South Africa is home to an estimated 19,700 rhinos, about 80 percent of the world’s population, but last year poachers killed 1,215 of them, up from just 13 in 2007. International trade in rhino horns has been banned since 1977, but smugglers sell the horns from poached animals in Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia, where they’re touted as hangover cures and aphrodisiacs. They’re also used in traditional Chinese medicine and handles for traditional daggers called Jambiya in Yemen. Recent years have seen an upsurge in demand for rhino horn in Vietnam, where powdered rhino horn and water is used as a ‘cure-all’ tonic. According to TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, it is particularly Vietnamese demand that is the greatest threat to rhino’s today. Two South Africans who now farm rhinos on game ranches within South Africa recently appeared in court in Pretoria seeking to overturn the country’s ban on the domestic rhino horn trade. John Hume and Johan Kruger argue that the ban, which has been in force since 2009, is unconstitutional. And they claim it has contributed to the recent sharp rise in rhino poaching in South Africa. They contend that rhino horn is a renewable resource since a horn can be painlessly cut off. And they say that a legal domestic trade in horn would depress prices and discourage poaching, as well as allow proceeds to go toward conservation. They also favour lifting the international ban. South Africa currently has a stockpile of an estimated 20 tons of horn. John Hume estimates that he currently has approximately 4 tons of rhino horn, worth around US$ 235 million, based on today’s black market prices. If the ban is lifted he stands to reap large profits from the sale.
Rhino dehorning is a simple 20 minute procedure that is performed by a veterinarian while the rhino is anaesthetised. The horn is removed just above the growth point, this is painless as the horn is composed mainly of keratin (the same as our fingernails) and is similar to a vet trimming a horses hoof. The horn will grow back at a rate in excess of I kg/year for males and 0.6kg/year females. As rhino live on average for 35-40 years they could effectively produce 8-10 horns in their lifetime, or about 60kg of horn. The counter argument conservationists make is that a legal trade would simply allow poached rhino horn to be passed off as legal horn, circumventing trade controls and encouraging poaching, and therefore a coexisting legal and illegal trade would wipe out rhinos even faster. A recent study by economists at the University of Pretoria found that the demand for rhino horn is independent of price, meaning people will buy it no matter how expensive it gets. Vietnam, in particular, is driving the illicit trade. The country’s upper-middle class is booming—and people want rhino horn as a status symbol. The combination of these factors has pushed the demand to all-time high levels. Hume, who owns the largest rhino farm in the world, with more than 1161 rhino’s has been systematically dehorning his rhinos for years. He currently employs a full-time vet working 52 weeks a year dehorning rhino. A full-time security force protecting his rhino, and farm workers feeding his every increasing stock with lucerne and feed pellets. He’s currently falling just short of his aim of breeding 200 rhino per year. He strongly believes that legalising the international trade in rhino horn is the solution to the current rhino poaching crisis. Rhino’s are one of Africa’s natural resources, an iconic species that many believe should remain in the ‘wild’ and not be farmed and restricted to Zoo’s. Others believe that on a continent fraught with poverty, hardship, famine, drought, war and starvation, we should be looking to increase our natural resources at every opportunity and framing presents such an opportunity.