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Why allowing the sale of horn stockpiles is a setback for rhinos in the wild

South Africa lost over 1000 rhinos to poaching last year. Shutterstock

A South African court has ordered the government to release a permit to the world’s largest rhino breeder, John Hume. The permit will allow him to host a 3-day auction of his stockpiled rhino horn to local buyers.

Hume is the world’s largest private rhino breeder. He owns 1500 rhino, just over a twentieth of the total number believed still to be in the wild. South Africa lost over 1000 rhinos to poaching last year, predominantly in the Kruger Park and in KwaZulu-Natal. Hume says that the proceeds of the auction will go towards protecting his herd, which he says currently costs him USD$170,000 a month.

Hume had been granted a permit, but it was withdrawn by the country’s Department of Environmental Affairs. A South African Constitutional Court ruling in April lifted a moratorium on the domestic rhino horn trade, upholding a previous High Court ruling. Hume then filed another court application to have his permit reinstated, which was upheld on Sunday. Such permits allow the buying and selling of rhino horn provided that the horns remain in the country after the sale.

Both the High Court ruling and the more recent Constitutional Court ruling are disappointing. While the moratorium was lifted on procedural grounds, the substantive case for a moratorium is profound. There is no evidence of a domestic market for rhino horn. In addition, a domestic trade contradicts the rationale of an international ban.

It therefore seems specious at best to argue for a domestic trade for conservation purposes. The only rationale for purchasing rhino horn in South Africa would be to sell it on to markets in China and Vietnam. The price of horn in those countries is estimated to be in the region of USD$60,000/kg.

Hume has been banking on being able to sell his horn, or see the huge amount he invested in breeding be sunk for nought. He has fought hard to be allowed to sell horn from anaesthetised rhinos that have been dehorned.

He has won the court battle. But the rhino horn auction that has been permitted by the court is a serious setback in the fight against poaching and the probability of wild rhino survival. The chances of the horns remaining in the country is next to zero.

The arguments for and against

The case for selling off rhino horn is based on two arguments.

Firstly, that without private rhino ownership, the species would be even more imperilled. Private property, according to South Africa’s constitution, should allow one to buy and sell as one pleases. This view defines rhinos as a purely private, commercial good.

The second argument is that an international ban has been ineffective in combating rhino poaching. Therefore, the only way to overcome the negative effects of high prices, which induce poaching, is to flood the market with horn that is cut from a cultivated herd.

The first argument is philosophical and has severe practical implications. Rhinos are our collective heritage – a public good in one of the purest senses of that term. The joy derived from viewing rhinos in the wild – public parks – is indivisible. To reduce rhinos to purely commercial products is to destroy the argument for public parks and the public protection of wildlife.

Hume and his supporters would argue that this is a false dichotomy. But they have failed to make the case that flooding the market with horn from commercially bred rhinos will help to maintain the species in the wild. This is partly because of the flaw with the second argument.

The idea that commercially bred rhino horn will flood the market, depress prices and prevent further poaching is without basis in fact. The international ban on rhino horn trade appeared to be most effective until a sudden shock hit the market – the escalation of demand from Vietnam in around 2006. Before that, rhino poaching in South Africa was negligible.

It is disingenuous, at best, to argue that the ban against horn trading is responsible for the upsurge in poaching. There is also no evidence that the market can be satiated by attempting to flood it. The risk of exploding currently dormant demand is too high. It also seems that traders like Hume want it both ways – to sell the horn for a price that earns a handsome profit but not so high that it incentivises poaching. Where this equilibrium is cannot be ascertained. So, it’s hard to understand how the argument can be sustained.

A government whose general bureaucratic efficacy is questionable surely cannot be trusted to regulate rhino horn in the manner supposed by the court. If one considers, for instance, that South Africa’s State Security Minister, David Mahlobo, has been implicated in rhino horn smuggling, the odds are not promising.

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