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South Africa Rejects Rhino Horn Trade Legalization

CAPE TOWN (April 21, 2016) — After months of speculation, South African officials said Thursday that they will not submit a proposal to legalize trade in rhinoceros horn to the 17th Conference of the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), to be hosted in Johannesburg in September. 

South African Minister for Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation Jeff Radebe confirmed that recommendations against legalized trade made by a Committee of Inquiry had been approved by the nation's Cabinet. And according to a government statement released earlier today, "The committee recommends that the current mode of keeping the country’s stock levels be kept as opposed to the trading in rhino horns."

The proposal to open international trade in rhino horn, championed by some private rhino owners, remains highly controversial. Proponents of legal trade argue that they can tightly control the trade by limiting it solely to horn legally taken from living rhinos and legitimate stockpiles, and use the revenue to support anti-poaching.  

Opponents, including WildAid and our rhino conservation partner African Wildlife Foundation, warn that legitimizing the use of rhino horn by promoting trade can massively increase consumer demand in Asia for a product that is falsely claimed to cure cancer, hangovers and other illnesses.

"This decision is in the best interests of South Africa and all rhinos," said WildAid CEO Peter Knights. "It will have wide international support, and now the government can unite the world at the CITES meeting in cracking down on the trade in rhino horn. The focus must be on higher-level prosecutions in South Africa and Mozambique to break up the poaching syndicates, and on reducing consumer demand in Vietnam and China. This will be easier with the distraction of international legalization off the table."

A huge increase in consumer demand would not be controllable and would result in sharply increased rhino poaching. Legal trade mechanisms can easily be used to launder poached horn, as history has shown with the ivory trade: In 2008, CITES approved the sale of 108 tons of ivory to Japanese and Chinese buyers, stimulating a continent-wide poaching epidemic that saw the loss of an estimated 33,000 elephants a year. The crisis recently prompted China, Hong Kong and the United States to announce a ban on domestic ivory sales. There are only about 20,000 White and 4,000 Black Rhino surviving.

The trade proposal would have required the support of a two-thirds majority of the 180-plus countries expected to attend the Conference in order for it to succeed. This would have been highly unlikely given the low numbers of rhinos, the catastrophic outcome of the ivory experiment and the ongoing failure to control poaching within South Africa. International opinion is increasingly against the trade in wildlife products derived from threatened species. 

"I commend the South African government on its decision to not submit a proposal at the upcoming CITES meeting that would have proposed the legalization of rhino horn trade," said Kaddu Kiwe Sebunya, president of the African Wildlife Foundation. "This was the absolute right decision for Africa’s rhinos. Though we are in desperate times, now is not the time to test out dangerous trade experiments and gamble with the survival of a species."

Comprehensive demand reduction efforts have proven effective. During the last rhino poaching crisis, which ravaged Africa between 1970 and 1993, Taiwan, then the world’s largest consumer of rhino horn, banned the trade under pressure from the international community and strongly enforced that ban. Media coverage of the government’s action, combined with large public education campaigns, all but eradicated rhino horn use in Taiwan, resulting in negligible rhino poaching between 1994 and 2008. Rhino poaching has surged in recent years following criminal syndicates’ efforts to stimulate consumer demand among newly-wealthy consumers in Vietnam and mainland China.