Why South Africa Considered Legalizing Rhino Horn Trade

In what may seem like a no brainer move, South Africa is expected to propose keeping the ban on rhino horn trading in place at the upcoming Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The convention will be held in Johannesburg this September.

National Geographic reports, “As rhino poaching continues to climb, South Africa accepts recommendations to keep rhino horn trade illegal.”

Recommendations from where — its conscience? That was my first reaction, but as it turns out, whether to legalize this trade or not is a hotly debated issue, with some compelling points from both camps. The recommendations came from the Committee of Inquiry, which was tasked with advising the government on this issue.

That South Africa was even remotely considering legalizing such practices seemed downright bizarre. What’s to consider?

Well, some theorize that if trading in rhinoceros horns was deemed legal, then the price would drop, which could in theory dissuade poachers.

A large rhino horn can fetch as much as $250,000 in underground markets. So it’s no surprise that rhino poaching is still a problem and that poachers catch and kill the animals just to procure their horns.

Save the Rhino, an organization focused on a world where rhino species are thriving in the wild for future generations, has not yet reached a conclusion on whether the trade in rhino horn should be legalized. It’s “currently considering the cases for and against.” Here’s its summary on legalizing the rhino horn trade:

“Let’s start with the two central tenets that people in all camps can agree on. Firstly, we all want to see more rhinos in more viable populations in the wild. Secondly, we all accept that there is no silver bullet that will solve the rhino poaching crisis: legal trade on its own will not work; anti-poaching patrols on their own will not work. So the question should really be: what combination of approaches should we adopt to ensure that rhino numbers and rhino population numbers continue to grow?”

Visit Save the Rhino to read more about the different possibilities, of which legalizing the trade is one of the approaches that is currently being considered by South Africa.

What does not seem to be contested by anyone is the staggering rise in rhino poaching. National Geographic reports:

“Rhino poaching has skyrocketed in the last decade. Africa-wide, a record 1,338 rhinos were killed in 2015, the sixth year in a row poaching has increased, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s rhino specialist group. That’s up from just over a dozen poached in 2007.”


To solve this, on one side you have folks like conservation economist Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes who argues that the ban has failed to control poaching. His theory: A strictly controlled legal trade would help stop poaching.

But as Nat Geo explains, those in the anti-trade camp, including conservationist Ronald Orenstein, argue that trade wouldn’t help conservation at all. If the trade is legalized, the stigma of rhino horn goes away and more people would want it. Demand would go up—but where would that additional supply come from?

That reminds me of the deplorable animal trophy trade. It’s legal in many places–and it continues to result in the unnecessary killing of thousands of majestic animals–including rhinos.

Orenstein goes on to point out what happened when CITES tried an experimental sale of ivory to China and Japan after the ivory trade had been banned. He told Nat Geo, “The last time they tried something like this, poaching went through the ceiling…I understand where the idea is coming from, and I understand there’s a genuine problem. But I’m afraid [trade would not be] a solution.”

Apparently the Committee of Inquiry agrees—at least for now. That’s the body appointed to study and advise South Africa on the issue. Jeff Radebe, the minister of planning, monitoring and evaluation, said the South African government has accepted a recommendation from the Committee of Inquiry to keep things as they are.

It’s a hard ask of animal lovers to support making something as barbaric as rhino horn extraction legal, especially when there is zero proof that rhino horns live up to their mythical powers.

Rather than legalize this barbaric trade—here’s what should happen: Keep it illegal, and instead of waiting for poachers to commit further acts of cruelty in exchange for a handsome payday, continue to do everything in our power to stop them. Hopefully, as those strategies improve over time, poaching will decrease dramatically. That’s my hope, anyway.

There’s a lot that can be done to stop poachers. Technology can be utilized–including drones and GPS. Dogs can help, too. Let’s not forget the mostly-female Black Mambas anti poaching unit! Or my personal favorite: Give poachers an option (and the support they need) to change careers.

Ideally, poachers should be stopped before they have a chance to act, with the full support of international law to back up these efforts.

Will it be easy? No. And as most of you know, protecting animals from poachers is dangerous work. But the alternative—making rhino horn trading legal–is not the answer, IMO.

At the end of the day, we need a policy that leads to the lowest number of unnecessary rhino deaths as possible. What do you think is the best way to achieve that? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Elisa F
Elisa F1 years ago

NO Poaching!!!
Thanks for sharing.

william Miller
william Miller2 years ago


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Sharon B.
Sharon B2 years ago

Thanks for sharing!

Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne Rogers2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Marianne C.
Marianne C2 years ago

I have to wonder why South Africa isn't asking for international help protecting the rhinos and keeping the poachers out. Even the United Nations might send help if they asked.

Miss D.
Shari F2 years ago

Hi, sorry, something weird happened with my post. Here is the rest of it:
The results showed that in very high 'doses' rhino horn does actually have a mild effect in reducing fever in mice. However, scientists agreed that it would not be practicable to extrapolate this to people and that it is also pretty pointless considering all the real fever reducing medicines out there. What is needed is education for market countries and support & funding for range countries.

Rosslyn O.
Rosslyn O2 years ago

A large dilemma for the country, but I feel they have made the correct choice. Yes, legalizing the horn trade may drop prices, but still cause more animal slaughter, until the prices drop, thus making it nonviable. Methinks the local poachers could be trained, with a sustainable wage, to help protect their animals, because they are not the ones making the money! These folk take the risks, for very little, I bet.

Miss D.
Shari F2 years ago

'The only way to stop this is to do full clinical trials on the ingredients and preparations, and educating people about the results. If there are some positive results - and there may be - then the active ingredients need to be synthesised, or alternative sources found.' Hi Neville, good point well made. Interestingly, this has already happened. In China and Vietnam, the main markets for rhino horn, the horn is not used as an aphrodisiac. It's a bit of an urban myth in the West that this is so. If it is being used in this now, then that would represent a novel use of the horn. Instead, it has been used mainly as a drug to reduce fevers. In Vietnam, it is now being touted as a cure to cancer. It is worth noting that Vietnam, a mainly rural country that is rapidly developing and taking on Western modes of life, including our not very healthy diet, has one of the highest increases in cancer diagnoses in the world. Rhino horn hasn't been tested for cancer but it has been tested for reducing fever. The results showed that very high 'doses' does actually have mild effect in reducing fever in mice.
'The only way to stop this is to do full clinical trials.' Hi Neville, good point. Interestingly, this has already happened! In China and Vietnam, the main markets for rhino horn, the horn is not used as an aphrodisiac. It's a bit of an urban myth in the West that this is so. If it is being used in this way now, then that would represent a novel use of the horn. Instead, it has been us

Alice Mullen
Alice Mullen2 years ago

Every single person involved in anti-poaching efforts deserves our utmost respect and reverence for their incalculable bravery. It is deeply upsetting that the problem is too big for their efforts to have a deterring effect. I salute every one of them though. Poaching rings are too well funded (though as many have said these funds do not trickle down to those doing the physical poaching)and too well organised. I don't believe legalizing rhino horn will do anything to decrease demand , only increase black market trade. I am pleased that our government seems to be taking cognizance of advice- a rare thing indeed.