In 2013, poachers killed more than 1,000 rhinos in South Africa. This compares to just 13 in 2007.
South Africa's, and by extension the world's, rhinos are clearly in crisis, and all because they grow horns that are made of pretty much the same stuff as our fingernails. Yet, some people believe myths, most likely spread by poaching syndicates, that consuming ground rhino horn is a cure-all. Consequently, rhino horns are sold illegally for a lot of money in consuming countries and, where there is money to be made, poachers will step in to supply the demand.
Some private rhino owners (and bear in mind that around 25 percent of South Africa's rhinos are in private hands) have pressured South African authorities to legalise the international trade. In response, South African authorities are considering submitting a proposal to legalise the international trade in rhino horn--sawed off of living rhinos-- from South Africa to one or more consumer countries. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) strictly bans the international trade in rhino horn.
Proponents claim legalising international trade will enable South African authorities to control the supply and price, make poaching unprofitable and provide much needed income for rhino protection and conservation. And rhino horn, unlike elephant ivory or tiger bone, is a renewable resource - you can periodically 'harvest' horn from a live rhino, and it will grow back.
Trade proponents are providing what appears to be a plausible solution to the authorities. And as things stand it looks like South Africa will present a proposal to the next meeting of CITES in 2016, which coincidentally will take place in its own back yard in Cape Town.
But when you start to dig into the likely impacts of legalising trade, the flaws and holes in the simplistic pro-trade arguments soon appear. It fast becomes apparent that the risks involved are enormous.
At a meeting in Pretoria earlier this month organised by local group Outraged South African Citizens against Poaching (OSCAP), and supported by Humane Society International and other international groups, experts discussed the pros and cons of trade in rhino horn from ecological, legal, law enforcement, veterinary, ethical and economic standpoints.
The meeting was attended by a British High Commission representative but the South African government and most private rhino owners decided to boycott. Experts discussed how poorly we understand demand in the Far East and how legalising trade will provide an opportunity for criminals to launder their products into those markets. Introducing legal rhino horn into the largely illegal trade will confuse consumers and make life difficult for police, customs and other enforcement officials.
In short, legalising the trade in rhino horn will play right into the hands of the organised criminal syndicates, and could make things much worse for South Africa and the world's remaining rhinos.
South Africa's authorities need to wake up to the fact that a trade proposal is the wrong way to go. It does not have much international support and is highly unlikely to succeed, which will be a huge public and political embarrassment on home turf.
South Africa's authorities also need to see how the rest of the world will see such a proposal: it would be cruel and unethical to foist rhino horns--which are useless as a cure for any human condition--on people in consuming countries who buy horn because they are misinformed and desperate to save the lives of their loved ones. South Africa needs to help dispel these myths, not take advantage of people in crisis.
The world's rhinos can't wait. We need to stop arguing about legalising trade, and instead focus on what we all want - greater protection for rhinos through better enforcement and reduced demand. Only then will the world have a chance of reversing the alarming and horrific impacts of poaching on these ancient and majestic creatures.