World Leaders Move to Curb Trade in Rhino Horn

Guest post authored by Alexandra Kennaugh, Wildlife policy analyst

As the world’s conservation experts convene in Johannesburg, South Africa, for the 17th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), there is much debate about the best strategies we should use to conserve thousands of species. Despite disagreements about the data, methods, monitoring and evaluation, there is a strong overriding conviction shared among a diverse group of stakeholders to ensure that we have persistent populations of wild rhinos in Africa now, and for generations to come.

The uniformity behind this singular goal to keep rhinos wild and free is the driver behind India, Indonesia, South Africa, Swaziland and many other range states to increase anti-poaching security measures, to improve prosecutorial competence, to provide community-based natural resource management initiatives and to finance the conservation of their species, particularly in the face of severe drought in key habitat areas. On the other side of the supply chain, we are also seeing key Asian markets maintain and strengthen domestic law against the legal trade of rhino horn, increase seizures and enforcement, and, particularly in Vietnam, to introduce demand reduction strategies for its consumer markets.

But it’s critical to consider the complex interactions between supply and demand in this dynamic global market. 

Before making policy, it is essential to understand the risks involved across the entire value chain before introducing an international legal trade of rhino horn now, which is what the Kingdom of Swaziland proposed to do. Swaziland proposed to change the CITES status of its southern white rhinoceros population so as to permit a limited and regulated trade in white rhino horn collected from natural deaths, recovered from poached Swazi horn, and harvested from live white rhino in future.

Would the benefits of legalizing the international commercial trade of Swaziland’s 73 rhinos, accounting for less than 3 percent of the total global population of rhinoceros, outweigh the costs? Our assessment says no for three reasons:

  • First, an assessment of consumer appetite in key Asian markets strongly suggests that total demand would not be satisfied by natural mortalities, current and future stockpiles or farmed horn under current conditions for all of the potential major supply countries, a situation that would only be exacerbated in the case of Swaziland as its stock and potential stock represent a tiny percentage of the total market and the total rhino population. More importantly, the desire to satisfy such a wide demand gap would likely raise the incentive for others to enter trade, legal and illegal on the supply side. 
  • Second, experts also found that the awareness of the illegal status of rhino horn trade is dampening purchasing behavior so legalization could remove this dampening effect while additionally inciting new interest on the demand side.
  • And third, legal markets often provide cover for illegal markets, even in well-regulated markets, such as the U.S. and China, as shown in various reports. The laundering of illegal product into legal markets also raises costs of enforcement. 

Together, these three conditions would likely result in even more poaching and increased security costs in both wild and farmed populations on public and private lands. This translates to even more pressure on already under resourced rangers, reserves and range states to combat illegal wildlife trade.

Surely under the common goal of conserving the world’s last remaining wild rhinos, the best minds of committed conservationists, responsible hunters, traditional medicinal practitioners and antiquities collectors can collaborate to develop a less risky strategy to resolve the financial pressures faced in range states—governments and private wildlife owners alike.

Together, the skills and passions of a global effort could help solve one of today’s most pressing conservation challenges: a sustainable, wild population of one of Africa and Asia’s most iconic species:  the rhino.

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