South Africa’s intentions to reopen rhino horn trade could spell disaster

Born Free is urging the South African government to rethink, and inviting supporters to write to express their opposition.

A rhino mother and her calf, in the wild

On 18th June, South Africa’s Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, Barbara Creecy, unveiled her draft plan for managing the country’s rhinos

While there is much to be supported in the draft plan, including an intention to reintroduce rhinos currently under intensive management into the wild in South Africa and across the region, Born Free is extremely concerned to see proposals to pursue legal international trade in rhino horn from protected wild rhinoceros by December 2030.

Demand for rhino horn, which is primarily used in traditional Asian medicine, has resulted in devastating declines in rhino numbers over recent decades. While rhinos have been targeted across their African and Asian range, South Africa has been the worst affected range State, having lost over 10,000 rhinos to poachers since the turn of this century. The poachers know no mercy – these animals typically suffered agonizing deaths, and many dependent rhino calves will have been left to starve after their mothers have been butchered.

A ban on international trade in rhino horn was introduced by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the world’s wildlife trade regulator, in 1977. Thanks to tough enforcement in South Africa and efforts to reduce demand in market countries, the numbers of rhinos being killed by poachers in South Africa has dropped significantly since its annual peak of over 1,400 animals in 2014. However, South Africa reported more than 500 poached rhinos in 2023, and poaching is also on the rise again in the neighbouring states of Namibia and Botswana.

Other rhino range countries, such as Kenya which is home to around 2,000 white and black rhinos, and India and Nepal which between them accommodate more than 4,000 one-horned rhinos, have successfully protected their populations from the worst of the poaching crisis in recent years, and have seen steady increases in those populations. These countries have consistently opposed any weakening of the international trade ban. Any effort by South Africa to promote a return to international trade in rhino horn could have devastating consequences for rhino species across their entire range, additionally putting the lives of those protecting them at increased risk.

Responding to South Africa’s proposals, Born Free’s Head of Policy, Dr Mark Jones, said: “As home to almost 80% of the world’s rhinos, South Africa has an opportunity and a responsibility to place itself at the forefront of regional and international efforts to secure the future of these amazing animals. However, any attempt to overturn the ban on international rhino horn trade will inevitably risk legitimising rhino horn in the eyes of consumers, undermine efforts to reduce demand, and incentivise further poaching, putting rhinos in South Africa, and those in other countries in Africa and beyond, at huge risk, severely setting back the hard fought efforts to protect them. It would also complicate law enforcement and undermine the implementation of South Africa’s Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking. We urge the Minister to think again.”

The Minister’s proposals also include the development and implementation of a strategy for regulated domestic trade in rhino parts and derivatives. South Africa’s domestic ban on rhino horn trade was overturned in 2017 following a legal challenge by commercial rhino farmers. Incentivising further domestic trade, including through health clinics in which so-called ‘traditional’ remedies using rhino horn for health tourists from the Far East could be administered, would create more demand, open up opportunities for illegal international trade, and undermine the internationally agreed ban on rhino horn.

Dr Jones continued: “Rather than pursuing short-term commercial opportunities from the sale of rhino horn, we urge the South African authorities to respect the ban on international rhino horn trade, and to seek to permanently re-establish the ban on commercial domestic trade at the earliest opportunity. We also encourage the authorities to ensure that rhino horn stockpiles are put beyond potential commercial use, in order to prevent the possibility of stockpiles entering illegal markets.”

Born Free will respond in detail to the South African proposals. We also strongly encourage our supporters to write to the Minister, urging her to desist from any attempt to promote trade in rhino horn. The deadline for responses is 18th July.