Rhino Horn Harvesting – “A Shortcut to Extinction?”

Stephen Wiggins Article, Event, Petition 6 Comments

Banner image – Courtesy of Brent Stirton, Getty/National Geographic Creative 

On Wednesday (3 August 2016), I attended a live debate at London’s The Royal Institution of Great Britain.

The motion before the house was “This house believes that the global trade of rhino horn should be legalized” – The Royal Institution of Great Britain


The debate was between John Hume (left -South Africa’s largest rhino farmer and advocate for legal rhino horn harvesting and trading – reference Appendix 1) and Will Travers (right  – President, Born Free Foundation), with the Moderator Dr. Craig Packer (centre – Ecologist and Author).

The previous week, I had been reading a report of a Education for Nature – Vietnam (ENV) conference on “the need to fully prohibit farming and trade of endangered species in Vietnam following a lively round-table meeting with representatives from law enforcement agencies, decision makers, scientists and conservation experts.” The similarities (and conclusions) drawn from the proposed legalisation of farming and trade in harvested rhino horn are apparent:

“…….a growing number of people including frontline law enforcement officers, scientists, decision-makers, and the general public have joined the conservation community in opposing any measure that would permit endangered species from being commercially traded, questioning the wisdom of proponents of the plan to put profits over the importance of protecting wild populations of these species, and calling the commercial farming and trade of endangered species a “shortcut to extinction””Annamiticus, 27 July 2016

The outcome of last night’s rhino horn harvesting debate left me thinking the same thing – legalising rhino horn harvesting has a very high probability of shortcutting the wild rhino to extinction.

If you want my short version of last night’s debate, here we go (there will no doubt be a video of the entire debate available to add here sometime soon for your viewing pleasure):

John Hume – Rhino Farmer – For the Motion

Rhino Horn Poaching in South Africa

  1. John Hume suggested that the rhino poaching problem in South Africa started in 2009 after a moratorium in legal trade was initiated (this moratorium has since been challenged by John Hume et al., but the Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa has filed (as of 6 June 2016) an application for leave to appeal to the Constitutional Court “in the matter involving the moratorium on the domestic trade in rhino horn” – the outcome is awaited……). However, the 2009 ‘upswing’ in poaching in South Africa could also easily be attributed to an exponential rise at that time in demand for rhino horn in a newly wealthy Asian middle class and the misguided ‘belief’ perpetuated around 2005/06 in Vietnam that rhino horn ‘can’ cure cancer (Ref . “‘Cure for Cancer’ Rumour Killed off Vietnam’s Rhinos,” The Guardian, 25 November 2011).
  2. John’s initial defence of his “recipe” to legalising harvested rhino horn trading (in a controlled Government to Government model) stemmed from a simplistic (in my opinion) view of the positive control and influence any such legal trade could have over a complex market currently dominated by criminal syndicates. The assumption there could only be ‘positive’ results are not supported by any independent economic analysis (Reference Appendix 2 below). In fact the demand could well increase due to such market intervention, leading to more rhino poaching and a fast track to rhino extinction in the wild. Is opening this potential Pandora’s Box with ‘legal’ trade a risk worth taking at any risk/price? Are we that desperate and are we prepared for the potential downside risk that in all likelihood might ensue?
  3. John constantly referred to his current need for income to protect his stock of some 1,400 rhino developed over 25 years of rhino farming, with current costs (4 x past budget) no longer ‘manageable’ to protect his rhino from poaching. In John’s own words, his rhino would have to die if there was no legalisation of harvested rhino horn (or some words he muttered to that effect at the end of the debate post audience vote, with 60% Against the motion).
  4. However, John stated that he initially started out some 25 years ago purely for altruistic reasons to save and breed rhino (though he did derive income from trophy hunting of his rhino for some years).  To date, John has stored some 5 tonnes of harvested rhino horn from his own rhino (which John initiated to remove the horn from 2007 onwards “to deter poaching,” when 3 of his rhino fell victim to poachers). This ‘stock’ of rhino horn is worth an estimated minimum of some $150m USD (at a low market value of a ‘mere’ $30,000 USD/kg, high end is nearer $90,000 USD/kg). South Africa reputedly has a further 25 tonnes of rhino horn safely stored.
  5. So, if there is an open, international legalised market for harvested rhino horn, John (and South Africa) has a lot of potential income at stake (to say the least). Hence why I would suggest that the narrow ‘vision’ of faith in how a ‘legal’ market intervention “will” work to “successfully ” save wild rhino from poachers, could be somewhat clouded by the personal $$$ that will result regardless of success in saving wild rhino.


Update: John appeared ‘confident’ that the reinstated (June 2016) 2009 moratorium on national (South Africa) trade in rhino horn would be lifted soon following a catalogue of challenges by John Hume et al. since 2015.  Based upon 2014 recommendation there is work to be done to try to ensure that any such internal trade is not infiltrated by illicit rhino horn stockpiles. It would seem that South Africa’s DEA recommended strategy (2014) was to try to establish a ‘transparent’ national rhino horn database, to ensure all rhino farmers and stockpiles conformed to TOPS (Threatened or Protected Species Regulations), before seeking CITES approval for international trade (but to pursue international trade when internal trade is ‘ready’ was also recommended):

Taking into account the facts that the mechanisms for controlling a legal trade in South Africa are not yet in place, that the number of rhino horns in private stockpiles are uncertain, and that some private rhino owners are not yet compliant with permitting regulations, it is likely that lifting the moratorium at the present time will lead to laundering of illegal horn into legal stockpiles as well as smuggling of horn out of the country. These acts would tarnish South Africa’s reputation with CITES Parties and could jeopardise future attempts to legalise international trade in rhino horn” –   Department: Environmental Affairs (DEA), The Republic of South Africa, “The viability of legalising trade in rhino horn in South Africa,” Recommendations 2014 

Will Travers – President of Born Free Foundation – Against the Motion

  1. I think the most powerful part of Will’s argument Against, was the message that taking the risk to legalise trade in harvested rhino horn will send to all other exploiters of wildlife – that somehow, the tacit message is that it is acceptable to cash-in to meet demand for animal parts, no matter how ludicrous that demand might be and the risks taken to try to meet/control that demand.
  2. Will also made a clear comparison with ‘acceptable,’ well regulated animal welfare and what has come to pass in South Africa in the form of the virtually unregulated and abhorrent ‘bonanza’ that has been allowed to flourish in the predator breeding (‘canned’) farming, hunting and ‘big cat’ body part export industry. No matter how well John Hume, or anyone else might wish to manage his/their own farmed rhinos’ welfare, there would be the risk of many others getting into a legal market with no such scruples. The South African Government (based on past evidence) would no doubt through complicity for income/incompetence turn a blind eye to it all yet again (and the animal exploitation and suffering cycle would mushroom once more).
  3. If rhino horn harvesting makes so much sense, why did the South African Government decide in April 2016 against making a rhino horn trade proposal to CITES in its own name? Swaziland (Reference Appendix 3 below) has stepped into to make a rhino horn harvesting proposal (based on economic need for Swaziland, not for rhino) to CITES CoP17 for final debate Sept – October 2016. But Swaziland only has some 73 rhino and does not exactly seem to value its wildlife, happily exporting 18 of its 40 wild elephants to USA zoos earlier in 2016.
  4. Will suggested the way forward is not to exploit wildlife and take risks with their welfare for income (with some income (perhaps) diverted to fund conservation), but to seek international support, such as a ‘World Heritage Species’ recognition and funding. After all, we do provide Heritage (UNESCO) status/funding for important  monuments and sites etc., why not animated wildlife without killing or exploiting ‘some to save the many’ and often failing?
  5. Will also suggested that demand reduction measure can and will work, citing the example of a massive downturn in ‘appetite’ in China (2014) for shark fin since the state declared it off the menu for ethical reasons (NB. The sharks fins are ‘harvested’ on a mass scale at sea by ‘fishermen,’ but the live shark’s carcass is discarded overboard, so the ‘harvested’ shark slowly drowns through lack of water movement through its gills, or its bleeding wounds attract predators to its plight/incapacity).


  1. Trying to satisfy a nonsensical demand for rhino horn (“2% for hypothetical medicines, 98% for prestigious (sic) ornaments” Update: and/or speculative stockpiling) is basically unethical – the donor rhino is reduced to a mere commodity provider. Pandering to such demand just tacitly condones the whole sordid nonsense and gives credence to the legitimacy of the ‘market’ (be that the legal and/or non-legal commodity providers).
  2. Both sides quoted conservationist Ian Player, “Saviour of the White rhino  pioneering ‘Operation Rhino’ launched in the 1960sIan also advocated rhino horn harvesting (but perhaps caveated how and when such a market might work) – sadly, he’s no longer with us to contribute to the ongoing debate.
  3. A member of the audience summed it up well, when John Hume suggested that a negative response to legalising rhino horn harvesting would mean all farmed rhino would have to die – “well, no one forced anyone to farm rhino for commercial profit” – if the reason to farm rhino is pure, then seek other funding sources to support the farmed rhino. There is certainly an underlying current of mistrust of anyone (no matter the stated motives/claims) that somehow seeks to derive commercial gain from animal ‘utilisation’/exploitation – the deluded claims of the hunting and animal exploitation industries can be thanked for that mistrust, not to mention the complicit authorities that should be there to protect (but end up collaborating, or making poor decisions that just make a bad situation worse).
  4. There is no past example that bodes well for the potential market intervention proposed; no markets (except ivory, and no ‘legal’ trade has seemed to help there) has the same criminal element that the proposed legal rhino horn intervention seeks to control. Examples of ‘successful’ ostrich, emu and alpaca farming were mooted by Craig Packer as benchmarks perhaps, but none of the trade in these species has a predominant illicit and illegal trade via organised crime syndicates that somehow, a ‘legal’ intervention sought to control and influence (which is definitely the case with rhino) – there is no rational comparison to be made here. But perhaps the South American vicuña might serve as a more appropriate comparison. The vicuña has a fine, wool coat that was farmed to supply the high end apparel industry. Indigenous families seek to derive their subsistence livelihoods from corralling the migrating vicuña and harvesting their wool coats in a sustainable manner. However,  the value of vicuña products was so highly prized, that vicuña poachers sought to cash in, with some 5,000 animals  slaughtered (the poachers don’t worry about sustainability) in five years to obtain the animal’s wool coats. The  poaching escalated to the point that by 2015, 90% of exports were found to have been sourced from illegally killed and shaved poached vicuña. Perhaps this is an example of how market dynamics and criminality collude to produce negative results. The ongoing exploitation and plight of the vicuña still persist.
  5. Craig Packer also suggested that a ‘Rhino Spa’ concept might work – whereby clients would be hosted at John Hume’s farm for harvested rhino horn based treatments. Again, this sends out the tacit message that rhino horn works as a medicine and perpetuates the myth. Would John Hume and others be happy to earn income from that ongoing deceit on their own premises I wonder?
  6. The probability of the negative risks appear far too great to legalise rhino horn harvesting and assume that it somehow can only make a positive impact – once that ‘legal’ door is open, there is no turning back that returns us to where we are now. Market control is but an illusion, the variables and dynamics are not ‘simplistic.’ No matter how bad the current rhinos’ plight might be, there would be no forgiveness for making ‘simplistic’ decisions and escalating a bad situation potentially to a far, far worse one (just so some can profit regardless).
  7. Perhaps there is a way for all parties to work together towards a common ground. If John Hume’s farmed rhino are not “imprinted” as John claims, then they could be released into the wild. John says that his rhino should be capable of successfully surviving in the wild. If there was the funding for adequate anti-poaching protection (centrally funded within South Africa, plus NGOs’ support etc.) and the will existed to do this post the potential non-legalisation of harvested rhino horn later this year, then why not plan for that outcome of phased, wild releases (rather than John “having to kill his farmed rhino” in some self-professed act of despair)?

Post debate audience (approximately 250) vote on the motion – “This house believes that the global trade of rhino horn should be legalized

Against 60%, For 39%, 1% Undecided 


Commercial Farming and Trade in Endangered Species in Vietnam – A Shortcut to Extinction,” Annamiticus, 27 July 2016

Why The Rhino Horn Trade Ban Needs to Stay,” Born Free Foundation, 4 August 2016

New Twist in South Africa’s Rhino Horn Trade,” IWB, 24 May 2016

South Africa’s Rhino Horn Dilemma,” IWB, 16 May 2016

South African Government Decides Against Rhino Horn Trade,” IWB, 22 April 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 1 – 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

Appendix 2 – The Economic Argument for Legalising Rhino Horn Harvesting

This whole debate stemmed from a  Conservation Biology paper published in 2014, “Identification of policies for a sustainable legal trade in rhinoceros horn based on population projection and socioeconomic models” – one passage stood out:

The optimal scenario to maintain the rhinoceros population above its current size was to provide a medium increase in anti-poaching effort and to increase the monetary fine on conviction. Without legalizing the trade, implementing such a scenario would require covering costs equal to approximately $147,000,000/year. With a legal trade in rhinoceros horn, the conservation enterprise could potentially make a profit of $717,000,000/year. We believe the 35-year-old ban on rhinoceros horn products should not be lifted unless the money generated from trade is reinvested in improved protection of the rhinoceros population.”

The only potential way that a legal trade in harvested rhino horn can work (and raise “a profit of $717,000,000/year”) is on an economic level, to challenge and positively change the illicit rhino horn market dynamics (thereby seeking to curtailing rhino poaching and helping to ‘conserve’ the wild rhino species, not just raising income).

Leading (independent) economists/academics have cast doubt that such a complex, illicit market such as the current rhino horn poaching and trafficking industry (ie. a non-conventional model compliant economic scenario) can be effectively influenced with any proposed ‘legal’ trade introduction:

Debunking the myth that a legal trade will solve the rhino horn crisis: A system dynamics model for market demand – “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).  

Download PDF – “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 version, 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.

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” – “High-level report calls SA wildlife trade policy reckless,” Business Day Live, 13 June 2014

Leonardo’s Sailors: A Review of the Economic Analysis of Wildlife Trade,” – “…….using market forces in an attempt to solve the poaching crisis or as a tool in conservation policy is a delicate matter. The textbook narrative on market-based instruments can be simple and attractive, but it is also misleading“ –  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

The potential ‘downside’ highlighted by economists of any such legal harvested/stockpiled rhino horn trade may well risk more rhino being poached to satisfy increased demand stimulated by unwanted market dynamic changes and/or the volume of rhino poaching increasing to maintain the illicit trafficking syndicates’ profits/margins – if a ‘legal’ Government to Government market has a price of $30,000 USD/kg for rhino horn, the ‘illegal’ market will theoretically undercut that price and potentially raise ‘poached’ volumes to maintain income (thereby taking a short term market view, no thought for sustainability and thus accelerating wild rhino extinction even faster).

Anybody that says they are 100% certain that adding legally harvested rhino horn trading to the complexity of the ‘illicit’ rhino horn market dynamics can only have positive effects, is ignoring the current economic/academic study; to the contrary, on the fundamental issue of those positive effects being likely to occur the ‘economic’ models and theory says ‘no.’

Appendix 3 – Swaziland – Rhino Horn Harvesting

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 (with some in Swaziland joining the call for the legal trade in rhino horn),  rhino horn demand could spike exponentially and the precarious existence of the wild rhino placed on the precipice of extinction sooner, rather than later.

Comments 6

  1. Cherry Gordon

    Having just done a break down for easy reading (to be posted to wildlife groups and pages) one can only hope that the SADC countries that said they would support Swaziland fall by the way side and do not vote in favour of legalizing the sale of horn… This report is dynamic and should be read by many who oppose the legalizing of trade. The gap that exists within the CITES Appendiices in allowing trade between South Africa and Swaziland is a gap that must be plugged and plugged fast. Even the idea of allowing legal trade within South African can only spell disaster for the rhino. Poaching will continue, as the price paid outside any zone that has legal trade will still be much higher than than local markets. Trade must not be allowed to go legal.

    1. Post
      Stephen Wiggins

      Cherry, Thank you for the insightful comment – can you post to me the “break down” referenced please? All such material welcomed!

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