A controversial three-day online auction of rhino horn kicked off in South Africa on 23rd August 2017, following a convoluted legal battle between profit-hungry rhino owners and an ill-prepared Government Department.
The consequences for beleaguered rhinos across their range could be absolutely disastrous.
Rhino horn is highly sought-after in parts of Asia for its perceived medicinal properties and increasingly as a status symbol, high-end gift, and investment opportunity.
As a consequence, more than 6,000 rhinos have been killed by poachers in South Africa, home to more than 70% of the world's remaining rhinos, over the past 8 years. Rhino poaching is also rising alarmingly in Namibia and Zimbabwe.
International commercial trade in rhino horn has been banned since 1995, and domestic trade in the major markets in China and Vietnam is illegal under national laws. However, two private rhino owners recently persuaded the South African courts to overturn a national moratorium on horn trade, enabling them to sell their stockpiles of horn domestically. Around a third of South Africa's 20,000-odd rhinos are privately owned.
Weak efforts by South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) to challenge the court decision were finally dismissed by the Constitutional Court in April 2017. Almost before the judge's signature was dry, John Hume, owner of some 1500 rhinos, announced his intention to sell around 500kg of his estimated six tonne horn stockpile through an online auction. In a blatant attempt to attract buyers from key, albeit illegal, Asian markets, his auction site was made available in Chinese and Vietnamese.
Last ditch efforts to delay the auction were thrown out on 20th August when a judge gave the DEA 12 hours to hand over the necessary permits to Mr Hume. The permits do not allow purchasers to export their rhino horns for commercial purposes, although foreign buyers with an interest in benefiting from the high prices being paid for illegal rhino horn in parts of Asia are likely to be the prime targets.
The ultimate stated intention of Mr Hume and other rhino owners is to legalise international trade in rhino horn, to enable them to access key Asian markets and maximise their profits. They argue that opening up legal trade will enable South Africa to satisfy demand and control international markets. Rhino horn can, after all, be 'harvested' periodically without unduly harming the animal. This, they say, will dis-incentivise poaching, and generate money to help them protect their rhinos.
But quite how South Africa's authorities will prevent legally purchased horn at the auction from entering illegal international trade, let alone manage to control markets in Asia in the longer term, is a mystery. After all, South Africa is already the source of most of the illegal rhino horn entering markets in Vietnam, China and elsewhere. Criminal syndicates, the very people who have the biggest interest in hoovering up rhino horns from legal sales and using them as a means of laundering horn from poached rhinos, are already way ahead of the authorities.
Legitimising the sale of rhino horn within South Africa will also send a confusing message to potential Asian consumers, and undermine the considerable ongoing public education efforts aimed at reducing demand. As a result, demand could increase dramatically, new markets could emerge, and the incentives to poach wild rhino for their horns will most likely rise dramatically.
So while private rhino owners in South Africa stand to profit handsomely from legal sales, wild rhinos are set to suffer not just in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe where poaching is already a big problem, but also potentially in Kenya, India, Nepal, and other countries that have thus far managed to restrict this heinous activity.
Previous attempts to deal with wildlife poaching crises by opening up legal trade have failed miserably. The most recent one-off sales of elephant ivory sanctioned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) were followed by some of the worst declines in elephant populations ever seen, with more than 150,000 African elephants killed by poachers since 2012. There is no reason to think that rhinos will fare any better if trade is legitimised.
South Africa and its allies must be made to realise that they cannot trade their way out of the current crisis. The future for rhinos, along with that of elephants, tigers, pangolins and other species affected by trade, depends on our ability to protect these wonderful animals in their wild homes, and persuade global consumers not to buy wildlife products in the first place.