Will Keeping the Rhino Horn Trade Illegal Kill More Rhinos?

Photograph by Michael Nichols/National Geographic Creative

Many conservationists are lauding South Africa’s recent decision not to propose the reintroduction of trade in rhino horn, citing concerns that legitimizing it could reignite consumer demand.

Other conservationists, however, fear that keeping the ban in place will paradoxically lead to an increase in the killing of rhinos throughout Africa.

Pro-Trade Rationale

South Africa’s private rhino owners host roughly 33% of the country’s black and white rhinos, while remaining free-ranging rhinos live in state-run national parks.

With the resurgence in rhino poaching over the past decade, trade proponents maintain that a legal market of regulated supply would reduce black market prices, thereby discouraging the incentive to illegally harvest horn.

Furthermore, they assert that profits made from a renewable supply—horn from natural rhino mortality and the sheering off of horn portions from live specimens—could be reinvested into anti-poaching and rural community endeavors.

Both ideas stem from the notion that the trade moratorium has not successfully upended rhinoceros poaching. To wit, a continued embargo would only encourage more illicit activity.

South Africa Backs Down from Trade Proposal

Picture of injured rhino running
A rhino without its horn is on the run. Photograph courtesy of Karl Ammann.

Private rhino owners and a number of state conservation institutions were hoping that South Africa would propose an end to the international trade in rhino horn at this year’s 67th meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

However, the Committee of Inquiry, a branch of South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), recommended that government not move ahead with such a proposal, resulting in a final decision that the pursuit of legalizing international trade in rhino horn was not in South Africa’s best interest.

RhinoAlive, an awareness campaign composed of private rhino owners and conservationists, condemned the government’s decision.

“The only people who will be celebrating will be poachers and ill-informed, misguided animal rightists,” vice-president of Wildlife Ranching South Africa, Dr. Peter Oberem, said in RhinoAlive’s news release.

“This will be the end of the rhino population as we know it. Game ranchers cannot possibly continue to foot the bill for the security of one third to one half of the world’s remaining rhino population.”

Pelham Jones, chairman of the Private Rhino Owners Association and member of the Committee of Inquiry, expressed similar disappointment:

“Government’s cowardly capitulation will have a detrimental effect on both private sector and rural conservation communities—and the ultimate price will be paid by the rhino itself.”

Evidence Supporting the Ban

A healthy white rhino and her newborn calf. Photo courtesy of Quintus Strauss.
A healthy white rhino and her newborn calf. Photo courtesy of Quintus Strauss.

Trade advocates point to 1977, the year that CITES listed all rhino subspecies on Appendix I—a motion paired with the moratorium on the international trade in rhinos and their products—as a grave turning point for the species.

However, trade skeptics observe that the ban was initially put in place to halt rhino killing that had already taken a devastating toll on populations across Africa and Asia.

Anti-traders posit that the increase in public awareness and Asia’s domestic bans helped drive down poaching rates during that time period; so much so that Southern Africa didn’t see much rhino killing until 2008, around the same time when unfounded assertions that horn carried medicinal properties renewed consumer interest.

Moreover, anti-trade proponents observe that South Africa already had permission to sustainably utilize rhino in the form of legal hunting after the southern white rhino was downlisted to Appendix II in 1994.

The caveat is that no trophy can be gifted to anyone but the hunter, nor are any rhino trophies permitted for medicinal use.


A 2014 report issued by the DEA states that, “many of the rhino horns sold with legal permits before 2009 were subsequently smuggled out of the country, meaning that the traders that bought the horn did so with dishonest intentions at the outset.”

The report goes on to mention that poaching began picking up again through, “the legal internal permitting system, either directly from private rhino owners or indirectly through intermediaries…”

Of particular concern is an illegal method of hunting the DEA referred to as pseudo-hunting.

Loosely defined, pseudo-hunting is the hunting of a rhinoceros for reasons other than obtaining a trophy—a method that allegedly started when Asian clients and certain hunting proprietors began circumventing regulatory measures to illegally obtain horn.

In 2014, the U.S. authorities brought indictment charges against Dawie and Janneman Groenewald, two South African brothers allegedly involved in pseudo-hunting and rhino horn trafficking.

Undermining Public Awareness

Rhinoceros on a tourist road in the more open and protected western side of greater Kruger Park. Photograph by David Braun.

One of the biggest concerns with the notion of legal trade is that it  could undermine efforts in educating the public about rhino horn’s virtual uselessness as a homeopathic cure-all, not to mention the cost incurred should trade potentially reignite an unsustainable volume of consumer demand.

Some view the 2008 sanctioned one-off sales of elephant ivory as an example of ostensibly increasing such demand, though there are conflicting reports arguing that what actually escalated elephant poaching was the nine year ban placed on future sales the previous year.

While trade proponents believe that it is possible to minimize poaching through a tightly controlled system of legally supplied horn, trade skeptics do not believe it could ever be adequately enforced.

Even if a legal framework were set in place, some suspect that it would not stop corrupt administrators, private rhino owners with less than noble intentions, and low-level poachers from circumventing the system to enhance personal enrichment.

Similarly, skeptics argue that in spite of promises, profits obtained from legal sales might not necessarily be reinvested back into rhino conservation efforts.

Others surmise that if rhino farmers ever get their way, they would not only have to financially compete with black market traders, but also continue perpetuating the myth that rhino horn has medicinal value.

The DEA’s Conclusions

The DEA report concluded that while both arguments carry the potential to negatively impact South Africa’s remaining rhino population, lifting the ban is not in the best interest of the species at this junction.

Yet it still conceded that the moratorium has not effectively relieved poaching rates, even suggesting that, “restrictions created by the local trade ban may be exacerbating the poaching problem.”

Ultimately, the DEA did agree that private owners from the ranching industry need to have a better incentive to continue conserving rhinos.

Still, the assessment still leaves some unresolved questions.

Do any private rhino owners have duplicitous agendas? What would a hypothetical legal market look like? And who will buy horn if trade is only relegated to South Africa?

Ultimately, will trade be good for rhinos, or will it all but seal their fate?


Michael Schwartz is a journalist and African wildlife conservation researcher. With field experience around the continent since 2005, his passion for Africa's wildlife is matched by his compassion for the people who live there. A significant portion of his field work is carried out in Uganda, where he studies lion and elephant conservation. You can visit his website at http://www.michaelwschwartz.com.
  • Tim

    Kat’s comment is only partially correct. According to Khadija Sharife, “since 1994, the post-apartheid South African government was given the green light for sustainable use of white rhinos. But, as listed in CITES Appendix II, the use of white rhinos was limited to safe trade (example, national parks in other countries), or trophy hunting – totaling just 1,300 animals. Under the law, the only person able to legitimately acquire the trophy is the actual hunter. No other activities or purposes, including medicinal uses, or ‘gifting’ to another, are allowed.”

    I’d say that the panel from Rhinos Alive are correct. Much of the conservation messages have been monopilized by international NGOs who’ve swayed public opinion to believe overly simplistic messages.

    We need further discussion on this.

  • Katarzyna Nowak

    If South Africa’s hunting industry is prone to violations – e.g., canned lion hunting (with lion bones entering the lion bone trade), offtake of overly young lions (well under 6 years of age), pseudohunting of rhino (with horns leaked onto the black market) – and not amenable to independent auditing systems, how would you “strictly control” a trade in rhinoceros horns? Awaiting a proposal of how this “tight regulation” might work given recent loopholes in limited legal trade.

  • Adam Cruise

    In 2008 the world, through the supervision of CITES, voted for a sale of an enormous stockpile of ivory that had been collected by the southern African bloc of countries. It was thought that stockpiling could reduce conservation risks, as demand peaks are more readily met and high prices smoothed over time. Yet Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa, and Botswana as well as the buyer, the Chinese government, were set to make a substantial financial return, and they did.

    But the sale also triggered an unrivaled interest in ivory, since causing elephant populations in both Africa and Asia to plummet to dangerously low levels.

    However, selling off stockpiles is just the tip of the iceberg: Sustainable utilization embraces hunting—even canned hunting. Trading in lion products provide a window into what may happen when legal trade channels for rhino horn are opened. The idea is to provide enough lions in captive-bred facilities to capitalize on the international canned hunting market as well as that for lion bones in Asia. Asian traders started taking an interest in South African lions in 2008, when the decline in tiger numbers became acute. Lion bones are now filling the gap, and there has been a sharp increase in lion products sold in Vietnam, Laos, and China. There are around 170 captive lion breeding facilities in the country where, at any given time, 7000 lions are in breeding facilities exclusively used for trophy hunting. By stimulating an Asian market for lion products, increased demand will affect lions across the continent as they now have value for poachers and illegal traders.”

    The same can be said with the tiger bone trade. Breeding thousands of tigers in captivity has not halted the decline of wild tigers. In fact it’s created a supply of tiger parts to an increasingly visible market which has stimulated consumer demand for products like tiger bone wine.

    It stands to reason then that rhino horn from ranched rhinos will fulfil a similar role if allowed.

  • Malcolm Ryen

    As others have already commented there has been a partial rhino horn trade through hunting and in fact there have been many cases of Vietnamese buying hunting permits to only sell the horn in their country. There is a very big mistake in the article where it says that the only one off sales of ivory introduced too little ivory into the market. The 1997 sale to Japan was 50 tons and the 2008 was 110 tons of which 60 tons to be sold at 5 tons a year for 12 years in China. The real issue is that considering what China stated at the last Cites meeting, there is simply not enough ivory in the world to fulfil their demand of 200 tons a year!! It is very surprising to find such an article on National geographic, it is clearly a very partial point of view and with a clear business objective (of the farmer) rather then conservationists. We should completely stop talking about trades and instead concentrating on the real issues on how to lower demand and combat corruption connected to poaching.

  • John

    Whether appropriate or not, I can’t help but compare this to the legalization of marijuana here in parts of the US. You simply cannot stop people from doing something by telling them it’s wrong. With the regulation of the product, those obtaining it illegally for black market trade will simply have less drive to use it for income. It’s a risky gamble, but may be a better option than what has been in place all this time.

    But, naturally, many of the opinions expressed are one sided. If we don’t conform with the popular opinion of animal rights above all else, you’re simply wrong and are chastised for it.

    I agree with Tim’s comment. There needs to be a deeper discussion on the topic and other possible solutions out there.

  • naomi

    I would be interested to know the source of the estimated demand being at a total of 1,100 horn-sets p.a. as quoted in the comment from James Field. Is there a reference for this?

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