Changing Planet

Why Rhino Poaching Isn’t High on the CITES Agenda

At the 66th meeting of the Standing Committee for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), in Geneva, Switzerland, from the January 11 to 15, deliberation over the plight of rhinos was brushed over in less than an hour.

Despite considerable efforts by range, transitional, and consumer states to combat rhino poaching and rhino horn trafficking, the number of rhinos killed illegally in its core range areas in southern Africa remains alarmingly high.

Namibia has experienced a spike in rhino poaching cases last year, with the death toll rising from one rhino poached annually between 2009 and 2011 to 80 in 2015.

Zimbabwe had at least 50 rhino poached in 2015, more than double the figure lost the previous year.

Mozambique’s rhinos went locally extinct in 2013, and the country is implicated as a major base for poachers and illicit smugglers who operate cross-border incursions into South Africa’s famed Kruger Park, where the majority of the world’s remaining rhinos live.

In South Africa, where most of the fatalities have taken place, there are unconfirmed reports that poaching numbers might be down for the first time in seven years. But even if the figures are confirmed (the South African Department of Environmental Affairs is expected to make an announcement of 2015’s poaching statistics next week), it’s still not good news.

Elise Daffue, founder of, says there were about 1,160 reported cases of rhino poaching last year—a dangerously high figure.

Vietnam remains the primary consumer of rhino horn where the product is sold, mainly for medicinal purposes as a panacea for a range of ailments from cancer to a hangover.

Short Shrift for Rhinos

But rhinos have seemingly warranted scant attention at this week’s meeting of the Standing Committee.

This body is made up of regional representatives of the 181 countries that have agreed to regulate wildlife trade and is meant to oversee the work of the CITES Secretariat in combating illegal trade.

But John Sellar, former Chief of Enforcement at the CITES Secretariat, says: “If you look at the agenda of the meeting, you’ll see that there are some 70 documents to be considered, spread across 62 distinct agenda items.”

“How carefully,” he asks, “can they be scrutinized and meaningfully discussed in a five-day meeting?”

Some animals, like elephants, deservedly get a lot of attention but rhinos seem to have been largely overlooked. There are only seven documents attached to rhinos compared to 25 for elephants.

The recommendations made by the CITES Standing Committee Working Group on Rhinoceroses simply “invite South Africa, Mozambique and Vietnam to provide a further progress reports detailing joint enforcement efforts, and ‘calls upon all governments and intergovernmental organizations, international aid agencies and non-governmental organizations to provide funds to implement rhinoceros conservation activities.”

The only point of real concern for the Working Group was a “recognition” that Mozambique failed to comply with its recommendations to prepare a detailed national rhinoceros action plan “within a timely manner.”

However, according to zoologist Ronald Orenstein, author of Ivory, Horn and Blood: Behind the Elephant and Rhinoceros Poaching Crisis, CITES has, within its framework, done everything necessary to protect rhinos.

He says “CITES’s strongest course of action is to ensure that any international trade in rhino horn remains illegal under the CITES Appendix I listing.”

Will South Africa Propose to Legalize Horn Trade?

Mark Jones, manager of programmes and wildlife policy for Born Free and a member of the working group, commended the committee chair and representative of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, Michael Sigsworth, who ensured that “fringe” elements not specifically focusing on enforcement and demand reduction were kept out of the recommendations.

Jones was alluding to speculation that the South African government will table a proposal asking CITES to legalize the trade in rhino horn at the next Conference of the Parties (CoP17) to be held in Johannesburg in September.

At the working group session, Sonja Meintjes, the South African delegate, in an effort to pave the way for a possible proposal, advocated for the term “illegal” to be inserted in front of any reference to rhino horn trade and demand reduction strategies. In other words, she is pushing for CITES to make a distinction between a legal and an illegal trade in rhino horn.

Meintjes’ submission was decisively rejected by the committee because CITES has currently deemed all trade illegal, thus making any distinction redundant.

Indications from this meeting of the Standing Committee are that most countries oppose a legal trade in rhino horn and prefer instead to encourage demand reduction programs and tougher law enforcement measures.

Besides, says Will Travers, chairperson of the Species Survival Network (SSN), which coordinates the activities of conservation, environmental, and animal protection organizations around the world, “What are the gains for a country that flies in the face of majority opinion?”

For South Africa to overturn the CITES resolution, it would need a two-thirds majority vote in it’s favour at CoP17, which, Travers says, is highly unlikely.

Travers suggests that the South African minister of environment, Edna Molewa, should not be distracted by rhino trade but rather focus South Africa’s energies on making CoP17 the most successful and effective CITES conference ever.

“There are more critical CITES-related issues on the conference agenda that needs more urgent attention,” Travers says. For example, pangolins and African grey parrots currently don’t enjoy CITES protection as rhinos do.

Adam Cruise is a senior contributor for the Conservation Action Trust, which promotes reporting on conservation and environmental issues. Follow him on Twitter.

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 the key conservation issues and crises that face the continent.
  • Ronald Orenstein

    Thanks, Adam – I enjoyed our interview, and this piece sets out the issues nicely. One minor point – it is not that CITES has done everything necessary to protect rhinos – obviously there is a huge role left for Parties involved in anti-poaching efforts, organizations like Interpol and the World Customs Organization, and the many NGOs (including Humane Society International, which I am representing with my colleagues in Geneva) working on demand reduction campaigns and other efforts – but it has already afforded rhinos its highest level of protection by listing all five rhinoceros species on its Appendix I (except for the Southern White Rhinoceros population of South Africa, which is on Appendix II) and by banning all international trade in horn. There is little more it can do besides encouraging its Parties to act cooperatively on rhino conservation and coordinating their efforts where possible.

    The crucial issue is whether South Africa will propose weakening current CITES protection by authorizing legal trade, and whether the Parties will reject it – which, for the good of rhinos worldwide, I believe they must do. Opening legal trade now would likely be as catastrophic as similar decisions for trade in ivory have proven to be, and could cripple increasingly promising efforts to educate buyers in Asia and reduce demand. Even discussing the subject could encourage poachers to step up their efforts. I hope that South Africa will see the wisdom of not giving in to pressure from private rhino owners in that country, and keep any such proposal off the table.

  • Michael

    Both Mr. Cruise and Mr. Orenstein need a lesson in facts and not hyperbole. See below by Michael Eustace:

    SA can satisfy demand without killing rhino. But the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species banned trade in rhino horn in 1977.

    Last year, 1,004 rhino were reportedly poached in SA.

    Examination of the census numbers in the Kruger National Park, relative to the reported numbers of poached animals, suggests that the numbers poached were higher than the carcasses found.

    A total of 1,300 rhino poached in SA seems a more likely figure. Add to that number the rhino poached in the rest of Africa, horns stolen from official stocks and those sold illegally from private stocks, and the total supply figure is about 1,500 sets.

    Supply and demand are equal, brought into balance by price. The price is thought to be $60,000/kg at the retail level and $30,000 at the wholesale level. There are many different markets and prices. The demand in the past has been mostly from China for traditional Chinese medicine. Recently, Vietnam has been promoted as a major source of new demand but most of the internal trade there is in fake horn. Historically, Vietnam has been a conduit for horn into China.

    Prices of rhino horn have risen steeply in recent years, which must have attracted a significant speculative component within overall demand. Assuming speculative demand last year was 400 horn sets, then the balance of 1,100 horn sets was sold to consumers. About 80% of the Chinese, or

    1-billion people, are said to use traditional medicine. The underlying demand for rhino horn is often referred to as “insatiable” by the donor agents. But the high price limits the actual demand to a few people.

    If a course of treatment needs 5g of horn, then only 880,000 people use the entire 1,100 horns supplied to consumers, excluding speculators. That represents less than 0.1% of the Chinese population who have an interest in traditional medicine.

    Any “demand reduction” strategy needs to persuade more than 99.9% of the traditional Chinese medicine-consuming population, or it will not be effective.

    The trade ban is not working and has never worked. It has favoured criminals exclusively and has been at huge cost to the rhino and rhino owners.

    A monopoly of supply, from a single government broker, selling to a cartel of government-owned traditional Chinese medicine hospitals, may be the best strategy to reduce poaching.

    About 2%, or 400, of SA’s rhino population of 20,000 die every year from natural causes. With prices of $120,000 for a horn set and a legal trade, there is likely to be great effort applied to collecting those horns.

    Stocks of 4,000 horn sets in SA can provide 400 horn sets a year for 10 years.

    With the decline in poaching to, say, 200 rhino a year, the population should increase at a net 6%, or double in 12 years.

    Natural deaths from double the population and increased ranching of rhino will be more than able to substitute for the depletion of stocks after the 10th year.

    Private owners have 5,000 rhino and if they were to crop 2,000 of those, they could provide the equivalent of 500 horn sets a year. (Horn can be cropped from rhino without any harm to the animal and the horn regrows at the rate of 1kg a year.)

    Thus, a monopoly of supply can source 1,300 horn sets a year from SA alone without the need to kill one rhino.

    In the absence of speculators, that should be more than enough to satisfy the market.

    Speculators are likely to cease buying horn when they realise that a legal trade will provide a large and consistent supply of horn that will satisfy annual demand and that there will be little scope for price appreciation.

    In addition, and of more concern to the speculators, will be the fact that illegal goods in a market dominated by legal goods typically trade at a 30% discount. If there is the risk to the buyer of fake horn and poisoned horn, the discount will widen to, say, 40%.

    Speculators will turn sellers and fill the illegal market with horn. That will have the effect of reducing the demand for new supplies of poached horn because there will not be the market for it.

    The Chinese government, via its traditional medicine hospitals, will be invested in the legal trade and making about $30,000 profit per kilogram on 1,100 horn sets weighing 4kg each, which amounts to $132m a year. That should encourage it to close down the illegal trade.

    Poaching is unlikely to cease but a decrease in the number of rhino killed from 1,300 a year to, say, 200 animals a year, would be a major achievement.

    The African population of rhino of 25,000 is capable of growing by 1,750 animals a year, so 200 is manageable. The total value of the present illegal trade is about $360m a year.

    The costs at each stage of the pipeline are minimal, so the profits are extraordinary.

    Without a legal trade, the criminals are not going to withdraw — the profits are too attractive and the risks are low.

    Most commentators do not consider anything beyond standard trade models, but there are much smarter ways of establishing a legal trade.

    The structure suggested is based on the old De Beers diamond trading model that operated successfully for over 50 years.

    It is a tried and tested model and has many advantages over free trade.

    A monopoly selling legal horn to a cartel would satisfy market demand, at the present high prices. There would be no need for poaching. There would be a clear legal channel. The Chinese government being invested in the legal trade would have an incentive to close down the criminal trade.

    The suggested model would increase the risks to the criminals, reduce their profit and greatly reduce the size of their market.

    It would remove the important speculative element from demand.

    A monopoly would be able to control prices in order to make the volume of trade sustainable. It would reduce poaching substantially and generate income for parks and private owners in Africa of about $132m a year, if 1,100 horns were sold at the wholesale price of $30,000/kg.

    That income should allow for financially strong parks and greatly improved conservation and tourism prospects.

    With little poaching, SA will have surplus rhino and may wish to sell, lend or give rhino to other parks in Africa in order to improve their tourism prospects. In addition, that would allow the parks to establish a source of income from horn sales.

    A smart trade is probably the solution to rhino poaching.

    SA owns 70% of the world’s rhino and needs to take the lead in developing and promoting a more intelligent plan for the rhino. No-one else is going to do it and the present situation is absurd.

  • Alexia Abnett

    Southern African Fight For Rhino, will be delivering a massive signed petition to CoP 17, to upgrade our white rhino to Appendix 1. They might not want to discuss the rhino this time around, but they will be getting the shock of their lives, when the biggest mass movement, on African soil takes place in Sandton.
    demanding the upgrade.
    Our rhino do not have any more time, and as this is a now or never, we are not going down quietly.

  • Karen Norton

    Stop killing our beautiful animal!

  • Levent Bozdere

    Put poison dye in every rhino horn and let’s see if these selfish egotistical Chinese will still want to consume rhino horn

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