South Africa’s contradictory plan to open rhino horn trade will encourage poaching
Adam Cruise - Daily Maverick

Legalising trade will remove the stigma that rhino horn is illegal and could entice many more consumers into the market. The demand will then outstrip the legal supply and poaching will increase. This will push security measures beyond breaking point. 


The South African government is hoping to open up international trade and develop the domestic trade in rhino horn. This could have dire consequences for the future survival of the species.

In the recently released Draft Biodiversity Management Plan (BMP) for black and white rhinos, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) states that “South Africa will work with range states and potential destination countries to support a proposal for international commercial trade in rhinoceros’ horn from protected wild rhinoceros, for conservation purposes, when conditions become favourable.”

The aim is if rhinos are given a commercial value, it will “shift the pressure off them” as there will be a greater incentive to protect them.

This proposal raises several serious red flags and is full of contradictions. 

The BMP envisions reduced rhino poaching, reduced trafficking in rhino horn, secured stockpiles, and a “significantly mitigated” risk from demand, yet conversely, it proposes a suite of commercial trade actions at both the domestic and international level, which by their very nature will increase demand and the associated risks of poaching and illegal trade. 

Legal trade = increased demand = more poaching

This is precisely what happened to African elephants when South Africa, along with Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe, legally offloaded over 100 tonnes of ivory onto the Chinese and Japanese markets in 2008. The move was supposed to relieve the pressure on poaching of elephants but instead created the opposite effect.

During the seven years after that sale, the poaching of elephants for their tusks saw one-third of the savannah elephant populations disappear, while forest elephants lost two-thirds of their population over the same period.

Since that disaster, a ban on trading ivory from elephants has been resolutely enforced under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), while domestic ivory markets in China, the USA and Europe were shut down. 

The closure of the legal trade has since seen elephant poaching decline and demand for their tusks reduced.

Opening up a legal international trade will undoubtedly see something similar happen with rhinos. Legalising the trade will remove the stigma that rhino horn is illegal and could entice many more consumers into the market. The demand will then outstrip the legal supply and poaching will increase. This will push security measures beyond breaking point.

Unlike elephants whose continent-wide population is around 400,000, rhino numbers are considerably less. Black rhinos have a population of only 6,500 individuals. White rhinos are faring marginally better, with around 20,000 individuals left in the world. About 80% of the total population is found in South Africa, making the country crucial for the future survival of the species.

Poaching for their horns remains by far the biggest threat to the survival of both species. Since 2008, around 8,000 rhinos have been poached in South Africa.

(Graphic: Supplied)

The international trade in rhino horn is banned under CITES regulations. It seems unlikely that CITES members – even if South Africa elicits support from its neighbours and potential destination countries – will open an international trade in an endangered species that has been protected from trade in their horns since 1977.

The spectre of the domestic trade

However, South Africa is playing a long game. While the plan is to pursue international trade at CITES in the future, there is a domestic trade in rhino horn already in place, and the BMP hopes to ramp it up. 

South Africa has allowed the domestic trade in rhino horn since 2017 after the High Court overturned a moratorium to trade rhino horn on a technicality when the DFFE (then called the DEA) didn’t follow the correct procedures.

What makes the plans for domestic trade so concerning is that South Africa can do it unilaterally. There is no need to lobby the world to support a listing proposal at CITES to allow trade and persuade “consumer” countries to pass new domestic legislation. 

The plans to promote domestic consumption of rhino horn are especially alarming and build on the equally alarming proposal in the draft National Biodiversity Economy Strategy to create a tourist market for rhino horn consumption, including “health clinics to administer traditional remedies using rhino horn for health tourists from the Far East”.

By the government’s own admission, there is currently no domestic demand for rhino horn in South Africa. Instead, South Africa would have to create new markets by generating new demand and a new domestic consumer base to sell horns commercially.

Confusingly, this goal is included under the objective to “effectively manage and reduce demand for rhino derivatives”. The BMP is simultaneously calling for reducing and stimulating demand for rhino horn. This, of course, is nonsensical. 

Another contradictory proposed action in the BMP is to “develop and implement a Demand Management Strategy which has mechanisms to overcome potential tensions between demand reduction and trade promotion”.

South Africa is yet to meet the findings set out by a Committee of Inquiry in 2016, which stated that continued interactions with consumers within known consumer and range states need to be implemented “to better understand consumer patterns, attitudes and behaviour”.

A monitoring system was also meant to be developed and implemented to gather information relating to prices paid to poachers and the quantity of horns traded. However, none of this has taken place almost 10 years later. Whoever has the misfortune to develop this contradictory plan now has a deadline of just two years.

Community benefits?

One primary objective cited in the BMP is “to advance transformation and community empowerment”. It appears to be well-intentioned, but how exactly will the DFFE be able to transform community land into wild rhino habitats where they can be safely and viably protected? The BMP makes no mention of any means to carry this out.

Also, the incentive would be for new owners to breed rhinos intensively to achieve maximum profit. This has already been evident with many existing private rhino owners who have, until now, been breeding rhinos for the express purpose of profiting off future sales of rhino horns.  

Bizarrely, this comes at a time when the DFFE has conversely stated in their latest Draft Policy Position on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Elephant, Lion, Leopard and Rhinoceros (2023) that intensive farming and breeding of rhinos is to be phased out and domestic stocks rewilded – a process that has already begun with African Parks rewilding some 2,000 rhinos from a breeding farm in North-West.

This effectively means that any future rhino horn harvesting must come from “wild” rhinos. Rhino owners, under this policy, would need to be monitored against intensive breeding and their activities enforced, meaning that more resources, which the DFFE lacks, would be required.

Furthermore, as existing private rhino owners will attest, keeping rhinos is an expensive business with the above concomitant enforcement and security problems. Who is going to finance this and provide adequate security measures?

The push for international and domestic trade in rhino horn – while South Africa remains mired in a rhino poaching crisis – is incredibly reckless. KwaZulu-Natal has experienced two consecutive years of record-breaking rhino poaching.

(Graphic: Supplied)

Enforcement measures – domestically and internationally – remain inadequate; rhino horn is being stolen from government stockpiles, and countries still aren’t collaborating on joint, intelligence-led investigations to address organised rhino horn trafficking and other wildlife crimes. 

Clear demand-reduction measures, and ensuring that a ban on the sale of rhino horn remains firmly in place, are the only means of securing the future survival of South Africa’s rhinos.

The biodiversity management plan is now open for public comment for 30 days. DM



Dr Adam Cruise is an investigative environmental journalist, travel writer and academic. He has contributed to a number of international publications, including National Geographic and The Guardian, covering diverse topics from the plight of elephants, rhinos and lions in Africa to coral reef rejuvenation in Indonesia. Cruise is a doctor of philosophy, specialising in animal and environmental ethics, and is the editor of the online Journal of African Elephants.

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