Plan to legalize rhino horn trade prompts concerns

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A plan to legalize the rhino horn trade in South Africa has drawn flak from experts concerned the move would be a setback for conservation efforts.

"I do not agree with the views of the farmers who only seem to be looking at this issue from the viewpoint of a supply they think they can offer," said Tom Milliken, elephant & rhino program coordinator at the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

"None of them are talking to the governments on the consumption side of the equation and all of those countries, including China, Vietnam and Thailand, have internal trade bans in place," Milliken told Thanh Nien Weekly. "So who do they negotiate with - the criminal syndicates driving the illegal trade now?"

Local media in South Africa have cited the environment ministry as saying on Monday (October 3) that the country may consider legalizing trade in rhino horns as part of a study into combating rampant poaching.

"The terms of reference for the study have been published and a service provider will be appointed shortly," the ministry's spokesman Albi Modise told the African Eye News Service.

Authorities will conduct market research into global aspects of the trade, he said, adding that the South African government's rhino horn stockpiles could be sold to fund rhino conservation efforts.

Milliken was skeptical that the legalization plan would be able to prevent illegal trade.

"In most cases, the manner in which most rhino horn is dispensed, as a ground up powder, there will be no way to differentiate legal from illegal supply.  And finally, and a key consideration, is that those dispensing rhino horn to the final end-use consumers would be privy to both legal and illegal avenues of trade," he said.

"There are no successful examples to point to where criminal supply lines become readily mixed with legal sources of a wildlife trade commodity."

Rhino horns fetch up to $500,000 a piece on the lucrative Asian black market, according to the UN wildlife trade regulator, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Demand for rhino horn has soared in part due to a popular belief in Vietnam that it can be used to cure cancer.

Trade in rhino horns is regulated by CITES. South Africa currently allows the export of horns only as hunting trophies.

South Africa lost 333 rhinos to poaching last year and has lost 309 so far this year, up from 13 in 2007.

Last week, South Africa and Vietnam agreed to cooperate on wildlife trade, information sharing and, prosecution and law enforcement procedures to stem rhino poaching.

Vietnam is "well aware of the importance of bio-diversity and conservation, especially with endangered species," Ha Cong Tuan, Vietnam's deputy director of forestry administration, told reporters in Johannesburg.

The two countries have launched talks towards an agreement to curb rhino poaching, which has soared in recent years, driven by booming demand in Asia.

The talks, which aim to produce a Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries, happened in the wake of another bloody year for rhinos in South Africa and a rise in the price of rhino horns on the Asian black market, including Vietnam, AFP reported on October 3.

"Biodiversity conservation is a full-circle process which starts from the source country and ends in the destination country," Nguyen Trung Kien, a counselor at the Vietnamese embassy in Pretoria, told journalists.

"We also understand that we need to raise public awareness of the importance of biodiversity. And we also need to get rid of the wrong understanding that rhino horn can cure cancer."

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