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The prospects of legalising the international trade of rhino horn

Authored by Jeremy Teale

The prospects of legalising the international trade of rhino horn

Managed wildlife exploitation: the prospects of sustainable rhino horn trade

The building of national parks in South Africa was essential for the protection and recovery of the African fauna following the heavy exploitation it suffered in the colonial and post-colonial periods. Since the ownership of wildlife became legal in the 90s, private game reserves have successfully tripled the total protected area in the country. Hunting, as a form of revenue in private reserves has proven invaluable in increasing the populations of many wild species, a prime example being the Southern White Rhinoceros. Today, the rhino poaching crisis that began to escalate in 2008 has put rhino populations under imminent threat of extinction within the next 20 years. In this review, we assess the prospects of legalising rhino horn trade as a measure to fight poaching and the alternative solution of reducing the demand through education of the population.

The conservation history of Black (Diceros bicornis) Rhinoceros

The black rhino population survived with an estimated size of around 100,000 animals until 1960. However, the population suffered a plummeting decline as a result of almost free-hand poaching and hunting in the following decades. Between 1970 and 1992, the black rhino population declined by a staggering 96%. By 1997, the total population of black rhinos was reduced to 2,600 having become regionally extinct in almost half of its native range (9 out of 19 countries) with minute populations of as few as 4 individuals in most of the remaining area (Figure 1). This brutal population decline is attributed to the increasing demand of the Asian market for rhino horn and hide, combined with the political unrest of the African continent in the last century (Leader-Williams, 1992; Emslie and Brooks, 1999).

Rhino hunting played a major role in the recovery of white rhinos with a tenfold increase of the population from when the ban was lifted in 1968 (approx. 1880 W. Rhinos in South Africa) to 2010 (approx. 18800 W. Rhinos in South Africa) (Milliken et al., 2012). Although still at an early stage of recovery, the black rhino population is also being strongly benefited from hunting (Cooney et al., 2017; CITES, 2019a). Around 72% of the current income generated from rhinos is attributed to hunting (Crookes and Blignaut, 2015).

The beginning of the current rhino poaching crisis and its causes

Poaching of African rhinos until 2005 that had averaged 14 kills a year since 1990. In 2008 it hit an apparently sudden increase to 83 poached rhinos, a figure that became more than five times larger by 2012 and reached a peak of 1, 324 in 2014 (Emslie et al., 2016). The main consumer of rhino horn today is Vietnam. Like in much of Asia, rhino horn is used in Vietnam in the practice of Chinese traditional medicine, however, only 22% of horn is known to be associated with this purpose (USAID, 2018). Similar to the case of Japan in the 1970s and 1980s, the increased consumption of wildlife derived products in Vietnam is the result of the of the country’s substantial economic growth (Milliken et al., 2012).

The use and ownership of rhino horn in Vietnam are viewed as a symbol for status, wealth and power (Figure 3). The expansion of the middle class in Vietnam and the increase of disposable income has allowed for a growth in the consumption of luxury products, amongst which rhino horn has found a place. Rhino horn powder is mixed into drinks with the belief that it is a detoxifier, a cure for hangovers and an aphrodisiac. Mounted rhino horns are also given as gifts to celebrate momentous occasions or to establish new business relationships. Asian crime syndicates are known to be operating in South Africa to process the horns into powder, bracelets and beads to facilitate the trafficking outside the country (Milliken et al., 2012; Moneron et al., 2017; USAID, 2018).

Fed by this increase in rhino horn consumption by the wealthy, there has also been a resurge in the use of horn in traditional medicine in Vietnam (Milliken et al., 2012). In this context, it is believed to reduce fever in conjunction with other ingredients. Allegations for its use in cancer treatment as well as its aphrodisiac uses have been established not to be traditional in Chinese medicine and they are possibly part of a clandestine strategy to increase the demand and value of the product (Nowell, 2012).

Removing the demand vs legalising rhino horn trade

Stakeholder perceptions vs conservation NGOs

Around a third of South Africa’s rhinos are owned by the private sector (Wright et al., 2018; Rubino et al., 2018). Rhino farmers are now being forced to sell their animals outside the country as antipoaching protection is becoming financially unviable. This has resulted in a tremendous drop in the monetary value of the animals, meaning that ranchers are losing interest in rhino breeding (Crookes and Blignaut, 2015; Knight, 2017). Disinterest in rhino breeding is expected to drive an ever faster decline in rhino populations considering the immensely important role the private industry has played in the recovery of the species (Smith et al., 2013; Duffy, 2014; Wright et al., 2018). It is argued that legalising horn trade would create a new financial incentive, while removing poaching.

Problems with reducing the demand

A strong criticism to the idea of reducing the demand is the lack of measurable results that have been produced thus far. Olmedo et al. (2018) reviewed the intervention of eight large conservation NGOs in Vietnam under a framework of key project design components needed to generate behaviour change (Figure 4). The study found that only one of these interventions had used all of the key components for best practice, and that most of them could improve their method to deliver results. The study also revealed a lack of cohesion between the interventions in achieving a common goal.

Another study made by the USAID on what are the current perspectives of rhino horn trade in Vietnam also found a lack of evidence for behavioural change towards the use of the product (USAID, 2018). In agreement with Olmedo et al. (2018), the study identified the need for stronger law enforcement as the biggest challenge to produce a true behavioural change to stop the consumption of rhino horn. Of the people who participated in the USAID survey (carried out in Vietnam’s five main cities, n=1400), nearly 80% claimed to have heard of campaigns to stop the killing of rhinos. 76% of current users stated that knowing these animals are close to becoming critically endangered would discourage their use of the product. Heavy penalties for users was another main deterrent from the product as stated by 73% of users. However, 73% of current buyers (8% of the total sample) still intended to buy the product again in the future as they did not feel personally responsible for the killing of the rhinos and did not fear the repercussions for lack of law enforcement.

Under the revised penal code that became effective in Vietnam in January 2018, users of wildlife products can face up to 15 years in jail and fines of up to VND15bn (approx. US $646552) for legal entities and VND5bn (approx. US $215, 517) for individuals (USAID, 2018). This legislation was developed as a response to pressure from CITES on the Vietnamese government, however it is clear that if drastic changes are not made in the law enforcement, there will be no effective removal of the demand however much aware of the circumstances the consumers of rhino horn may be. This was first noted by Milliken et al. (2012) and seven years later it is now reiterated by Burgess et al. (2018), the USAID (2018) and Olmedo et al. (2018) 

An empirical approach to assessing the viability of legalising rhino horn trade

Taylor et al. (2017) estimated 5319 to 13,356 kg of rhino horn could be produced per year in South Africa from dehorning, trophy hunting and stockpiles. At a value of US$60,000/kg of horn (latest known value according to CITES), this could produce nearly US$350,000,000 a year at the lower estimate, plus a total of US$1.8Bn from the 30 tonnes of rhino horn that are estimated to exist in stockpiles held between the private and public sectors. If reinvested into conservation, there is little doubt of the benefits such an industry would produce to wildlife; however, as Biggs et al.  (2013) point out, this model would only work assuming demand doesn’t escalate beyond the supply from removing the stigma against using wild animal products. Additionally, the market response would be very uncertain as there are many more variables to consider such as the reaction of poachers, the unpredictability of the value of rhino horn and the possible reactivation of old markets such as Japan and Taiwan (Collins et al., 2013; Prins and Okita-Ouma, 2013).

Another modelling approach by Di Minin et al. (2015) estimated the legal trade in rhino horn could make a profit of $717,000,000 all things considered. They concluded, however, that that the optimal approach to maintain the rhino population above its current size requires antipoaching efforts to increase as well as the monetary fines on conviction rather than lift the ban on poaching. This would come at a cost of approximately $147,000,000 a year.


Since it began to escalate in 2008, rhino poaching has reached numbers that are pushing the limits of the species’ conservation. Unless drastic measures are taken, rhino populations could be driven to extinction within 20 years (Di Minin et al., 2015a; Knight, 2017). The history of hunting in Africa has proven how financial incentives can encourage the private sector to engage in conservation for the benefit of ecosystems, having saved rhinos from the brink of extinction in the past (Lindsey et al., 2006; Di Minin et al., 2016a). Legalising international rhino horn trade is proposed as a new measure of protection of rhinoceroses that will fund future conservation efforts. However, the risks associated with legal trade including an unsustainable increase in the demand may be too great to balance out the benefits (Biggs et al., 2013; Crookes and Blignaut, 2015). Given the complexity of the issue, the purpose of this review is not to take a stand for either side of the argument but to encourage further empirical research in the area and highlight the urgency of prompt action to address the problem.