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Image: Creative Commons

Image: Creative Commons

The rising death toll of rhinos in South Africa due to poaching has forced the country to consider legalizing the trade of rhino horn. The plan has drawn criticism from conservationists and could face significant obstruction from the international community.

According to South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs, poachers killed 1,004 rhinos in 2013, a record for the country. This year, however, has been no better. So far, 996 rhinos have been killed. Since January, more than 200 people have been arrested in connection with poaching, but the killings are liable to continue.

Rhino horn has long been valued as a medical panacea in both Africa and Asia, purported to heal both minor maladies and every kind of cancer. This is despite the fact that the horn is mostly keratin, the same stuff that makes up human fingernails and bird beaks. Sadly, this fact is overwhelmed by the horn’s international demand.

After the international trade of rhino horn was banned by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) in 1977, its black market value skyrocketed. Today, one kilogram of the horn can fetch up to $100,000.

That South Africa is currently considering the legalization of trading rhino horn bespeaks the severity of the problem. Poaching is getting worse every year. In 2004, the number of rhinos killed in South Africa was about 10; a decade later, that figure has literally increased one hundred-fold.

The government can’t stop poachers when poaching rates are this high. Half of South Africa’s rhinos are located in Kruger National Park, a reserve that is equal in size to the state of Israel. Meanwhile, programs that focus on educating the public on the true, mundane nature of rhino horn composition, while successful in Vietnam, would not be enough to stop the poaching, according to South African economist Michael’t Sas-Rolfes.

Sas-Rolfes told Deutsche-Welle that the issue at hand is how lucrative rhino horn is for illegal traders. Legalizing the horn would, he argues, drop the price to a level that would de-incentivize poaching. “The rationale is to bring the price down to a manageable level through constant, legal supply,” he said.

South Africa holds about 90 percent of the world’s white rhino population. It is also home to about 40 percent of the world’s remaining black rhinos. The problem is, there simply isn’t enough money or manpower to stop either population from being slaughtered by poachers. At this stage, says Sas-Rolfes, South Africa needs to be practical in how it handles the animals’ approaching extinction.

“It has become expensive to protect rhinos,” he said, “and conservation organizations simply don’t have sufficient funds to invest in the level of field protection that is needed to sustain the number of rhinos we have.”

Rose Masela, the head of national wildlife information management for South Africa’s DEA, recently told journalists that she believes the CITES ban on the horn trade has only contributed to the issue. “If we hadn’t made the interventions that we did we’d probably be seeing the rhino population going toward extinction maybe in the next few years,” she said.

She added that, because the country cannot do much about the beliefs surrounding rhino horn in other countries, “[l]egalization would be a more medium-term solution.”

However, any change to existing CITES laws would require the assent of two-thirds of the organization’s 180 members. “[T]here’s a whole lot of people that simply believe it’s not going to work,” Dex Kotze, a South African activist campaigning for rhino conservation, told AFP.

Even if CITES were to reconsider the ban, such trade legalization might only compound the issue. The trade of elephant ivory was banned in 1989, yet some places, such as Thailand, still allow it to be traded domestically. In July, TRAFFIC, a wildlife monitoring network, reported that the figures for ivory sales in Thai markets suggest that illegal ivory from Africa is being laundered through the country.

Even if the trade of rhino horn was legalized in South Africa, there can be no assurances (and every indication) that history will repeat itself.

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