Writer for Reformer. Writing on Wildlife Conservation. Graduate of the University of Kent - Wildlife Conservation & Animal Biology (BSc 1st class honours)

The only animal that needs a rhino horn is a rhino

On the recent proposal to legalise the trade of rhino horn

Rhino horn is made up of nothing but keratin, the same material that makes up our fingernails and hair. Yet, the cost of the material when taken from a rhino, is in the region of $65,000 (£52,300) per kilogram. Making the horn a highly prized item.

Rhinos are incredibly important to the ecosystems of African bush and savannahs, they are an ‘umbrella species—a term given to an animal which requires a large area in which to live. If this species is to become protected, the entire range of species living within this large area will also be protected. Moreover, rhinos are one of the ‘Big Five’ which also includes Buffalo, Elephant, Leopard and Lion, making them popular for the tourism industry which benefits the economies of African countries.

According to the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) there are fewer than 5,000 black rhinos throughout Africa. South Africa has the highest population and also the highest poaching incidences, with 1,175 rhinos being poached in 2015 (According to South African Department of Environmental Affairs). White rhinos however (due to conservation efforts), have recovered in population size and though there are now approximately 20,000 individuals, they are still a protected species classified as "near threatened" due to the poaching crisis.

It has been assumed that poverty is the main driver of poaching as it offers a source of income. However, a study produced by ‘Evidence on Demand’ indicates that this is only an assumption, as there is no available ‘hard data’ to prove that this is the case. Community members are unlikely to become poachers unless there is demand from a wealthier community because participating in poaching will likely be jeopardising their own current situation. For example, if local people were to poach a rhino off of their own back, how will they raise the funds to transport the animal to sell? What benefits could local people derive from this except for meat? Killing off one of the Big Five would be detrimental to the entire community, as tourism will decrease due to the decrease in animals to view.

Because of poaching, the black rhino is now a critically endangered species. This gives them the entitlement of protection under Appendix I of The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and The Environmental Management Biodiversity Act 2004 (NEMBA). This therefore means that it is an offence to kill, or be in the possession of any rhino products without the appropriate license. The trade of rhino horn or any other part of rhino, is currently strictly prohibited internationally (under CITES & NEMBA) and any person to be found in possession of it will face imprisonment or a substantial fine.

The Proposal

On the 8th February 2017, a document was published by the South African government, proposing for the ban on rhino horn trade to be lifted. The updated laws are to be for the ‘Domestic Trade in Rhino Horn’ all rhino species included. The document (as stated) is for the ‘domestic’ trade – meaning within the country. However, the document is heavily based on exporting the horn and how exporting is to be achieved.

The proposed guidelines will allow for 2 rhino horns to be traded per person with the appropriate permit, the horns must only be used for ‘personal use’. If a horn has been acquired from a different country, the person must obtain it through domestic channels - "A person from a foreign state who visits the Republic of South Africa, regardless of the purpose of such a visit" must have permission to do so and show relevant import and export documents. The proposal outlines many restrictions. The statements in the document are very broad and therefore can be interpreted in many ways. For example, 2 horns per person. Is this per day? Per year? Or per lifetime?

The Kingdom of Swaziland has previously suggested that the trade in rhino horn may be beneficial as the money derived can be directed back into conservation efforts, such as funding for the daily protection of rhinos.

Rhino farmers have the ability to remove the horn whilst the animal is still alive and the horn can then regrow (just like a fingernail). This, however, is a welfare issue as the animal needs to be sedated. Sedating a rhino can be detrimental to it health (excessive stress) and can also be a risky procedure. This method certainly seems to be a sustainable method of harvesting the product, which will provide considerable profits for the country. John Humes, a rhino farmer that is currently doing just this, is now sitting on over $35 million worth of rhino horn. However, with the ban in place, the horn cannot be sold.

The current ban is ineffective as rhinos are still being killed at an alarming rate, so are sustainable methods the only way? What implications does this have for rhinos? A wild animal which can no longer live in the wild. An animal subjected to a life in fences bred for the pure purposes of a product. This argument becomes one of ethics. Is it ethical to exploit another living animal in such a way for money?

Whether money raised from selling the horn is directed back into conservation, flooding the market with sustainable rhino horn has further implications:-

Full Rhino Horn is of more value rather than shavings

Rhino horn is of great value in Vietnam and Thailand. Historically, the horn has been used for its believed medicinal properties, though evidence for this is yet to be found. These days, the horn is seen as a status symbol. Having rhino horn suggests that the owner is wealthy, and a full horns are put on display by their owners.

Rhino farmers sedate rhinos to remove their horns, this can only be carried out 2-3 times per year. Removing the horn in this way can only be done in shavings, therefore a full horn is not removed and will not be beneficial to those using it as a status symbol. If an entire horn is to be sold on the market, it is likely that the rhino would have suffered pain, be severely mutilated or killed for the horn (poached). Therefore, poaching will still be an issue for wild rhinos to provide the full horn. Furthermore, illegal trade will always cost less than legal trade which has been the case for the international ivory trade. The executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency Mary Rice mentioned in an interview with the Guardian that "Legal ivory is now more expensive than illegal ivory, and what you have is the biggest upsurge in poaching since the (1989) ban”. Adding to this, Youth 4 African Wildlife suggests that “wildlife traders or criminal syndicates will always undercut legal harvesters of wildlife products as poaching is cheaper than game farming”. This will therefore continue to promote poaching.

Supplying the market will increase demand

According to a 2014 survey produced by the Humane Society International (HSI) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), rhino horn usage in Vietnam decreased by 38%. Furthermore, the survey found that attitudes towards the situation had changed indicating that demand is down due to the shift in attitudes.

More recently, Quyen Vu, a spokeswoman from the Education for Wildlife in Vietnam, explains that Vietnam have actually made vast improvements in regards to horn and ivory. If any person is found to be in possession of these products, they will be prosecuted. So now, after such great work and having the ability to prosecute, the product will now be legalised.

Given this information, the new proposal does not make sense. South Africa will be supplying a market that is beginning to understand the situation at hand. If the country wants to protect rhino, then why sell? The extinction for rhino will not only lie in the hands of the consumer (Asia) but also the supplier (South Africa).

Loopholes may be exploited by Gangs

Rhinos are in a desperate situation. But we already know this and we must keep working to strengthen the current systems in place.

There is a major concern in regards to rhino horn traffickers, the concern being that rhino traffickers will use the system to launder rhino horn using the ‘personal purposes’ statement to successfully pass through customs. This is a likely outcome as the trophy hunting legislation was exploited in this way. Hunted trophies can be exported from a small number of African countries (regulated by CITES), but secondary sale is not permitted. However, many criminal syndicates have found ways around these regulations by paying residents of Thailand and Vietnam to pose as trophy hunters as reported by the International Fund of Animal Welfare (IFAW). The posers do not actually hunt, a payed professional hunter kills the animal and the products of the animal are then directed to the black market. In 2013 a 44 year old Thai man was sentenced to 40 years after paying 20 Thai women to pose as hunters. Since 2009 300 rhino horns have been exported through this channel illegally.

Raising Awareness

Though the evidence would show that rhinos will more than likely reduce in numbers if the ban is lifted, it is easy to ignore the evidence when a quick decision needs to be made in a crisis situation. The demand for horn will still continue. If legal horn is available then illegal horn will be provided at a cheaper price, which will only fuel the black market demand. Moreover, legalising the trade will likely see that all wild rhinos are fenced up, as this will be the only cost-effective way to provide security for (what will become) livestock. This issue then becomes one of ethics; which opens more discussions, as we must consider the impact on biodiversity etc.

If this article has opened your mind on this subject then please share and help to raise awareness of this issue. If you would like to help rhinos further you can begin by following legitimate conservation charities on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Such as Helping Rhinos, a UK based charity working making a difference and putting incredible energy into conserving this species.

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