Johannesburg, South Africa Some conservationists are breathing a sigh of relief: The prohibition of sales of rhino horns across borders that has been in force since 1977 will remain in place.
A proposal that would have lifted the ban was rejected Tuesday by the parties to the Convention of the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the global wildlife trade treaty composed of 182 nations and the European Union. Government representatives have gathered in Johannesburg for a two week conference to set international wildlife trade policy.
The proposal, submitted by Swaziland, would have allowed the country to sell the horns of its white rhinos across borders. The nation's representative, Ted Reilly, argued during the debate that the sales would bring in much needed money for wildlife conservation. “We all know the ban is not working,” he said.
But in a 26-100 vote, with 17 abstentions, the committee rejected the measure to allow a trade in the horns of white rhinos.
The largest of the five rhino species, white rhinos are also the most abundant, with 20,400 remaining—that’s two-thirds of the total rhino population. They’re found in nearly a dozen African countries, with South Africa home to 70 percent. Hunting almost drove the 5,000-pound animals extinct toward the end of the 19th century, but they made an astonishing comeback thanks to conservation efforts.
Now the animals are severely threatened again, and everyone is scrambling to figure out how to save them. New wealth in Vietnam and China has boosted demand for horns, and last year alone poachers shot and killed more than a thousand rhinos. The horns are made of keratin—the same stuff in our hair and fingernails—and are made into valuable carvings and erroneously used to cure everything from cancer to rheumatism. (See: "Can Fake Rhino Horn Stop the Poaching of a Species At Risk?")
To Sell or Not to Sell Horns
It’s against this backdrop that Swaziland submitted its proposal to open the international trade, an idea that’s already ignited fierce debate among rhino range countries, wildlife managers, rhino breeders, economists, and conservationists.
Swaziland asked permission to sell nearly 730 pounds of rhino horn from existing stockpiles to licensed retailers in “the Far East” for $9.9 million. It asked to sell another 44 pounds of horn a year by cutting the horns off live rhinos, a procedure that can be performed on sedated rhinos. The horns grow back, like our fingernails.
During the meeting, most rhino range countries—including South Africa—supported the plan, saying that proceeds from the sales of horns could help Swaziland protect its rhinos. “A sustainable and non-detrimental trade in rhino horn is possible under the right conditions,” the representative from South Africa asserted.
Meanwhile opponents argued that a legal trade would stimulate demand, complicate efforts for law enforcement, and allow legal horn to provide cover for illicit horn. Most major conservation groups share this view.
“Our concern is that legal trade right now would confuse consumers and undermine demand reduction efforts of not only conservation organizations but governments as well,” said Leigh Henry, a senior policy adviser for the World Wildlife Fund. She applauded a measure passed by the parties on Sunday that allows for CITES to crack down on Mozambique and Vietnam—the biggest hub of illegal rhino horn trafficking—if they don’t intensify enforcement efforts.
If it had passed, Swaziland’s trade proposal could have paved the way for neighboring South Africa to at some point sell horns from its stockpile, which is much larger than Swaziland’s. South Africa's Private Rhino Owners Association estimates that its members have about six tons of rhino horn and that the government has close to 25 tons, according to a Reuters report. (Related: “Special Investigation: Inside the Deadly Rhino Horn Trade")
In fact, some conservationists have accused Swaziland of acting as a proxy for South Africa in a bid to legalize the rhino horn trade. It was widely believed that South Africa would submit its own proposal, but days before the deadline it decided that selling horns to other countries wouldn’t benefit its rhinos. Then Swaziland—seemingly out of nowhere—submitted an 11th-hour proposal of its own.
Separately, South Africa is currently embroiled in a court battle over domestic rhino horn sales, with the environment ministry fighting to keep its domestic ban in place and the plaintiffs, rhino owners with millions of dollars worth of horn in storage, fighting to lift it.
With virtually no South African market for rhino horn, opponents of the trade worry that a legal domestic trade would allow rhino horn to leak onto the international black market. The government has appealed a decision that would have lifted the ban, so the horn sale prohibition remains in place—for now.
This story was updated on October 4.
(Read more stories out of the CITES meeting in Johannesburg here.)