South Africa backs proposal to legalize rhino horn trade

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South Africa's government is backing the legalization of trade in rhino horns in an effort to stem poaching of the endangered animals.

"South Africa cannot continue to be held hostage by the syndicates slaughtering our rhinos," Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa told reporters today in Pretoria, the capital. "The establishment of a well-regulated international trade" could help curb rhino poaching, she said.

At least 446 rhinos have been killed illegally in South Africa this year, with 280 slaughtered in Kruger National Park, a conservation area the size of Israel that borders Mozambique and where the army has been deployed, the Department of Environmental Affairs said in a June 26 statement. The rate of deaths this year is on course to exceed 2012's record.

South Africa's government has about 16,437 kilograms (36,237 pounds) of stockpiled rhino horn, while 2,091 kilograms more is in private hands, Fundisile Mketeni, a deputy director-general in the department, told reporters. The government favors a once-off sale of horn derived from rhino fatalities and doesn't plan to dispose of horn from "illegal activities," he said.

The animals' horns sell for more than gold by weight in China and Vietnam, where they are believed by some to cure cancer and boost virility.

Final approval

Members of the United Nations' Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora will vote on final approval of the anti-poaching plan in 2016. South Africa's proposals have the backing of some members of the Southern African Development Community, a 15-nation regional trading bloc, Mketeni said.

U.S. President Barack Obama on July 1 set aside resources to help combat illegal wildlife trafficking, calling it an "international crisis that continues to escalate."

Last year 668 rhinos were poached in South Africa, eight times the number in 2008, according to government statistics. Kruger, which has a 350-kilometer (217-mile) border with Mozambique, is where 72 percent of the killings took place.

"Legalizing the trade in rhino horn needs to be researched in detail, so that the doubters and the advocates fully understand the possible consequences," Cathy Dean, the London-based director of Save the Rhino International, said in an e-mailed statement. "The one thing we all know is that the current approach isn't enough. There are fears that 900 to 1,000 rhinos could be killed in South Africa by the end of this year. Tackling the problem needs a whole range of measures."

Near extinction

South African and Mozambican authorities have agreed to rebuild a fence between the Kruger National Park and Mozambique to deter poachers after the residents of seven affected villages are relocated, Molewa said. Mozambique has secured funding from international donors to carry out the move, she said.

The World Wildlife Fund "remains unconvinced that legal international trade in rhino horn is a feasible approach for rhino conservation at this time," Jo Shaw, the rhino coordinator for the WWF's South African unit, said in an e-mailed response to questions. More investment would likely be needed for security and protection of rhinos, should the trade be allowed, she said.

White and black rhinos were brought back from the brink of extinction in South Africa in the 1960s to a stable population of close to 20,000. Most of those are the larger white rhinos with about 75 percent in the Kruger National Park. With fewer than 5,000 black rhinos alive they are classified by the World Wildlife Fund as critically endangered.

"Ironically, the very success of our national conservation effort, which has resulted in over 73 percent of the world's rhino population being conserved in our country has, in turn, resulted in South Africa being targeted by international criminal rhino poaching syndicates," Molewa said.

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