South Africa Votes to Make Domestic Rhino Horn Trade Legal Once Again

Last year, a record 1,215 rhinos were killed in South Africa. This year’s poaching rate was ever so slightly lower, at 1,175 rhinos.

Those numbers are drastic increases from 2008, when less than 100 were killed, before the ban on the domestic rhino horn trade was enacted. And a few months ago, South Africa voted to lift that ban. But then the Minister of Environmental Affairs appealed the decision, putting the operation on hold.

The decision to lift the ban was made by South Africa’s High Court at the end of November, in an effort to decrease demand for rhino horns and save the rhinos from extinction. WWF Wildlife Trade Policy Analyst Dr. Colman O Criodain thinks differently:

“It is hard to see any positive conservation benefits from this court ruling, particularly at a time when rhino poaching figures are at record levels. There is no domestic demand for rhino horn in South Africa, so it is inconceivable that anyone would buy it – unless they intend to sell it abroad illegally or they are speculating that international trade will be legalized.”

Photo by flowcomm / CC BY 2.0
Photo by flowcomm / CC BY 2.0

While lifting the domestic trade ban would allow people to buy horns in South Africa, their purchase would still be prohibited in international trade under the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Rhino Programme Manager for WWF South Africa Dr. Jo Shaw stated:

“This ruling is a blow to the government, which imposed the moratorium in 2009 in response to a sharp rise in rhino poaching and concerns that the national trade was facilitating the illegal international trade in rhino horn…Lifting the domestic moratorium can only encourage poaching and illegal activity, especially as it is likely to be misconstrued as a lifting of the current international trade ban. Efforts should rather be focused good regulation of existing private rhino horn stockpiles and increased capacity at ports of entry and exit to detect illegal wildlife products.””

Just a few weeks later, on December 8, the Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa appealed the court’s decision, as South Africa is home to 80% of the global population of rhinos. But the South African High Court dismissed the government’s application to appeal, forcing Molewa to appeal the High Court’s decision to the Supreme Court of Appeals. The government of South Africa has not yet made it clear whether it will request at next year’s 17th CITES Conference in Johannesburg that the international trade in rhino horn resume.

Photo by Rod Waddington / CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo by Rod Waddington / CC BY-SA 2.0

Sadly, other regions in Africa are experiencing increases in rhino poaching, despite this year’s slight drop in South Africa’s numbers. At least 130 rhinos were poached in Zimbabwe and Namibia in 2015, which is nearly 200% more than 2014: 50 were poached in Zimbabwe, more than double the previous year, and 80 rhinos were poached in Namibia, up from 25 in 2014 and just 4 in 2013. These two countries, along with South Africa, account for almost 95% of remaining African rhinos.

WWF Director, Global Species Programme Carlos Drews said:

“After seven years of increases, a decline in the rate of rhino poaching in South Africa is encouraging and the result of the government’s leadership and the tireless efforts of so many committed people. However, the rate remains unacceptably high – and soaring poaching levels in Namibia and Zimbabwe are cause for serious concern”.

Featured image by Jason Wharam / CC BY-ND 2.0

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