South Africa is home to the largest populations of Black and White Rhino in the world. Of the total local population of about 20 000 rhinos, about 7 000 (35%) are in the hands of private owners. Since 2009, which is when a moratorium on rhino horn trading in South Africa was introduced, there has been a continuous onslaught of poaching and killing of rhino for their horn, with fatalities now running into the thousands annually. Even though the moratorium was lifted in 2017, the slaughter continues. Such a high casualty rate cannot be sustained and the world’s rhino population is under severe threat.
A larger percentage of these losses has been incurred by the state in national parks and game reserves but many rhino on private land, which often is better secured, have also been killed. Poaching has become extremely sophisticated because it is backed by international criminal syndicates with significant financial backing. Automated weapons, helicopters and drones are being used and these criminals are not averse to killing whoever stands in their way. Whilst a ‘shoot to kill’ policy has assisted custodians in state owned reserves beyond our borders, such an approach against poachers is illegal in South Africa. The local prosecution of poachers who have been caught, whilst having had some success in terms of sanction, is seemingly not a sufficient deterrent.
Over this time the rhinoceros has evolved from being an asset and an attraction to becoming a liability where the costs and dangers of custodianship of rhino have become exorbitant. It is estimated that over R2bn ($100m) has been spent by private rhino owners alone on protecting their stock over the past 8 years and during this period government has incurred substantial costs in strategically managing the species. This enormous level of expense cannot continue unabated and private owners in particular are finding themselves under acute financial pressure. A large number of owners have resorted to dehorning of their rhino in a bid to dissuade poachers. This procedure however comes at an additional and not insignificant cost.
Barring a significant reduction in the demand for rhino horn or the lifting of the international CITES ban on trading of rhino horn (which has been in place since 1977), the poaching of rhino is expected to continue at an ever increasing rate. The black market price of horn is extremely high and considered by some as inflated. Commentators believe this has been as a result of syndicates buying up and stockpiling poached horn. This high value creates continued impetus for poaching. Globally, conservation efforts have been focussed on education and a drive to reduce demand. This is an outcome to which PROA also subscribes, but while demand and the consequential slaughter of rhino continues the need to protect rhino and the funding thereof does too.
Under the above circumstances the controlled and transparent sale into the South African market of surplus, humanely acquired rhino horn obtained either through dehorning or naturally deceased rhino is an imperative for private owners and an alternative which should be considered by all rhino guardians including state managed reserves. Such sales must be via a dedicated sales desk which can independently verify that the horn is ‘blood free’ and which is audited and open to DEA (Department of Environmental Affairs) inspection.
Custodians of rhino urgently need a sustainable economic means to continue their vital role in protecting the species and ensuring their ultimate survival. The funds which are generated by sales will be utilised for this purpose and also offer an incentive for others to pursue the nurturing and protection of the species. For communities which own rhino or live adjacent to their territory, funds raised in this way will afford them the opportunity to obtain a renewable source of income and an incentive to protect. It is expected and hoped that over time, the controlled and transparent trade in ‘blood free’ rhino horn will create a natural balance between supply and demand thereby eradicating the incentive and scourge of poaching and in so doing, ensure rhino survival.