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We dehorn to keep rhino alive.

  1. We have to dehorn rhino for two very good reasons. First, if we don’t regularly trim the horns, they use them to kill each other.  That is what a rhino uses its horn for in nature.    And, if given the opportunity, they kill each other more often in intra-species combat than any other mammal in Africa. So, if we want to save rhino, the first thing we have to save them from is each other.  Second, we dehorn them because it makes them less attractive to poachers.  For these reasons, dehorning is now being done by all reserves.  Even Kruger is now aggressively dehorning.
  2. The horn grows back constantly. Like hair, a rhino’s horn is constantly growing out.  In fact, it grows so quickly that if you don’t repeat the effort every 2-3 years, you can’t tell that the animal was ever dehorned.
    1. An adult male will grow about 1.5-2.5 kgs of horn each year.
    2. Females will grow about 60% of that.
  3. When we dehorn rhino, the rhino feels no pain and are not harmed in any way. The horn is not alive, and it is always cut well above any live tissue.  Darting and dehorning can only be done by a highly qualified wildlife vet, and it is supervised by Provincial wildlife authorities.  The rhino feels exactly as much during dehorning as we do during a haircut.  When we are done, they walk off just as healthy as they were before.
  4. When we are done dehorning, we have to put the material into a vault and leave it there. Meanwhile, somewhere in South Africa, an animal will be killed for the same amount of horn we have sitting in a vault.  The same horn that we could have sold to the overseas market.  So we could have swapped that useless horn, that we have to remove in any case, for the life of an animal, except we weren’t allowed to.

If we sell the horn that we have to take off, we can destroy the business of poaching.

Every credible wildlife economist who has looked at this has come to the same conclusion – that we can swamp the market with horn already sitting in storage, destroy the business of poaching, save the species, and generate astronomical revenues for this country.  Or we can sit on our backsides, complaining pointlessly, and watching them go extinct.

The debate on trading rhino horn is over.

In any case, the debate on what policy would be best has been settled.  It is no longer up to you and me.  The South African Scientific Authority spent years looking at this from all angles, and they came to the clear conclusion that allowing the legal sale of horn that is regularly removed from healthy happy animals is the best way to save them from extinction. 

Their ruling enjoys huge support amongst the conservation giants of this country — the men and women like George Hughes, Thug Haines, Paul Dutton, and others who saved the rhino from extinction once before, and who are dismayed to see us losing so much time before we act to keep them safe now.

And this view is not unique to South Africa. Swaziland has long been very vocal about their belief that trade in horn is desperately needed to save the rhino.  Namibia has also more recently been clear that trade must happen immediately.  In fact, I am not aware of a single SADC nation that thinks otherwise at this point.

This is the most pointless extinction in the history of mankind.  We have everything we need to satisfy the market.  It causes no pain to the animals, and grows back quickly.  It would be ridiculous to wallow in the muck of a policy that virtually guarantees their extinction within 2-3 years when we have such an obvious solution staring us in the face.

So if the experts have come to the conclusion that trade in horn is the best thing we can do for rhino, what still holds us back?  The only thing delaying action is the misconception that trading in rhino horn is prohibited by CITES – the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species.

But the truth is that no such ban exists.

There is no ban on the trade in endangered species.

CITES does not prohibit trade.  CITES, understood correctly, is nothing more than a set of rules that guide how to trade if we are going to keep these species safe. Over 7 million animal specimens from Appendix 1 species were traded between 2012 and 2018.  I don’t know how anyone can describe that as a ‘trade ban.’.

The two biggest paths CITES allows for trade in the most endangered species are the “Non-Commercial” clause, and the Captive Breeding clause.

With regard to the first of those, trade in even the most endangered species is permitted, so long as the importing country says the use is not PRIMARILY ‘Commercial’.  Trade is allowed any time the importing country decides the use is more about medical, scientific, personal, botanical, educational, breeding, law enforcement, hunting, circus, or zoo purposes.  (Yes, “circus” use is a permitted excuse for trading in the most endangered species on Earth.)  The decision of the importing country is not subject to review by any other party.  CITES does not even allow the exporting country to question the purpose claimed by the importing nation.

And this is no small-print exemption.  In the years I analysed, 750 thousand Appendix One specimens were traded under one of the non-Commercial clauses.  Every single CITES country participated in this trade.  The biggest users of this exemption have been, in order, the United Arab Emirates, USA, Great Britain, Germany, and Spain, with these five countries accounting for 50% of all trade in Appendix One species under the non-Commercial exemption.  South Africa comes in at seventh among all countries making use of this path to trade in endangered species.

The other big way in which CITES very cleverly encourages countries to breed more of the most endangered animals is to allow any Appendix One species – the most highly protected species – to be traded almost without limit, if those animals come from a breeding program instead of having been taken from the wild.  And this is, by far, the biggest path to trade in endangered species, as it should be.

Between 2012 and 2018, six and a half million specimens were traded between 141 different countries, all of which was encouraged by CITES because the animals came out of breeding programs instead of depleting the wild.

This is a massively important rule in the context of rhino because South Africa is better than any other country in the world at breeding wildlife. In fact, South Africa actually has better biodiversity today than at any point in the last 100 years.  This is an astonishing achievement.  Biodiversity is plummeting everywhere else, but South Africa has completely reversed the decline.  In fact, South Africa has 20 times more wildlife today than it had just 50 years ago.  We’ve saved countless species from extinction – sable, bontebok, black wildebeest, ostrich, certain species of zebra, and more.  And we’ve done that by successfully breeding them and rewilding habitat for them to occupy.

What is South Africa’s secret?  This country is one of only two countries in the world that allows private individuals to own and profit from wildlife.  And once you give people an economic reason to invest in conservation, they do it.

Because of this culture of privately breeding and protecting wildlife, even while rhinos are quickly being poached to extinction in government-run parks, private reserves have bred rhino so successfully that they now hold almost 7,500 rhino in their care, and that number is growing.

If the South African government follows the guidance of its own Scientific Authority, instead of continuing the current policy of inaction, then these huge numbers of rhino on private reserves can provide the horn that ends poaching on government reserves.  And CITES has no interest in blocking that trade.  To the contrary, trade in horn from animals on private reserves is specifically encouraged by CITES as the best way to save the species.

Are we too late to fix this?

Between the horn now in storage and the horn that is produced every single year, if we act immediately, we can destroy the business of poaching, and generate huge sums of money for conservation and for the country. 

Poachers are estimated to be sending a little less than six tons of horn to Asia each year.  The most important question is, how much more horn than that do we need to send to Asia to permanently cripple the business of poaching.  If we assume that we need to send, say, 3 ½ times the current poached amount each year if we want to make it unprofitable to poach and keep our animals safe, how long could we keep up that 3 ½ times amount that before we would run out of horn?  The answer is that we would NEVER run out of horn, so long as we act now, before we lose too many of our live rhino.  In fact, by year 11, we would be producing considerably more horn than required, which is great because it means that we can then choose NOT to dehorn some rhino, while STILL ensuring that it remains unprofitable to poach.

This is a no-regrets move because we are better off even if it doesn’t work, or if we decide to stop after only a few years. 

  1. We would have stopped the poaching for as many years as we were flooding the market, which will have given our rhino more opportunity to rebound than they currently experience under the constant onslaught. And that sort of disruption means that poaching syndicates would have to start from scratch setting up the criminal networks again.
  2. We would have generated huge quantities of cash for conservation, and for the country. The money gained by conservation would allow us to invest in anti-poaching technologies like radar and thermal cameras that have already proven to be impenetrable in those reserves that can afford it.
  3. And we would be restarting the fight with far more rhino than we will have if we don’t put poaching on stand-down for the next several years.

What has the delay in action cost us?  And what do we stand to lose if we wait another year or two?

A recent study by South Africa’s top economist shows that the revenues from legalized trade of rhino horn if we still had 11,000 rhino in government hands, as I think they are still telling the public, would have generated well over a trillion rands for South Africa – with R800bn of that going to government (for use building homes, hospitals, schools, and more), and another R300bn entering the economy.

But the most recent aerial survey of Kruger shows that the real number of rhino in the park may be closer to only 2,000, which means the total number of rhino left in the wild in South Africa is only about 3,000, with the extra 7,500 or so being protected by private reserve owners, as we mentioned.

That means we have lost roughly R450 billion of the money that could have been spent lifting up our poor, or rebuilding our infrastructure.  How much more of that 1.1 Trillion Rands from rhino horn sales do we need to lose before we act?

More importantly, if that recent aerial survey is correct, and we legalise trade immediately, it will still take us 38 years to rebuild Kruger’s population to the levels that were claimed just five years ago. 

If we wait 12 months from today before acting and lose another 1,000 rhino – a delay that is almost certain with current Department of Environmental Affairs policy — it will take us at least 60 years to grow Kruger’s rhino population back to the level of five years ago.

If we wait two years, rhino will be extinct, or virtually extinct, in South Africa.

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