regarding the kinds of deterrence measures that can be put into place to curb illegal poaching, or to allow for a less cruel process of dehorning in which the animals lives are spared. The foremost option being deliberated at present is whether legalising the trade in rhino horn could allow for the regulation thereof, and for the profits of the market to be able to enter the economy legally. This paper will examine the debates surrounding the topic, within the South African context.

The current state of the black market


The trade in rhino horn was banned in 1976 through the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) by those states that are signatories to it. What’s more, China in 1993 banned any use of rhino horn, or products from other endangered animals, in traditional Chinese medicine.(3) Despite this, the banning may well have contributed to a rise in demand for rhino horn along with a rise in its trading value, considering that it would by implication limit the supply available for the markets that seek it.

All evidence suggests that the illegal rhino horn industry is an exceptionally lucrative one at present. With rhino horn now fetching between US$ 50,000 and US$ 60,000 per kilogram on the black market in Asia(4), it rivals the value of gold; and with demand for the product being so high it is not too difficult to understand why poachers and ‘hunters’ alike have been in a mad dash to supply this demand. In fact, more rhinos have been poached in the last year in South Africa alone than the combined total over the last decade(5) with illegal horn trades, along with bogus trophy hunts for rhinos, thought to generate US$ 14 million every year.(6)


The primary markets for rhino horn are situated in the East, with China, Thailand, Vietnam and Yemen being the predominant destinations for the product. Rhino horn is thought to have a wide range of medicinal uses, including the elimination of fever, the treatment of stroke sufferers, and even in curing cancer.(7) Over-and-above medical application, rhino horn has long been used for ornamental and decorative purposes in Yemen in particular where dagger handles are fashioned from the horn.(8)

The potential of a legalised market

Many experts claim that by decriminalising the trade in rhino horn, the product harvested from dehorned rhino could flood the market, and thereby deter poaching. This measure would reduce the value of the horn by making it more readily available on the open market, and therefore limit the reward incentive that prompts poaching. In this scenario, it is argued, rhino numbers could be conserved through dehorning the animals; and by that means transform rhino horn into a renewable resource (as rhinos are able to regrow their horn over time). States could thus regulate the industry and maintain their rhino populations while gaining access to funds from the trade of rhino horn, which could be redirected to conservation and protection efforts.(9)

Michael Eustace, a private investment manager(10), estimates that South Africa could sustainably provide 1,200 horns per annum without killing a single rhino. His assessment is that roughly 400 horns could be provided through natural deaths from both private and state-owned contributions, and that a further 400 could be dispensed from existing stocks, while the remaining 400 could originate from game farmers who cropped only half the horns of their rhinos.

Further from these approximated figures, and even under conditions of a lowered rhino horn commodity price emerging as a result of increased supply, the rhino horn industry could bring several million Rand into the South African economy annually – in the region of ZAR 500 million per annum. According to Eustace(11), “banning trade has been ineffectual and has pushed the trade of rhino horn underground and money is being made by criminals rather than parks”. Thus, in his estimation, legalising rhino horn would bring substantial reward to economies that traded it. This contention is illustrated by the fact that on the black market a single horn is more valuable than a live rhino sold on auction, which may fetch about ZAR 300,000.(12)

In the face of campaigns that have tried to illustrate the invalidation of notions of the potency of rhino horn from a scientific perspective, the demand for this illicit commodity has not abated. While some may assert that there is an ethical threshold that is being violated by considering to sanction the sale of a product that is used on the basis of cultural myths and at the expense of animals; many in favour of permitting legal rhino horn trade believe that such moralistic questions should not enter into the debate as it should be approached from the viewpoint of it just being business – a business that can be regulated for the benefit of the survival of the species.

This has led groups such as the African Conservation Foundation and large-scale rhino farmers such as South African John Hume, to push for the legalisation of trade in rhino horn. Hume in particular has been a “driving force” behind a call for the international trade in white rhino horn, which is obtained through the use of tranquilisers, to be made allowable. This is a method that Hume makes use of already, dehorning his rhinos in two-year intervals, thereby saving them from being poached and racking up a half-ton collection of rhino horn. And since male rhinos are able to grow 1kg of horn per year, while females manage 600g, this could therefore be seen as a sustainable endeavour.(13) In fact, it may incentivise rhino farming to the extent that the global rhino population may be boosted.

These kinds of realities and estimates have prompted the South African government to investigate the viability of a legal rhino horn industry in the country. An announcement was made in the beginning of October 2011, stating that the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs (DWEA) has commissioned a feasibility study to this effect. This would include a global competitive market research study related to those markets that are involved in rhino horn. The outcome hereof may not be known for some time, but what can be sure is that the legalisation question will continue to receive fierce opposition.

Arguments against legalisation

There are many justifications also presented against a legitimised rhino horn market. Not least among these is the question of how likely a global process of decriminalising such trade would be. This would have to involve serious lobbying with signatories to CITES to garner sufficient consensus that would bring forth a legal and well-regulated international trade. In absence hereof, bilateral arrangements could be reached with states wishing to trade in rhino horn, thereby only necessitating legislative amendments within these countries, and their withdrawal from CITES and any other relevant treaty. This would, however, certainly be frowned upon within the international domain, as it would take place contrary to international consensus.

What’s more, there are concerns that while legalisation might work for South Africa as the country boasts the world’s largest rhino population.(14) Nonetheless, this endeavor is less likely to be feasible in other countries due to depleted rhino populations. As a result hereof, there will be difficulty in securing buy-in from other signatories to bring forward a global reform, considering that they would have little interest in doing so. Over-and-above this, there are questions about how the legal trade could be efficiently regulated at a domestic level within South Africa, and how the decriminalistion and start-up process of trading in rhino horn would be funded.

Another key argument against legal trade where the product is obtained through dehorning, is that there may not be enough rhino to satisfy the demand for horn in this scenario(15) – particularly considering the relatively slow rate with which the horn grows back. Although it is put forward that the price will serve to balance demand with supply, skeptics note that initial demand could be supplied by the existing stockpiles but that once this is exhausted, the existing meagre rhino population would be hard-pressed to continue to meet this demand. As put by the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA): “rhino horn is valuable because of the simple economics of the situation – demand far exceeds supply”(16). In fact, according to Dr. Gerhard Damm, the market would need to generate nearly 68 tons per annum to supply the demand emanating from China alone.(17)

Unease has also been expressed surrounding the suggested tranquilisation of rhinos for dehorning, with regards to the well-being of the animals. There are risks that are attached to the regular use of drugs on the rhino population. These include the possibility of injury or death, as well as the potential inhibitory impacts on the reproduction capacity of female rhinos.(18)

Harmful or helpful?

It is very difficult to establish, with the evidence available at present, whether the overall impact of a legal international trade in rhino horn would be harmful or helpful, and whether it would be a financially feasible and practical venture. The figures procurable at this point appear to be based largely on speculation. Moreover, for many people this is a debate about ethics, and whether there is an ethical vindication on either side of the debate. More questions arise from this than answers: Should animals have to pay the price for human benefit? Should their physical integrity not be protected in its entirety? Will legalisation have a positive impact on rhino conservation in actuality? Is this really a feasible endeavor to be pursuing?

What is clear, however, is that a more all-encompassing and conclusive study is needed on the matter. It must be able to hold the advantages and disadvantages against each other, present a clear cost-benefit analysis for a scenario of legal trade, and determine the viability of the undertaking. The study commissioned by the DWEA must aim to do this.


(1) Contact Lisa Otto through Consultancy Africa Intelligence Industry and Business unit (
(2) Allan Moore, ‘Drivers of the trade in rhino horn’, 2011.
(3) Endangered Wildlife Trust, ‘Frequently Asked Questions: Rhino Dehorning’,
(4) Ibid.
(5) ‘Should rhino horn be legalised’, 3 News,
(6) Michael Eustace, ‘Current supply and demand in the rhino horn market – a model for regulating the rhino horn trade (rewards to trade)’, 2011.
(7) Allan Moore, idem.
(8) Michael Rolfes, ‘Regulating the rhino horn trade: economic considerations and implications for policy’, 2011.
(9) Ibid.
(10) Michael Eustace, idem.
(11) Ibid.
(12) Sue Blaine, ‘Unbanning trade in rhino could curb poaching’,
(13) Richard Slater-Jones, Sharda Naidoo, ‘Dilemma about horns’,
(14) WESSA, ‘Rhino Initiative’,
(15) Michael Eustace, ‘Make global rhino horn trade legal’,
(16) WESSA, idem.
(17) Ibid.
(18) Cathy Dean and Jake Veasy, ‘A legal trade in rhino horn?’,

Written by Lisa Otto (1)


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