Rhino horn for sale in Viet Nam © Robert Patterson / WWF

Rhino horn for sale in Viet Nam © Robert Patterson / WWF


Published 26 November 2015

South African Government appeals High Court ruling against rhino horn ban

Pretoria, South Africa, 26th November, 2015—In a High Court ruling today, Judge Francis Legodi overturned the government's February 2009 ban on domestic trade in rhino horn, opening the door for a resumption of regulated internal sales of rhino horn within South Africa.

But Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Mrs. Edna Molewa swiftly signalled the government's intention to appeal the decision to the Superior Court, a move that will suspend the execution of the judgement with immediate effect.

Neither of these legal actions affect the longstanding global ban on international commercial trade in rhino horn that has been the norm since 1977 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). 

Currently, the export of rhino horns from South Africa is restricted to ”personal effects” for emigrants or as legal hunting trophies, the only sanctioned avenues of trade under the Convention.   

"We note that the South African government intends to appeal the judgement against the domestic trade ban that had been judiciously imposed in the face of documented private sector abuse six years ago," said Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC's Elephant and Rhino Programme Leader. "The court decision was an unwelcomed and unnecessary surprise."

The TRAFFIC/IUCN report on the status of rhinos to the 15th meeting of the CITES Conference of the Parties stated: "There is evidence that undeclared rhino horns from private sector sources [in South Africa] are regularly moving into illicit trade and this constitutes a serious law enforcement problem".  Subsequent discrepancies in South Africa's monitoring of rhino horn possession in the private sector have been regularly noted.  

The court's decision, in siding with the application of two rhino game ranchers to set aside the moratorium on domestic trading of rhino horn, faulted government for "substantial non-compliance with [the] consultative and participatory process" of the country's National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act.

"In fact, there is no consumer demand for rhino horn in South Africa", Milliken added.  "We remain concerned that this decision potentially re-introduces a channel for illegal trade from Africa to Asia where the real markets for rhino horn lie".

"That's exactly what happened previously before the ban" he noted. “Thankfully, for the moment, the government's appeal holds the line.”

South Africa has been experiencing a surge in rhino poaching in recent years, with last year being the worst on record - a total of 1,215 rhinos were poached in South Africa in 2014, an average of more than three animals per day or 100 per month.

South Africa will next year host the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES, with rhino poaching and trafficking of rhino horns to Asia high on the agenda.


Update: on 5th April 2017, South Africa's Constitutional Court overturned the current ban on domestic trade in rhino horn in South Africa and the sale of rhino horn will be allowed to resume within the country's borders.

Update: on 20th January 2016, the High Court in Johannesburg dismissed the Department of Environmental Affairs' application for leave to appeal against the lifting of the ban on the domestic trade of rhino horn.


Private sector dealings in rhino horn prior to the moratorium were documented in TRAFFIC's 2012 report, The South Africa – Viet Nam Rhino Horn Trade Nexus: A deadly combination of institutional lapses, corrupt wildlife industry professionals and Asian crime syndicates, by Tom Milliken and Jo Shaw (see pages 64-65). Below are some relevant extracts from the report:

Law enforcement personnel report numerous instances in which they believe privately-owned rhino horns have been illegally sold, and there have been active investigations in Eastern Cape, Gauteng, Free State, Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces (R. Taylor, in litt. to TRAFFIC, 2009). Initially, government authorities had some success in preventing registered horns that were held under possession permits from being sold to non-South African nationals. Later, it became apparent that such horns were being transferred to certain bona fide citizens who in turn sold the horns to foreigners, sometimes subsequently reporting bogus thefts. In at least one such case, the legally-acquired horn was traded through Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape province, only to finally surface in Indonesia; one of the middlemen in this instance, presently awaiting prosecution, allegedly received ZAR30 000 (approximately USD3600) for his efforts in the deal (R. Taylor, in litt. to TRAFFIC, 2009).

In some instances, private sector operators have actively created rhino horn stockpiles with a view to future legal trade or use. One such individual, John Hume, reportedly has:

over 500 kg of white rhino horn individually measured and registered with the provincial government, implanted with government-issued micro-chips, similar to the ones inserted in pets, and housed in safety deposit boxes at three banks around the country, awaiting a time when trade would be legal (Borrell, 2010).

In fact, this individual has reportedly at least once sold rhino horn within South Africa prior to the national moratorium:

Until recently, horn buyers advertised openly in Game & Hunt magazine for “tusks and rhino horns” that have been “legally obtained.” It is legal to trade horn within South Africa’s borders with appropriate permissions. Hume followed up on one such offer in July 2006, when he obtained permits to ship 84 kg of horn to a buyer in the North West province of South Africa. Hume believes the horns subsequently left the country. He sold the horn for just ZAR8000 (US$1200) per kilogram (Borrell, 2010).

Borrell, B. (2010). Saving the rhino through sacrifice. Business Week. . Viewed on 30 April 2011.