A South African rhino breeder has announced that he will auction off some of his vast stockpile of horns in the world's first global online "legal rhino horn auction". According to John Hume, the money raised will be put back into their protection. Set to take place in August, Mr Hume initially plans on selling off 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of rhino horn from a collection thought to be around 5.4 tonnes (6 tons).
Despite the international sale of rhino horn being illegal, Hume plans to exploit the loophole in South African law that now legally allows the sale of horn domestically, even to international buyers. With the value of horn on the black market thought to be somewhere in the region of $60,000 dollars per kilo, he could be set to make up to $30 million from the sale, although no one knows quite how much legally sold horn will go for in reality.
The auction comes after last year’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in which South Africa legalized the domestic sale of horn, despite much opposition from conservationists. Instead, it listened to the legal rhino horn lobby, which is mainly composed of those who are breeding the animals on ranches.
The breeders argue that the best way to neutralize the increasingly insatiable demand for rhino horn is to flood the market. Sanction legal sales of the product to cause the price to tumble, and thus reduce the incentive to illegally slaughter the animals in the wild, and everyone is a winner. The market gets its product, the conservationists make some much-needed money, and, most importantly, the rhinos survive.
It also just so happens that these breeders are sitting on stockpiles of rhino horn worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The only problem here is that while the talk of “simple economics” sounds convincing, it is complete rubbish.
This method has already been trialed before, when large stockpiles of ivory were allowed to be sold legally after the 1989 international ban on trading the product came into force. But rather than crashing the market as was predicted, it stimulated demand for the product, gave a legal route to launder illegally sourced ivory, and led to an uptick in the killing of wild elephants.
Right now, we are in the midst of yet another poaching crisis for elephants, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the trade in ivory was made illegal, and many put the source of this firmly at the door of those legal international sales of stockpiled tusks.
So the idea that legally selling rhino horn will somehow kill the market is unfortunately not grounded in the evidence available. In reality, it could lead to more killings by giving some sort of legitimacy to the trade. The lobby argues that over the last three decades the ban has clearly not worked, but they fail to take into account that the nations where most horn is destined, mainly Vietnam, do not properly enforce the laws in the first place.
This sale is unlikely to do much to help that situation.