By Adam Cruise
Two of South Africa’s largest private rhino breeders have taken the South African government to court in an effort to lift a moratorium that bans domestic trade in rhino horn.
In 2012, Johan Kruger, a Limpopo game farmer and rhino breeder, introduced litigation against the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) and its minister, Edna Molewa.
He was joined this year by a second rhino owner, John Hume, from the Malelane area south of Kruger National Park, who applied to the high court in Pretoria to partner with Kruger, the original applicant.
The cases will be heard on September 22.
Under the Convention on International Trade in Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a ban on international trade in rhino horn has been in place since 1977 because poaching has jeopardized the survival of the species.
In 1994 as a result of its conservation success, white rhinos in South Africa were down-listed from CITES Appendix I (which imposes a prohibition on all international commercial trade in rhinos and their products, including their horns) to Appendix II. This more lenient conservation status allows the international sale of live animals, as well as the export of “trophy” horns taken in legal non-commercial hunts.
In 2003, Vietnamese (and other) nationals, and some commercial rhino breeders, obtained horn with CITES permits under the guise of trophy hunting and sold them illegally on the Asian black market.
Six years later, in an attempt to plug the trophy hunting loophole, the South African government placed a moratorium on domestic trade in rhino horn.
The moratorium coincided with an unprecedented spike in rhino poaching in South Africa.
Calls to Lift Trade Ban
At a Rhino Summit in October 2010, the DEA agreed to commission a feasibility study carried out by a group of ecologists and economists to determine the viability of a legal national rhino horn trade.
The study, published in 2014, stipulated that South Africa shouldn’t lift the national moratorium “at the present time.”
But it also said that the moratorium “should not be considered a long-term solution because rhinos are being poached at an ever-increasing rate.”
The moratorium, it was noted, “is doing nothing to relieve the crisis.” To the contrary, restrictions imposed by the local trade ban “may be exacerbating the poaching problem.”
Kruger and Hume, as well as the Private Rhinos Owners Association (PROA), a nonprofit membership organization established in 2008 (to which they belong), argue that the government should accept the results of its own feasibility study and immediately lift the ban.
Pelham Jones, PROA’s chairman, says that since the current rhino poaching crisis began, in 2008, private rhino reserves have lost more than a thousand animals to poachers valued at more than U.S. $32 million.
In addition, he says, “security costs us about U.S. $28 million a year. In total, we’ve spent and lost well over U.S. $81 million, with zero assistance from the state.”
“This Is the Model”
Rhino breeders like Hume insist that they don’t need to kill rhinos to procure horns. Rhinos are tranquilized, their horns sheared off, weighed, measured, and stored in a vault. Even the shavings are collected and stored, in the hope that the government will reconsider the ban.
They’re convinced that international trade is the only way forward, arguing that legalizing export of rhino horn would depress global prices and reduce the incentive for poachers.
And that a legal market would outcompete the illegal market by bankrupting criminals.
They believe that South Africa must first lift the domestic trade ban in order to persuade the 181-party CITES body to reopen international trade at the 17th Conference of the Parties (CoP17), set to take place in Johannesburg in September-October 2016.
Michael Eustace, a South African investment analyst, says that legal trade “is designed to reduce the appetite speculators have for buying horn—an appetite based on the prospect of the value of horn increasing because of the declining numbers of rhino. Trade should lead to less speculation in horn, which will reduce poaching.”
“If you’re going to save the rhino from extinction,” John Hume told ITV News in May, “this is the model.”
Earlier this year, the rhino owners asked Edna Molewa, of the DEA, to lift the moratorium. Based on the recommendations of the feasibility study, the minister refused.
PROA’s Pelham Jones says the breeders are frustrated at the government’s outright refusal.
He says that apart from hindering what his group believes is the only way to save rhinos from extinction, “the right of sustainable utilization is entrenched within the constitution of South Africa, and this ban or moratorium is in contravention of an owners constitutional rights.”
Big Money At Stake
Numerous conservation groups, including the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), say the private breeders aren’t driven by a conservation motive.
“This legal bid is by a small group that stand to benefit directly from the international sale of rhino horn,” says Jason Bell, IFAW’s director in southern Africa.
Last month, during a meeting of conservationists and advocates from around the world, including Kenya, Mexico, and the U.K., concerns over South Africa’s consideration of rhino horn trade were compiled and submitted to the DEA’s Committee of Inquiry. That group is tasked with investigating the feasibility of South Africa tabling a proposal for an international trade in rhino horn at CoP17.
If the ban on global trade is lifted, the breeders are set to make a fortune: One kilo (2.2 pounds) of rhino horn fetches around U.S. $65,000 on the black market.
John Hume’s ranch, with more than 900 rhinos, is the largest of its kind in the world. He’s been systematically dehorning his rhinos for years and is said to have a stockpile worth 240 million dollars, based on black market prices.
If trade becomes legal, Hume could become one of the richest men in South Africa.
Pelham Jones is adamant that although profit is a motive, lifting the trade ban “will bring much needed revenue back to rhino conservation.”
Hume concurs: “If I make this enormous amount of money,” he told ITV News, “which I’m supposed to be going to make if I sell the horn, not only will I be able to breed a lot more rhinos, but my peers in the country who own rhinos will be able to breed a lot more.”
Hume also reckons that with 25 percent of the nation’s population—some 4,000 to 5,000 rhinos—in private hands, “it’s vital that private owners and farmers continue to breed and maintain rhino populations in South Africa.”
Will a Legal Trade Stop the Poaching?
The signatories of the joint letter to the DEA state that “the assumption that revenue generated from a legal trade in rhino horn would necessarily deliver significant community and species conservation benefits, given the governance challenges associated with ensuring and sustaining its appropriate distribution, is potentially flawed.”
Karen Trendler, coordinator for the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Rhino Conservation Project, an NGO dedicated to conserving threatened species and ecosystems in southern Africa, says that if trade is legalized, there will be two parallel trades, one legal and one illegal. Together, she says, they’ll “wipe out rhinos even faster.”
Adam Welz, one of the signatories on the joint letter, is the South African representative of the global organization WildAid, which aims to reduce consumption of wildlife products. He says “trade will send a counter message to consumers, potentially creating a massive new demand.”
Ross Harvey, an economist at the South African Institute for International Affairs, says the pro-trade argument of simply increasing supply, thereby suppressing price and removing the incentive to poach, is Economics 101.
For Harvey, the rhino horn issue “is more like an Economics 505 problem, which requires knowledge of game theory, ethics, marketing, and dynamic modeling.”
Harvey says “pro-trade arguments often fail to acknowledge the power and sophistication of dealer syndicates supplying illegal horn, who are unlikely to allow their markets to be lost without extensive counter efforts.” This, he says, effectively drives up demand.
Will Travers, president of the Born Free Foundation, an international charity working to stop animal suffering and protect threatened species in the wild, says there’s also an ethical problem with legalizing trade.
“If South Africa gets the green light to trade, they’re inadvertently sending a contrary message to consumers that rhino horn has medicinal benefits. Not only does this undermine the efforts of global initiatives of demand reduction, but South Africa, by promoting trade in a product that blatantly and erroneously declares health benefits for an export product, is in effect cynically and shockingly exploiting consumers.”
According to a spokesperson, the DEA and Minister Molewa are confident that they have a solid case against the two rhino breeders.
But if the breeders win on September 22, the lifting of the moratorium on South Africa’s dometic rhino horn trade may steer the 22-member Committee of Inquiry toward recommending that the DEA propose to legalize an international trade in rhino horn.
And if they lose the case, that still doesn’t rule out the possibility that South Africa will propose legalizing trade at the CITES meeting next year in Johannesburg.
Adam Cruise has a philosophy degree in environmental and animal ethics from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. He specializes in wildlife conservation and wildlife crime and has traveled throughout the continent documenting and commenting on key conservation issues and crises.