Scientists call for legalisation of rhino horn trade

Scientists say legalising the trade in rhino horn would help save rhinos from extinction. AAP/Australian Science Media Centre

Global bans on rhinoceros products have failed, and legalisation is required to save rhinos from extinction, argue scientists.

In a paper published today in journal Science, University of Queensland researcher Dr Duan Biggs and three other scientists argue the time has come for a highly regulated legal trade in horn.

Poaching has decimated rhino populations around the world, with the Western Black Rhino declared extinct in 2011, and only 5000 Black Rhinos and 20,000 White Rhinos left.

“Current strategies have clearly failed to conserve these magnificent animals, and the time has come for a highly regulated legal trade in horn,” Dr Biggs said.

“As committed environmentalists, we don’t like the idea of a legal trade any more than does the average member of the concerned public. But we can see that we need to do something radically different to conserve Africa’s rhino.”

The scientists argue in their paper that attempts to educate Chinese medicine consumers to stop using rhinoceros horn have failed to reduce the growth in demand, with rhino horn now worth more than gold, growing in value from around $4700 per kilogram in 1993 to around $65,000 per kilogram in 2012.

The scientists argue that world demand for horn could be met legally by humanely shaving the horns of live rhinoceroses, and from animals that die of natural causes.

“The legal trade in farmed crocodile skins is an example of an industry where legalisation has saved the species from being hunted to extinction,” they state in their paper.

They also argue legal “farming” of rhinoceroses would lead to more land being set aside for them, which would help conserve other endangered savannah animals and generate income for impoverished rural areas in southern Africa.

Terry Sunderland, researcher at the Centre for International Forestry Research, agreed.

“Removing horns from captive populations for sale would fund further conservation efforts,” he said.

Dr Sunderland added that technology is able to be drawn upon to monitor provenance of horns in international trade and should be more widely implemented.

“I agree with this piece in that management of resource would probably limit poaching,” he said.

However Euan Ritchie, lecturer in ecology at Deakin University, said the farming of species could threaten their very identity.

“This may be part of the solution but its certainly not going to be the solution,” Dr Ritchie said.

“There’s a moral question in there if you go down this path of saying we can keep rhinos alive by farming them, but in a sense you don’t have rhinos anymore, you just have horn factories.”