South Africa, home to most of the world’s rhinos, said while it's seeing success in slowing the increase in the rate of rhino poaching, it's considering advocating the legalizing of rhino-horn trade to stop the killing of the animals.
Already the government has deployed the military to help beleaguered park rangers battle poachers, many of whom cross the border with Mozambique into the Israel-sized Kruger National Park and its now time to “think out of the box,” said Rose Masela, head of national wildlife information management at the Department of Environmental Affairs.
“If we hadn’t made the interventions that we did we’d probably be seeing the rhino population going toward extinction maybe in the next few years,” she told reporters from the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Southern Africa yesterday at Bloomberg’s Johannesburg office.
The next step could be proposing to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, an international agreement between governments, that rhino horn trade be legalized, she said.
The number of rhinos poached in South Africa for their horns, which are believed to have medicinal qualities in China and Vietnam, increased 50 percent to 1,004 in 2013, according to South African National Parks, or SANParks, which runs the country’s nature reserves. There have been 979 rhinos poached this year, meaning that while the 2013 record may be exceeded, the rate of increase is slowing, Masela said. She said the government is making an effort to “disrupt” rhino poaching syndicates.
Rhinos are often hunted with automatic rifles, sometimes by the light of the full moon or with night sights by poachers who trade gunfire with rangers or the military. By Oct. 30 144 people had been arrested on suspicion of poaching this year in the Kruger Park alone. Some were shot dead or injured by gunfire.
Legalizing the trade in rhino horn is one long-term measure being considered to reduce the financial returns for poachers by driving down the price and to provide owners with money to invest in security, Masela said. The DEA set up a panel to give proposals by March next year, Minister Edna Molewa said last month.
“There’s very little we can do about the belief in the use of rhino horn that exists in other countries,” Masela said. “Legalization would be a more medium-term solution.”
Should the trade in rhino horn be legalized, game farmers could harvest a kilogram of horn a year from each rhino without killing the animal, said Peter Oberem, president of Wildlife Ranching South Africa. Rhino horn regrows like finger nails.
The horns are more valuable than gold by weight. Prices for a kilogram of rhino horn range from $65,000 to as much as $95,000 in Asia. Gold traded at $37,454 a kilogram at 5:15 p.m. in Johannesburg.
Pelham Jones, chairman of the Private Rhino Owners Association, said the “insatiable demand” for rhino horn will either be fulfilled through legal or illegal means.
“We are not being irresponsible,” he said. “We’re not gambling with the life of a species here. We are trying to save a species. We have the scars to show it.”
Jones, who represents private owners with 5,000 rhino, or almost a third of South Africa’s total, said losing a rhino to poachers is a horrific experience, describing the experience of standing next to a slain, pregnant rhino cow. “We look upon them as members of our families,” he said.
The approach has opponents.
Legalizing horn would stimulate demand, Dex Kotze, a conservation activist said at the briefing. He cited the growing wealth of China as the primary driver of demand for the horns.
SANParks said it has also started moving rhinos from areas in the Kruger near the border with Mozambique to safer areas within the park and plans to auction some to private owners who can prove they have the means to protect them.