A controversial proposal to legalise the sale of rhino horn would require radically improved state enforcement to regulate trade and prosecute violations

“Decisive and urgent action is now needed to tackle the illegal wildlife trade in endangered fauna and flora. For many species, the illegal trade, and poaching which fuels it, [are] an ongoing and growing problem,” the London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade declared in 2014. Indeed, for some species, from pangolins to elephants, the future is bleak. And nothing exemplifies the seriousness of this more than the threat to the rhino.

In the 19th century the African rhino population was estimated at over one million, but only about 25,000 are alive today. Hunted to virtual extinction by the early 1900s, the white rhino has staged a comeback with a population of 20,378. The fate of the black rhino over the past 50 years is more worrying. In 1970 its numbers were estimated at around 70,000, but by 1992 this had fallen to around 2,410, according to Save the Rhino, a conservation NGO. In 2016, the African Rhino Specialist Group – part of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a consortium of organisations committed to environmental protection – estimated that by the end of 2015 there were no more than 5,250 black rhinos on the continent.

Rhinos, black and white, once dominated an area across southern and eastern Africa – from the southernmost tip of the continent to modern-day Sudan, with another belt stretching west past Nigeria. Today, significant numbers are found in only five countries. South Africa is home to 20,306 animals, Namibia to 2,768, Kenya to 1,122, Zimbabwe to 802 and Botswana to 287. Rhino populations exist in a handful of other countries, but in small numbers; only in one country, Tanzania, does the population exceed 100. The decline of the rhino has been long in the making. It started with large-scale hunting in the colonial era and has continued in the form of poaching. In recent times, the demand for rhino horn has been a major driver of poaching. In the Middle East, rhino horn has been used to produce ornamental handles for jambiya daggers – a symbol of coming-of-age and masculinity in some cultures. (As far back as 1981 a report in the New York Times linked the precipitous demise of rhinos in east Africa to this practice.)

In east Asia, rhino horn has been a prized ingredient in traditional medicine. Long-standing cultural beliefs (and recent mythology) attribute rhino horn with the power to deal with gout, rheumatism and fever, to detoxify after rich food and liquor – and even to cure cancer.

Perhaps more importantly, rhino horn is a status symbol. Rapidly growing prosperity in China and Vietnam has created an unprecedented demand: to share rhino horn with associates is to show that one is a person of substance. Trade in rhino horn is a profitable business, with deep and pernicious roots. In 2016 an Al Jazeera documentary exposed the extent of trafficking networks, with some even involving diplomats. For impoverished communities living near rhino habitats poaching for trafficking networks offers a path to a livelihood of sorts.

Thus far, the response to the plight of the rhino has focused on proscription. In 1977 the global trade in rhino horn was banned in terms of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). But it is questionable how effective proscription has been.

Over the past 10 years, rhino poaching in Africa has reached epidemic proportions. According to South Africa’s department of environmental affairs, some 1,054 rhinos were poached in the country in 2016, down from a peak of 1,215 in 2014. But these are staggering numbers considering that only 13 rhinos were poached in 2007. Some 4,448 rhinos were killed in the country between 2013 and 2016. Other countries have also been hit hard: in Namibia, official records put the number of rhinos poached over the same four-year period at 216.

Could thinking about wildlife conservation in terms of property rights and economic resources offer some hope? The recovery of the white rhino population in South Africa is often held up as an example of the impact that property based incentives can bring.

A controversial new proposal builds on this foundation. In April 2017, South Africa’s Constitutional Court allowed domestic trading in rhino horn for the first time since 2009. Although the government opposed the application in the Constitutional Court to allow domestic trade in rhino horn, draft regulations produced by the department of environmental affairs in early 2017 showed that it was considering legalising the practice.

John Hume, the largest private rhino owner in South Africa, followed up this court victory by organising an online auction, held between August 23 and 25, 2017, of part of his six-ton stockpile of rhino horn. Rhino horn, Hume has said, can be removed without harming the animals. This can be marketed and used to finance further conservation – an expensive undertaking.

Dehorning does not harm rhinos, and dehorned rhinos are of little value to poachers. Potentially, there is a large amount of money at stake here. A 2016 Reuters report quotes “off-the-record” estimates by conservationists that rhino horn was fetching some $65,000 per kilogram – making South Africa’s stockpile – believed to be about 31 tons – worth over $2 billion (nearly R30 billion).

Thus far, trade in rhino horn is purely a domestic affair. The international ban precludes moving rhino horn to the markets where it is in demand. For this plan to bear real fruit the ban would need to be lifted and regulated. Speaking to Africa in Fact, Pelham Jones, chairman of the Private Rhino Owners Association, set out the thinking: “We won’t win through a ban. It doesn’t work on a high-value commodity. You can’t change cultural needs overnight. What we can do now is to aim for sustainable use of the horn, to raise revenue that can be used to keep our rhino safe.”

However, a 2016 study by the EMS Foundation, a charitable body involved in conservation, argued that the legal trade in wildlife provides a means of laundering illegally harvested products. It drew on the work of Annette Hübschle-Finch, now at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Criminology, who has argued that legal trade will create a “grey channel” for illegally sourced horn.

Weak or compromised state capacity means that governments cannot effectively police the trade, while some officials cooperate in it. Neighbouring communities, blighted by poverty, have little incentive to protect wildlife, and have even been alienated from it by heavy-handed security measures.

Ross Harvey, an expert in natural resources governance at the South African Institute of International Affairs, agrees. The Hume auction  was  a  “disaster”, he said. “Because of the bureaucratic ineptitude around it, we weren’t able to get a clear sense of the extent of the local market, or how many local buyers were willing to proxy for Asian clients,” he told Africa in Fact. “More generally, a legal domestic trade alongside an international ban is confusing at best and at worst a laundering opportunity.”

These concerns are serious. Yet, clearly, a new approach is necessary. Could initiatives like the sale of rhino horn help to conserve them?

For the incentives provided by property rights is central to securing the future of Africa’s rhinos. South Africa has been home to an impressive conservation success – the recovery of the white rhino, which Pelham Jones argues would have been impossible without the private game ranching industry. Private owners are driven by both passion and economics. States, meanwhile, tend to suffer from a feeling that they are responsible for everything in general, but accountable for little in particular.

However, applying private property rights to wildlife should be understood to involve more than legal ownership. Such rights must be recognised as legitimate by broader society, and protected by robust institutions. Whether the marketing of rhino horn is an effective way forward remains to be seen, says Michael Knight of the African Rhino Specialist Group. “At present, both sides are invoking suppositions and emotion. It’s important to see what happens: who buys what and at what price. Information is rather scanty.”

The fate of the rhino depends on finding value in its continued existence, Knight says. This suggests that with property rights game farmers have an incentive to breed the animals and to pay for their protection.

But private game farmers and the state will need to “learn to tango together”, he adds. Farmers will have to ensure that their operations are beyond reproach, while states must be able to regulate the trade and prosecute violations. Weaknesses in enforcement mechanisms are arguably the main problem with permitting legal trade, and it seems clear that this has also proven to be the Achilles heel of the existing ban. Indeed, both approaches would demand radically improved state capacity.

Ultimately, there are no easily palatable choices. The demand that fuels the trade in rhino horn is, after all, largely based on unscientific beliefs. One solution to poaching would be the elimination of that demand. Education programmes in the consumer countries can play a role, as they have done in countries like Taiwan and Japan where demand for rhino horn has drastically tailed off.

On balance, then, it makes more sense to offer a legal, monitored channel on a trial basis – acknowledging all the risks – than to continue on the current path. Private game farmers and the state need to partner with surrounding communities to involve them in conservation projects, and offer them direct benefits from the nearby presence of the rhino. A portion of the horn sales could be ring-fenced to provide infrastructure or sponsor scholarships. Keeping rhinos alive needs to be more lucrative than poaching them. Finding pragmatic solutions to manage the crisis, while keeping a clear eye on their real-world impact, appears to be the best available option.

As Sam Muller of the Wildlife Justice Commission, a NGO based in the Netherlands, remarked to the Financial Times in 2015: “The data is clearly telling us that whatever we’re doing now isn’t working … and we need to be innovative.”

Terence Corrigan is an independent researcher, political consultant, writer, editor and illustrator. He is currently a research fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) in its Governance and African Peer Review Mechanism Programme and a policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR).

Marius Roodt is a Johannesburg-based researcher with an interest in development issues and South African and African politics. He holds degrees from the former Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg) and the University of the Witwatersrand.