Clarissa Hughes

Legalising Rhino Horn

Will lifting the trade ban reduce poaching?

I love surprises. So when someone suggested that I research the subject of legalising the trade in rhino horn I leapt at it. I could see that the issue was ripe for some Edward de Bono-type thinking.

In Africa the black rhino is considered critically endangered and the white variety is listed as near threatened by the International Union of Nature Conservation. Black or white, population numbers are fragile. The primary cause of this situation is the continuous slaughter of rhinos by humans.

Some good out-of-the-box thinking could serve rhino well, I thought. Surely all it needs is some imagination and rational pragmatism.

The number one reason behind the killing is the demand for rhino horn in the East where it is used in muti of the Chinese kind. And so the fundamental question around the trade in rhino horn can be expanded to all geographical regions where traditional healers are faced with a dwindling supply of ingredients: at what point do we reconcile traditional values with modern reality? It is a question that requires deep introspection.

Cultural beliefs arise from an ancient knowledge of, and affinity with, animal species. The Chinese have a long association with rhino. The animal is associated with the Pangu Myth of transformation that first emerged in the Three Kingdoms period (220-280CE). Artefacts indicate that rhinos were celebrated as guardians of tombs.

Adult rhino are almost entirely immune to predation. When they feel threatened they use their horn as a weapon. That the horn should therefore have protective properties was an easy connection for the ancients to make. Amplified by centuries of repetition this belief still exists. The modern use of rhino horn in traditional Chinese medicine is regarded as a cure for ailments ranging from fever to cancer.

Enter the current poaching crisis and the ‘traditional’ Western culture of materialism and monetary values. The recent spike in rhino poaching has been caused by two primary factors: rising affluence in the East and the closing of loopholes in the exportation of trophies from South Africa.

CITES data for 2006-2009 indicates large discrepancies between horn exported from South Africa, and amounts imported into Vietnam, for instance. There are also anomalies between the number of live animal exports and deliveries to China. One explanation that accounts for the difference is the repeated use of a single hunting permit for multiple hunts. These schemes have now been restricted.

Denied access to horn the quasi legal way Asian importers have turned to poaching to obtain their product. Coupled with increased disposable income in the East – Asian businessmen and industrialists are driving the market – the demand for horn has grown dramatically.

The danger associated with the acquisition of horn, combined with the wealth of the purchaser, has driven the wholesale price of horn up to a reported US$20,000 per kilogram. Criminal syndicates that use sophisticated equipment in slick, military-style operations, are the main players. Their sheer efficacy has taken everyone by surprise. 333 animals were killed illegally in South Africa in 2010.

Naturally, private ranch owners are alarmed at the reduction in revenue this turn of events represents, and calls for the legalisation of trade in rhino horn are being heard. In South Africa 25% of the rhino population is in private hands, while the country provides a home for 82% of the total number on the continent. In other words the owners of approximately 20% of African rhinos are raising concerns about the commercial viability of keeping them.

The idea being mooted calls for a centralised selling organisation that would control the amount and the price of horn released onto the market. It is envisaged that natural mortalities, harvested product and stockpiles would supply this structure. The financing of conservation efforts through the generated revenues is a persuasive argument in favour of the concept. Furthermore, the opportunity to profile the horn through DNA testing would ensure its legal provenance.

“The real issue for conservation is the source of supply of a particular product: was the product obtained from a source that will encourage further poaching, or does the source compete with the providers of freshly supplied (poached) product?” says Mike t’Sas-Rolfes, an environmental economist.

It all sounds very sensible in the cold light of finance.

Most entrepreneurs will tell you, however, that a fundamental precept in doing business is to minimise risk. The financial argument is but one aspect of the whole. So let’s step back and ask what the overall issue is.

“To conserve genetically viable populations of each individual species in the wild,” is one of the chief objectives of all conservationists observes ‘tSas-Rolfes.

The lesson we have learned is that a trade ban, on its own, is inadequate as a conservation measure. “There is a growing realisation that trade bans cannot be effective without the use of direct measures (such as consumer awareness campaigns) that genuinely reduce consumer demand to residual levels,” says ‘tSas Rolfes.

So would a reversal of the trade ban be the silver bullet? Would allowing limited trade satisfy consumer demand and ensure the continued existence of rhino in the wild? This is where I was really hoping for an ‘aha’ moment – one that would sweep me away with its unexpected common sense – one that would show that the risk to rhino of such a reversal was minimal.

After much grappling with the problem, looking at it every which way I could, I kept coming back to people and how we behave.

Here I couldn’t get past the muddled message that lifting the trade ban would send. On the one hand: ‘rhino horn doesn’t cure cancer – get with the programme.’ And simultaneously: ‘you can have rhino horn as long as you’re prepared to pay us for it.’ Talk about mixed signals.

Lifting the trade ban would mean endorsing the consumption of rhino horn. This would not only undermine education programmes it could also be interpreted as: ‘as long as you are rich it’s okay to remain mired in the past.’  Something about that smacks of imperious irresponsibility and is about as useful as a damp facecloth in dousing a roaring inferno.

Poaching is the direct and immediate problem facing rhino. Therefore direct and immediate interventions will serve the species best: greater security, better intelligence and harsher punishment for criminals. The wider solution requires simple, clear and consistent promotion: rhino horn has no curative properties, the conservation of biodiversity is essential to our own longterm survival.

So rather than try to fit a changing world into a specific bias, perhaps we should expand our thinking, and allow for the interconnection of different views and their effect upon one another.

It is appropriate that the plight of the rhino, an animal associated with transformation in the Asian mind, has come to the fore during this period of great change in Chinese and Vietnamese society. It is a symbol of a culture shift.   And it is inevitable that, with or without the existence of rhino,  the Asians will eventually learn that its horn has no place in modern medicine.  Likewise, at some point, Western culture needs to accept that not everything in life is about money.


Elephants, Rhinos and the Economics of the Illegal Trade, Michael ‘tSas-Rolfes, Pachyderm No. 24 Jul-Dec 1997.

African and Asian Rhinoceroses – Status, Conservation and Trade, IUCN and TRAFFIC Report, Nov 2009.




5 thoughts on “Legalising Rhino Horn

  1. caroline hurry

    What an excellent and brilliantly thought-out article Clarissa. I really enjoyed how you presented so many sides to the debate. I agree with all your sentiments. I do feel that farming could be the answer – an animal worth more dead than alive is doomed. Also if the horn is humanely removed – no need to butcher the poor creature – the keratin does grow back. The trade in the East WILL NOT just go away. Sure if we legalise it, it will remove the need for poaching and slaughtering the poor rhino.
    Also agree with harsher penalties but please read Kathy Whitehead’s blog on our website for allegations that diplomats smuggle rhino horn out of SA with immunity. There are some very good responses to her blog entitled A Horny Dilemma too.

  2. Jake Grieves-Cook

    Well-written and seems a compelling argument to me!
    And I am sure you are right not to be impressed by that old chestnut that trade in animal parts will produce funds to do great work for conservation.
    As is so often the case, the real solution is education – getting people to understand that it is an incredible waste of money to buy rhino horn as a medication at such stratospheric costs when there are other modern medical treatments available at a tiny fraction of the cost and which are more effective and can actually work, unlike rhino horn!

  3. Norman Doak

    A well written resume’ and I can only agree that it all comes down to one situation — People and how we behave (or is it they ?) No easy solution at all as we all see things differently but education is imperitive as we well know. BUT you still can’t make a vegetarian agree that meat is good and no amount of education will actually change attitudes so we must make it beneficial somehow other than financially.

  4. Clarissa

    So true, Norman. I think there is a clarion call in this crisis for all Africans to get up and defend their heritage. It is a matter of cultural pride this side of the pond too.

  5. Ralph Pina

    Well reasoned argument Clarissa, highlighting the internal contradiction of the message in legalising trade. I might just add that the simple economic assumption by some that increasing supply (by legalising trade) will outstrip the demand (as Asian the middle-class grows) and thus reduce the horn’s value, is so mathematically flawed that it doesn’t bear consideration. Making conservation depend on economics (trade, hunting, ecotourism, consumption, etc.) SOLELY, is a bad idea and short-term thinking at its worst.

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