rhino horn
Despite private rhino farmers having spent billions to protect their animals from poachers, the prices on the black market are so tempting that the killing persists.

The current battle for the rhino is mainly concerned with the horns of these remarkable animals – horns that are worth more than gold on the black market, where it is predominantly bought by Asians for its alleged medicinal value. Many believe that it cures cancer and other diseases, and it is even used as an aphrodisiac.

Bonné de Bod, a well-known investigative journalist who has delved deep into the illegal rhino industry, says one needs to look into its history to better understand the process.

Medicinal use in the East

“Rhino horn has been used in the East for generations for its medicinal and religious value, although it has been scientifically determined that it isn’t a unique product with mystical medicinal value.

“In 1977, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned international rhino horn trade because of an alarming global decrease in the numbers of all four rhino species. At that time, rhino farming in South Africa was well on track, and white and black rhino numbers were on the rise.

“Despite this ban, South Africa still allowed local rhino horn trade, although the country strictly prohibited the export of horns. This led to the illegal buying and export of rhino horns by Asians, which forced South Africa to place an overall moratorium on the trade in 2009.

“This was followed by a series of court cases which even ended up in the Constitutional Court, where two rhino farmers, Johan Kruger and John Hume, challenged the ban. The moratorium was eventually revoked in 2017, and local rhino horn trade was allowed again,” she says.

First online auction

The first online rhino horn auction was hosted in 2017. The process, however, was not without hiccups as the issuance of permits was almost railroaded by departmental red tape.

Experts and rhino farmers in South Africa are of the view that the international ban on rhino horn trade created a vacuum in the supply of this ‘sought-after’ product, while the demand increased as a result of population growth and the escalating value of rhino horn products.

The organisation, Save the Rhino, believes the current crisis in rhino poaching started in Zimbabwe, where the socio-economic and political climate created a breeding ground for poachers to make easy money. As the country’s rhino numbers declined and poaching became more difficult, the poachers and cartels behind them set their sights on another target – South Africa’s rhinos.

Increase in poaching

This caused a huge increase in poaching in South Africa, with thousands of rhino having been slaughtered for their horns since 2007. According to figures released by the Department of Environmental Affairs earlier this year, a total of 13 rhinos were poached in 2007. This number gradually increased to 1 215 rhinos in 2014, with a slight drop to 1 028 in 2017.

By 2013, the crisis had spread to other Southern African countries, after intensified action against poachers in South African game parks and better protection of rhinos in private ownership, which cost game farmers billions. That same year, almost 5% of Kenia’s rhino population was killed by poachers, and in 2015 Zimbabwe and Namibia’s rhinos suffered.

Today, approximately 80% of the total global rhino population can be found in South Africa, with the slight growth in the world’s rhino numbers attributed to the diligence and perseverance of our rhino farmers. In the Kruger National Park, rhino numbers decreased from 2015 to 2016.

In the rest of the world, rhino species are all but wiped out and the numbers keep dwindling. In Southern Africa, game farmers are doing their utmost to ensure that rhino numbers are growing.

Sustainable utilisation

Farmers believe the survival of the species lies in sustainable utilisation of rhino, which will be an incentive for breeding and saving the animals. Rhino is the only wildlife species that can produce a sought-after product that can be harvested without having to kill the animals.

The horns can be sawed off painlessly and usually grows back within two to three years, after which it can be harvested again. The process can potentially satisfy the demand for rhino horn and force down its price on the black market, making it less appealing for poachers. What is needed, though, is for the trade in rhino horn to be legalised.

The removal of rhino horns is a painless procedure. The horn grows back after a few years, making it possible to utilise the product without killing the animal.

Pelham Jones, chairman of the Private Rhino Owners Association (PROA), says he believes the way forward involves the creation of a commercial branch through which rhino horn can be traded. “According to a survey by the independent Rhino Management Group, around 85% of rhino owners are in favour of trade in rhino horn.

“The organisation is called Rhino Horn Trade Africa. Rhino farmers can supply horns to this organisation, where it will be stored at a central point until the horns are legally sold and registered in the new owner’s name. Approximately 350kg of rhino horns have already been sold locally.”

Legal trade in horns

Bonné says her research indicates that approximately two-thirds of the private rhino owners she has spoken to, are in favour of legal rhino horn trade. “The government has not yet indicated whether it will join such a commercial branch and whether it will make some of its accumulated rhino horns available to the local market.”

At last year’s CITES meeting in Sandton, the minister of environmental affairs, Dr Edna Molewa, made it clear to journalists that there is a good chance that South Africa will propose a resumption in the international trade of rhino horns at the 2019 CITES meeting. At the organisation’s meeting held in Bangkok in 2013, there was speculation that China will be South Africa’s preferred trade partner if international trade is resumed.

Advocates of legal rhino horn trade agree that it should be done in an orderly and regulated way, without creating an easy route for illicit trade. For that purpose, the Rhino DNA Index System (RhODIS) was created, using DNA typing to link a rhino to its horn or part thereof. This system was developed by the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory of the University of Pretoria.

Law enforcement with DNA

One of the first applications of this technique led to the conviction of a Vietnamese citizen in 2010, when he tried to smuggle a rhino horn out of the country. The DNA made it possible to prove that the horn originated from a poached rhino.

RhODIS is linked to the South African Police Service, as well as several provincial law enforcement authorities of the Department of Nature Conservation to combat illegal rhino horn trade.

“One of the most important reasons why rhino horn trade should be allowed, is to provide much needed funds for rhino conservation. Since 2009, private reserves alone spent more than R2 billion on the management and protection of rhinos,” Pelham says. – Andries Gouws, Stockfarm

For more information, contact Pelham Jones on 082 299 3161 or pelham@vibe.co.za.

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