The South African government is considering a recent court ruling that would legalize the rhino-horn trade in the country for the first time in seven years, lifting a ban that had been imposed to reduce poaching.
The court announced the ruling last Friday, and on Tuesday the Minister of Environmental Affairs said it was “considering the implications of the judgment and will brief the public in due course."
South Africa outlawed its internal rhino-horn trade in 2009 in an attempt to stop poaching, saying that any legalized trade, even domestic, will open the black market to unscrupulous international traders. In 2012, a rhino rancher sued the government to drop the ban––and last year it was joined by a second rancher. A South African court ruled against the government in 2015, and the government later appealed. Last week, the Supreme Court of Appeal denied the appeal.
The ruling applies only to domestic trade. It is still illegal to export rhino horns internationally, something that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora––signed by 181 countries––has outlawed since 1977. Under the regulations stipulated by the court ruling, private buyers and sellers would need a permit from the government to buy or sell rhino horns.
Rhino horns can sell for more than $60,000 per kilogram––more expensive than cocaine and gold––and is used mainly in China and Vietnam, where it’s ground into a powder and sold for its purported medicinal value, the merits of which have never been proven. Millionaire John Hume was one of the ranchers to sue the government, and he owns more than 1,200 rhinos on his ranch in the northwest province of Klerksdorp. In 2007, when a poacher killed one of his rhinos, Hume began cutting off their horns in an effort to prevent poachers from killing again. Since then, he has amassed five tons of horns, an enormous cache that if he were able to legally sell, Hume has said, could go toward rhino conservation.
But some worry that legalizing a domestic trade will only fuel poaching. National Geographic quoted a senior fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Julian Rademeyer, as saying:
“Given the levels of corruption in some provincial permitting offices, there are certainly concerns that legal domestic sales could become a conduit for criminal networks to obtain horns which can be smuggled out of the country and sold on the black market. We saw as much prior to 2009 when middlemen for Vietnamese syndicates traveled the length and breadth of the country buying up ‘loose stock’ of horns from game farmers.”
The lawsuit was backed by members of South Africa’s Private Rhino Owners Association, which Reuters reported own 5,000 rhinos collectively.
The South African government also has a stockpile of rhino horns, collected from its operations that remove the horns in hopes of preventing poaching. The government’s collection is valued at $2 billion.