Implications of Opening Domestic Rhino Horn Trade in South Africa


In early February, the Government of South Africa put forth a proposal to allow domestic trade in “rhino horn, parts, products or derivatives.” Following an invitation for comment, the International Rhino Foundation, along with many international and local conservation organizations, submitted formal objections to the proposal. Yesterday, South Africa’s top court dismissed an appeal by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) to continue the current moratorium against trade, essentially opening up the sale of rhino horn within South Africa.

The IRF applauds all rhinoceros range states’ (countries in which rhinos exist in the wild) efforts to manage their own natural resources, which includes maintaining healthy rhino populations as well as raising money for the important work of protecting and conserving these assets. Wildlife-based land use in Africa requires substantial funding to meet associated conservation costs. There is an urgent need to explore many economic options to protect endangered species, while also recognizing that the challenges associated with land-use and wildlife conservation issues are real and must be seriously considered.

The challenges faced by South Africa’s DEA are enormous and complex. Just prior to the CITES Conference of the Parties 17 (CoP17) held in September 2016, a South African Government-appointed Committee of Inquiry undertook a comprehensive process to examine the viability of legalizing international commercial trade of rhino horn. There is insufficient evidence demonstrating that the necessary conditions with respect to governance in South Africa have, to-date, changed significantly enough to ignore the Committee’s recommendation against trade.

Implementing legalization of trade also requires that appropriate laws and regulations be in place and functioning in potential importing countries. It is unclear as to how adoption of appropriate laws would be demonstrated and how capacity to enforce these laws would be demonstrated, and in what timeframe, at an internationally acceptable level.

The IRF believes that legalizing any trade in rhino horn at this juncture has a very high probability of having a detrimental impact on all five rhino species in the wild. Our position is that legal trade should not be considered until there are convincing data indicating that legalization could enhance conservation efforts for wild rhinoceros populations around the globe, particularly the critically endangered Sumatran and Javan rhinoceros, both of which number fewer than 100 individuals.


Rhino poaching statistics released on 27 February 2017 by the DEA show that there has been a slight decrease in the number of rhinos poached in South Africa over the past 2 years. Yet, criminal networks still are killing approximately three rhinos per day.

The successful security efforts leading to the decrease in poaching and increase in arrests in Kruger National Park are commendable. However, with this, poachers are moving to other areas, such as KwaZulu-Natal Province, where rhino poaching has increased 38 percent since 2015. There has also been spillover into neighboring countries such as Namibia and Zimbabwe, which lost 80 and 50 rhinos respectively in 2015.


The CITES-approved one-off sale of excess elephant ivory in 2008, designed to reduce demand in Asian markets, may have unintentionally sparked the current demand for ivory, contributing to the current crisis and the deaths of 30,000 African elephants per year. This is critical information to consider when discussing legalizing either domestic or international rhinoceros horn trade.

Given the disastrous effects of the one-off ivory sale, the very real potential looms that legalizing horn trade could exacerbate the current rhino poaching crisis.


We believe that the potential costs of legalizing horn trade outstrip potential benefits in three main ways:

  • First, an assessment of key Asian consumer markets strongly suggests that total demand would not be satisfied by natural mortalities, current and future stockpiles or farmed horn under current conditions for all of the potential major supply countries. This would only be worsened in the case of South Africa even though its stock and potential stock represent a large percentage of the current total market and the total rhino population. More importantly, the desire to satisfy such a wide demand gap would likely raise the incentive for others to enter trade, legal and illegal, on the supply side.
  • Second, experts have also found that the awareness of the illegal status of rhino horn trade is dampening purchasing behavior so legalization could remove this effect while additionally causing new interest on the demand side.
  • Third, legal markets often provide cover for illegal markets, even in well-regulated markets, such as the U.S. and China, as shown in various reports. The laundering of illegal product into legal markets also raises the already high costs of enforcement.


We question whether the purpose of legalizing trade is to reduce demand or to try to meet demand. It seems unlikely that a legal trade in rhino horn from one country, even with large stockpiles, could meet the accelerating demand in Asian consumer markets. The new regulation also allows export of two rhino horns per person for “personal use.” Allowing export of horn for personal use implicitly lends credibility to the idea that rhino horn has medicinal value, which is not supported by sound science, but has a very real potential to increase demand.


Under CITES, to which South Africa is a signatory, commercial international trade in rhino horn is prohibited. Since it would appear that there is extremely limited demand for horn in-country, it is difficult to understand why domestic trade would be permitted.

Lifting the moratorium and allowing citizens or visitors to export a maximum of two horns for “personal purposes” will likely expand illegal movement of horn and place tremendous pressure on law enforcement. For example, how can already overburdened and under-equipped law enforcement personnel distinguish between legal and illegal horn in the domestic market? Anyone carrying horn could claim it is legal and that they have simply misplaced their permit. A related question is whether RhoDIS, a rhino DNA bank used in forensics, has the capacity and is sufficiently funded to respond to the increased needs generated by the lifting of the moratorium.

The argument that horn sales would generate extra revenue for improved law enforcement would not appear to be well thought-through, as most of the income will go to private rhino farmers. In reality, most of the burden of funding regulation and enforcement will fall on the shoulders of the South African Government.


In 2013, the Republic of Indonesia hosted the Asian rhino range States of Bhutan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Nepal, in Bandar Lampung for the first-ever Asian Rhino Range States Meeting that resulted in the Bandar Lampung Declaration. In the jointly agreed Declaration, Asian rhino range States agreed that “The CITES ban in the international trade of all rhino products needs to be maintained and enforced, including by those countries where rhino products are used, any countries that act as intermediate points in the trade, and all rhino range States.”

Three of the five rhino species live outside of Africa. India, Nepal, and Indonesia in particular also understand the financial pressures faced by range states – governments and private wildlife owners alike – in protecting and conserving rhino species in light of increased security and enforcement costs related to poaching and illegal trade.

Although there is no absolute way to predict what the unintended consequences of legalizing horn trade might be for tiny populations of rhinos in Asia, already teetering on the brink of extinction, Asian rhino range states agree that opening up trade would likely lead to the decimation of Greater one-horned (3,500 animals remaining), Sumatran (fewer than 100 left), and Javan (no more than 63 remaining) rhino populations as demand for rhino horn increases beyond current levels.

IRF urges the Republic of South Africa to reconsider the grave effects resulting from lifting the rhino horn trade moratorium, especially its potential effect in all the other rhino range states, particularly Indonesia, which holds two critically endangered rhino species – both numbering fewer than 100 individuals.


All parties agree that maintaining self-sustaining, viable populations of rhinos in the wild is ideal. The international conservation community fully recognizes and applauds the Republic of South Africa’s vision that was responsible for the recovery of the white rhino from tiny numbers to roughly 20,000 today.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution that will solve the rhino-poaching crisis: legalizing trade on its own will not work; nor will anti-poaching patrols be sufficient unless there also is a reduction in demand for horn in Asian markets. At this moment, there is not enough information available to determine whether legalizing horn trade will exacerbate or improve the current poaching crisis. We urge the Republic of South Africa to honor the recommendations of its Committee of Inquiry against rhino horn trade as governance conditions have not changed significantly enough to merit legal trade at this time, nor have critical legislative and governance measures been identified for potential countries of import.

The IRF urges stronger international cooperation to doggedly pursue the criminals driving wildlife crime. We also encourage all governments to stringently enforce their own laws, vigorously prosecuting the criminal networks driving rhino horn use and trafficking. We urge all governments to honor their commitments under CITES until it can be demonstrated that effective laws, governance, and monitoring measures are in place in countries of export as well as in potential importing countries, and that legalization of trade in rhinoceros horn will enhance conservation efforts for wild populations around the globe.