For the first time in decades, rhino horn is being sold legally. The online auction is occurring in South Africa, after rhino farmers lobbied the government to lift the domestic ban on selling the product, to the utter dismay of conservationists. Approximately 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of horn is expected to go on sale.
Advocates for the trade and rhino farmers say that the selling of their stockpile of horn could become a sustainable operation as the horn regrows, while providing much-needed money to put back into the species preservation. But most conservationists and wildlife groups insist that the move may instead prove disastrous, stimulating more demand for the product and further endangering the few remaining wild rhinos.
The main principle often touted to justify the potential sale of rhino horn is one of “flooding the market”, in which large stockpiles of horn are suddenly put up for sale, causing the astronomical price of the product in the Far East to crash. Unfortunately, history and experience do not back this up.
Research found that the one-off legal sale of ivory from Kenya back in 2008 did not make markets plummet, but instead completely backfired. The sale of 107 tonnes of stockpiled ivory may have raised $15 million for the government, but evidence shows that the sale led to “an abrupt, significant, permanent, robust, and geographically widespread increase” in elephant poaching.
The farmers argue that they need to sell the horn in order to make enough money to protect the large herds of rhino that they currently breed. But the point is they wouldn't be keeping so many rhinos in the first place if they didn't think that at some point down the line they would once again be able to sell off the horn and make millions of dollars in the process.
The argument is that the horn sold will stay in South Africa, as the recent changes in the law surrounding the sale of rhino horn only apply domestically within the country, while internationally all trade is still prohibited. On paper, this means that it cannot be shipped out of South Africa. But seeing as the listings for the horn online have all been translated into both Vietnamese and Mandarin, there is little doubt as to the main buyers the sellers are hoping to attract, and where the horn will eventually end up.
But one of the biggest issues with the sale is simply that it is sending mixed messages to the markets in Southeast Asia. Conservationists have worked tirelessly to reduce the demand in this part of the world, only for it all to unravel if another group of people is saying that it's OK to buy horn, but only from these farmers.