LEGALISING TRADE IN RHINO HORN - THE BACKGROUND
The debate on whether legalising trade in rhino horn would help reduce the current level of poaching or whether it would make the situation worse is without doubt the most polarising topic in rhino conservation today.
Whether or not an animal or part of an animal can be traded legally is governed by policies set out by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES). Currently CITES state that international trade in rhinoceros horn is not permitted under any circumstances. CITES has a Conference of the Parties (CoP) every three years, where its policies are reviewed and proposed amendments are voted on. The last CoP took place in South Africa in September 2016.
It was widely expected that South Africa, home to more than 70% of the world’s rhino and 79% of Africa’s rhino, would propose to legalise international trade in rhino horn, but they did not do so. However, Swaziland did make such a proposal, meaning the topic was discussed at the 2016 CoP.
The ‘pro-trade’ side of the debate argue that by allowing private rhino owners to effectively farm rhino and harvest their horn at regular intervals (rhino horn has an average four year growth cycle and could be harvested every two years) and sell the harvested horn through controlled and regulated channels, it will help to satisfy the demand for rhino horn in Asia. They argue that this practice will generate revenue that would be used to increase rhino security and reduce the appetite to poach rhino and trade illegally in its horn.
The ‘no-trade’ side of the debate argue that there are simply not enough rhino in the world to satisfy the perceived market for rhino horn in Asia, most notably Vietnam and China. Furthermore, it is argued that we do not know the size of the actual market for rhino horn and it is very likely that legalising trade in the horn will in realty provide a legitimate channel to launder illegal rhino horn and that poaching levels could very well increase. Those against a legal trade also state that farming rhino will lead to animals living in increasingly unnatural and ‘cramped’ conditions to maximise their return on investment
Helping Rhinos' Opinion
At Helping Rhinos we sit on the no-trade side of the fence and believe that legalising trade in rhino horn would very likely result in an increase in poaching. It would certainly change the game significantly and we do not believe enough research has been completed and published to demonstrate that a legal trade in rhino horn will either satisfy the demand in destination markets or reduce the level of rhino poaching.
One thing is clear however. Whether you are pro-trade or no-trade, each side argues they have the same goal – the long term survival of the rhino. Some will argue that private rhino owners will become very wealthy individuals if trade is legalised. Unfortunately, the whole trade debate has resulted in two segments ‘fighting’ against each other when both claim to have the same common goal, to protect and save the rhino
At Helping Rhinos our strong desire is for CITES CoP to vote against a legal trade in rhino horn and that following the vote, a decision that will stand for the next three years at least, both the pro trade and no trade advocates can find a way to work together. We must unite behind a common cause – saving the rhino.
It will be difficult to put the differences aside, but surely now is the time to do so to unite in fighting against the poaching syndicates and corruption that threatens our beloved rhino with extinction.
With the current price of rhino horn it is virtually impossible to succeed with this argument – so we must find new ways of engaging with the local communities and bringing them on board in the fight to save the rhino.
There are a number of theories as to the cause of the increase in poaching in since 2007. These include stories of a high ranking politician in Vietnam claiming he had been cured of cancer by taking rhino's horn, but perhaps the largest contributory factor is the increase in wealth in China and Vietnam. The percentage of these countries' populations that can now afford to purchase rhino horn is much larger than it was only a few years ago.
As mentioned previously, this has lead to the use of rhino horn as a status symbol, with many individuals showing off their wealth by openly using rhino horn for anything from a hangover cure to boosting ‘general health’.
Rhino horn trade has been banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) since 1977, yet the black-market demand for horn is high. Driven by Asian countries, particularly Vietnam and China. It is used in traditional Asian medicine, though there is no scientific evidence that horn is beneficial as a remedy. More recently, and particularly among the middle and upper-classes of Vietnam, the purchase of rhino horn signifies someone’s wealth and success. It is used as a status symbol. Read more about rhino poaching.
TROPHY HUNTING - THE BACKGROUND
Trophy hunting of any species is a controversial topic, and even more so when it comes to endangered species.
The practice of trophy hunting involves a specific number of permits being granted by a country’s wildlife authority allowing individuals, who pay a large sum of money, to be taken into the African bush by a professional hunter, track the species they have paid to hunt and shoot that individual animal. The guest hunter will typically apply to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) to transport the body of the animal they have shot to their home country.
There are many people who believe effectively regulated trophy hunting can be an acceptable method of conservation, with revenue generated from hunting being used to maintain healthy breeding populations of a given species, thus increasing the overall population. It is claimed that a tourist who partakes in trophy hunting will spend much more on their trip than the average safari tourist. It is also stated that hunting permits are granted for a specific animal to be shot, typically in the case of rhino this would be an old bull past breeding age that may be preventing younger bulls to assume dominance and therefore widen the gene pool.
There are also many people who believe the shooting of an endangered species, such as a rhino, is wrong and sends mixed messages. They counter that while a hunter may spend more per trip, they will only pay to see (or shoot) the animal once and that enough rhino must be present to satisfy the demands of numerous hunters (it should be noted that there are restrictions on the number of permits issued). A single rhino can be viewed by many safari tourists over a number of years, meaning the actual revenue generated from keeping the rhino alive is more over its life time than if you shoot it as part of a trophy hunt.
Of course, there is also the topic of corruption, and as was seen with the widely publicised ‘Cecil the Lion’ incident, the permitted animal is not always the one that is shot.
HELPING RHINOS' OPINION
At Helping Rhinos we believe that there is no place for the killing of a healthy animal in the name of conservation. In some African countries trophy hunting is a way of life but that is not to say it is the future. We believe that alternative ways to secure essential revenue, for both rhino owners (whether they be private or state rhino owners) and for local communities adjacent to rhinos’ territories should be researched and implemented. While we firmly support ending the trade in trophy hunting of endangered species, including rhino, we must ensure any change in legislation is made after a full review of the impact of doing so.
Trophy hunting can adversely affect the survival of species and undermine conservation efforts. Trophy hunters often target rare and imperilled species or animals with impressive physical traits and remove individuals who are essential for reproduction and stabilising social groups. By targeting such animals, trophy hunters directly and indirectly contribute to population declines, disrupted social structure, and reduced resilience. The industry drives demand for parts and products of endangered species and incentivises and prioritises their killing through award schemes and other promotions.
Furthermore, shooting animals of protected and endangered species is often a privilege of foreign hunters, while access to wildlife and land is often restricted for locals. This disenfranchisement of local communities coupled with the social destabilising effects of trophy hunting on many species can fuel human-animal conflict rather than mitigate it. Such situations are further exacerbated by the fact that the trophy hunting industry fails to deliver meaningful economic benefits to local communities, contrary to what is claimed by the pro trophy hunting narrative. In fact, as most hunts are conducted on private land and the hunting sector is plagued with corruption, trophy hunting revenues usually end up in the pockets of hunting operators, private farm owners and local elites.
In 2022 Helping Rhinos joined 137 conservation and animal protection organisations from all around the world, including 45 NGOs from African countries, in a joint position paper to speak out against trophy hunting and urge policy-makers to ban imports.