New Twist in South Africa’s Rhino Horn Trade

Stephen Wiggins Article, Petition 1 Comment

Banner: Courtesy of SanWild, picture of a rhino killed by poachers for its horn

On 26 November 2015, South Africa’s, Pretoria High Court ‘approved’ a challenge by two rhino farmers (John Hume and Johan Kruger) to sell their stockpiles of ‘harvested’ rhino horn, overturning a 2009 moratorium on such trade.

Note: For those not familiar with John Hume’s rhino harvesting approach, this has been previously summarised and attached at Appendix 1 below. I can assume (until further study is undertaken), that Johan Kruger’s approach is identical.

The 2009 moratorium was overturned in the High Court on a convenient “technicality” that the moratorium had not been well advertised to the public and lacked ‘public consultation’ – so this “oversight” has been taken as a potential ‘self-approved’ South African route to defy the standing Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) ban on commercial trade in rhino horn.

In the latest twist, it has been reported  that South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) has legalised the ‘internal’ commercial trade in rhino horn:

South Africa Just Lifted Its Ban on the Rhino Horn Trade,” National Geographic, 23 May 2016

South African court gives green light to domestic trade in rhino horn,” Reuters, 23 May 2016

The lawsuit brought by two South African rhino ranchers to invalidate the country’s rhino horn ban is upheld, and the government’s appeal is denied.

The “South African rhino ranchers” are now able to cash-in on the ‘internal’ trade in rhino horn. But the question is how porous will the ‘internal’ domestic restrictions be in reality? How long before the ‘internal’ trade is seen to be supplying the illicit rhino horn markets well beyond South Africa’s borders? Will more ‘trade’ inevitably lead to more rhino poaching?

“International trade in rhino horn has been banned since 1977 among the now 182 member countries of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), the body that governs international wildlife trade.”

“But CITES covers trade between countries; it does not apply to trade within a country’s own borders. South Africa, home to the world’s largest rhino population, and nearly all of the world’s 20,000 white rhinos, allowed domestic trade in white rhino horns until 2009. That year, in response to a rise in poaching, the government imposed a moratorium, shutting off the internal South African rhino horn business” – National Geographic, 23 May 2016 

Given the levels of corruption in some provincial permitting offices, there are certainly concerns that legal domestic sales could become a conduit for criminal networks to obtain horns which can be smuggled out of the country and sold on the black market. We saw as much prior to 2009 when middlemen for Vietnamese syndicates travelled the length and breadth of the country buying up ‘loose stock’ of horns from game farmers” – Julian Rademeyer, a senior fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime

Leading independent economists  have clearly demonstrated that any increase in ‘legal’ (and ‘illicit’) rhino horn trading could stimulate demand and increase rhino poaching risks – “We find that a legal trade will increase profitability, but not the conservation of rhino populations” –  Journal for Nature Conservation (Published October 2015 version available at cost/subscription), By Douglas J. Crookes, James N. Blignaut (Department of Economics, University of Pretoria).  

On 21 April 2016, the South African Government rejected the call to forward a proposal to CITES seeking approval for international trade in harvested rhino horn. 

Rather conveniently, Swaziland stepped in just before the April deadline to propose the very same harvested rhino horn trade ‘theory’ (dated 27 April 2016) to CITES CoP17.

if Swaziland wins the right to export rhino horn on the international market then South African ranchers could quite easily send live white rhinos to Swaziland and then harvest the horns there. This is possible because both South Africa and Swaziland maintain an exception to CITES’s rhino horn trade ban. The exception allows them to export live rhinos to “appropriate and acceptable destinations,” an undefined phrase that stands as a potential loopholeNational Geographic, 23 May 2016 

So, if Swaziland wins approval at CITES CoP17, then the flood gates will truly be opened, rhino horn demand could spike exponentially and the precarious existence of the wild rhino placed on the precipice of extinction sooner, rather than later.

With regard to South Africa’s ‘domestic’ trade – “Legal finality has now been achieved,” Pelham Jones, chairman of South Africa’s Private Rhino Owners Association (PROA)”

The government has not revealed the size of its rhino horn stockpile, but the PROA estimates its members have around 6 tonnes and reckons the state has close to 25 tonnes. The combined 31 tonnes could fetch $2 billion by some estimates” – Reuters, 23 May 2016 

In South Africa it seems, the law (and working in cahoots with neighbouring states) can always be conveniently manipulated when there is “profitability” in the air (never mind the conservation risks presented to precious wild rhino).

Also read: “Lifted ban could feed illegal rhino horn network,” Daily South African Tourism Update, 25 May 2016


Rhino Fight

South African Petition –CITES, Upgrade our rhino to Appendix I

Event Page  “CITES, Upgrade our Rhino to Appendix I”

Global march for elephants and rhino, 24 September 2016

Appendix – Background Information of the Harvested Rhino Horn Proposal

The South African farm owned by John Hume has the largest privately owned rhino herds in the world.  The farm harvests a rhino’s horns under ‘safe and painless’ anesthetised conditions, after which the rhino is released back into the farm’s protection. The rhino’s horn eventually grows back after about two years. The harvested horns are micro-chipped and currently stock-piled in a very secure vault. Under South African law only rhino horn extracted by a permit (concession) Trophy Hunt, can the resulting rhino horn ‘legally’ be exported.

As John Hume’s argues that under the current law “We are basically telling the Vietnamese that it is fine to kill an animal because our tradition of cutting off a rhino’s head to put on a wall as decoration is acceptable. But your tradition of cutting off its horn to use as ‘medicine’ is abominable

Legalising the rhino horn trade may be one of the approaches that helps reduce poaching. In theory, ‘legal’ farm supplied rhino horn being released from stock-piles to meet demand will mean that prices paid will fall, thus making poaching less viable, plus making farms like John Hume’s more commercially viable. Changes to the governing law are being mooted in the South African government. There are several different options for extending the ‘legalised’ trade in rhino horn:

  1. One off sale of rhino horn stockpiles
  2. Domestic trade in rhino horn
  3. (Semi) permanent international CITES regulated sale

On John Hume’s farm, the rhinos’ existence is perhaps rather ‘synthetic’ but better than no existence. However, under the current climate, even on John Hume’s farm the rhino are not safe from poachers, with regular incursions.  Either way, there is no doubting the human ‘commoditisation’ or ‘canned’ business opportunities presented by the plight of the rhino.

In terms of rhino horn, then harvesting the horns (in a sustainable way, that doesn’t kill the ‘donating’ rhino) and allow legal export from farms ‘might’ help reduce illegal poaching, but what sort of world is that we are condoning?

Note: The ‘economic’ models say rhino horn harvesting has a high likelihood of increasing profitability, but a low likelihood of actually helping ‘conserve’ rhino(5) . Furthermore, the pro-harvested rhino horn trade supporters (Governments, economists and conservationists) ‘who think they can curb poaching by selling rhino horn and ivory legally have little understanding of macroeconomics or the sophistication of international crime syndicates(6,7)‘.


  1. South Africa Lifts Rhino Horn Ban,“ IOLScitech, 27 November 2015
  2. Rhino Horn Trade Ruling Divides Opinion,” Saturday Star, 28 November 2015
  3. Legalising Rhino Horn Trade Will Add to Poaching – NSPCA,“NEWs 24, 30 November 2015
  4. The Economics of Poaching, Trophy and Canned Hunting,” IWB, 2 September 2015
  5. Debunking the myth that a legal trade will solve the rhino horn crisis: A system dynamics model for market demand” – Economic Research Southern Africa (ERSA) working paper 520, May 2015, Douglas J. Crookes & James N. Blignaut (Department of Economics, University of Pretoria); Note: ERSA is a research programme funded by the National Treasury of South Africa
  6. Leonardo’s Sailors: A Review of the Economic Analysis of Wildlife Trade,” The Leverhulme Centre for the Study of Value; School of Environment, Education and Development; The University of Manchester, by Alejandro Nadal and Francisco Aguayo, 23 June 2014
  7. High-level report calls SA wildlife trade policy reckless,” Business Day Live, 13 June 2014

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