Changing Planet

South African Government Taken to Court Over Rhino Horn Trade Moratorium

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.

  • OMG Kids

    Someone should sue the rhino breeders for wasting everyone’s valuable time in the interest of getting even richer. Breeders that shave off the rhino horns and stockpile them are treating rhinos as cattle. They fail to realize the damage they are doing to the ‘Crash’ dynamics (a crash is the term for a group of rhinos). In a ‘crash’ there is usually one dominant male which is mainly decided by the size of their horn and they have the breeding rights. Rhino farmers that shave off the horn in the supposed interest of saving the animal are disrupting the dynamics of the ‘crash’, not to mention that the horns eventually regrow but when they do they are usually deformed.

    If these rhino breeders were sincerely doing this for conservation, then why don’t they just give-away all their stockpiles to China and Vietnam? As long as they can not legally sell the horns, they are not making any revenue yet they continue to thrive and operate. If they gave away all the horns to saturate the market, they would continue on as normal and according to them, satisfy the demand which would decrease the need to poach the poor animals. I’m just saying.

  • Margot

    It has been stated that the increase in poaching was a result of the moratorium on internal horn trade but actually he high poaching is due to pro-traders campaigning for local communities to join their investment scheme (reducing rhinos to a $ value rather than a conservation value) and also because the criminal syndicates (that the pro-traders encouraged) have ignored international bans and recruited locals to poach what is denied them. Should we allow South Africa’s rhinos to be held hostage to these criminal elements? Rhinos are going extinct in the wild and trade is causing this. We need to get all rhinos back on Appendix I, raise their conservation status to Endangered and burn the stockpiles. This will send a message to the poachers, smugglers, end users and investors: Rhino horn is off the menu.

  • Dave Johnson

    It seems to me that anyone who takes the time and huge expense to farm something like rhino should be entitled to dispose of the proceeds of his efforts and make a profit. We are happy to commercially farm and then slaughter a whole host of animals for food in their millions EVERY DAY, but somehow when it comes to harmlessly harvesting horn from farmed rhino’s there’s an outcry?

    It’s funny, John Hume can’t cut off a rhino’s horn and sell it because of the poor rhino, but everyone would be quite happy if he sold one to an Asian zoo where the rhino would spend it’s life alone in a tiny cage pacing a concrete floor, because THAT’S legal?

  • Enviro Econ

    I agree with Ross Harvey that this is more complex than simply driving down the price of rhino horn by meeting demand with increased supply. However its highly unlikely that we can curb demand effectively through increased education and awareness. People of all levels of education and cultural background take homeopathic &natural remedies, lotions and ‘cure-alls’ in the hope that it will produce claimed health outcomes often with no double-blind test proof of their efficacy or scientific basis. Those who believe rhino horn have some special properties are consequently unlikely to change their minds anytime soon. In the meanwhile a market solution may be helpful in preserving the species. I think however it would have to be a highly regulated market – the supply would need to be tightly controlled by conservation authorities, it would need to be auctioned, all proceeds would need to go to conservation efforts (and not to for-profit breeders). There would need to be sufficient supply to drive the price down so that conservation becomes unattractive and meanwhile funds raised can be used by conservation programmes to directly combat poaching. The role that private rhino breeders could play would need to be considered in a tightly regulated framework but one would need to be careful about incentives to profit at the expense of the animals.

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