Rhino horn, Ol Pejeta. Kenya, Africa © Ola Jennersten / WWF-Sweden

trade in rhino horn where we stand on legalising the trade

Rhino horn, Ol Pejeta. Kenya, Africa © Ola Jennersten / WWF-Sweden


rhino horn: our perspectives on trade

The domestic and international relaxation of bans on trade in rhino horn has been a growing debate within conservation.

Currently, international trade in rhino horn is banned under CITES, in response to growing concerns that increasing demand from Asian nations over the last decade has led to a poaching crisis that has decimated many African rhino populations. The reimplementation of South Africa's domestic rhino horn market in 2017 has reignited the debate as how best to mitigate a crisis that could see rhinos extinct in the wild within a few decades. Below are our thoughts and views on the complex issues behind one of the most lucrative wildlife products in illegal trade.

key issues:

domestic markets

international trade

demand reduction

Camilla Floros, ReTTA Project Leader

Seemingly insatiable demand for rhino horn from consumers in China and Viet Nam translates to three rhinos poached per day in South Africa alone

Camilla Floros, ReTTA Project Leader

rhino horn in context

The last decade has seen rhino horn explode onto the global wildlife market, driving unprecedented levels of poaching that are sending rhino populations into crisis.

Consumer demand for rhino horn is almost exclusive to Asian nations, with China and Viet Nam occupying the top two consumer markets. Sustained economic growth in parts of Asia since 2008 has given rise to an increasingly wealthy, urban middle class, affording new opportunities for an increased quality of life and much-enhanced consumer purchasing power. This economic transformation is one of various enablers of the status-driven consumption of rhino horn that is steadily pushing the species towards extinction, further exacerbated by the looming scarcity (and in some cases therefore its desirability) of the wildlife product itself.

Recent urban myths surrounding its medicinal properties have given rise to beliefs that rhino horn can also cure cancer, relieve hangovers, or enhance male virility, broadening its appeal to everyday consumers. The cultural and social nature of this demand has created a highly lucrative market for criminal enterprises to exploit, giving rise to highly organised global poaching and trafficking networks. 

Roughly 80% of African rhinos are found in South Africa, which bears the brunt of the continents rhino poaching. 

domestic rhino horn markets

In late 2017, South Africa's Department for Environmental Affairs (DEA) lifted the moratorium banning its domestic rhino horn market following a sustained legal and political campaign from private rhino ranchers, reigniting the ongoing debate about the merits and impact of legalised rhino horn trade.

Supporters of the decision argue that legalised trade offers an alternative approach in the efforts to conserve rhino populations under threat from poaching. It is argued that the revenue generated from sales of humanely removed rhino horn could help contribute to anti-poaching operations and benefit wider wildlife conservation efforts. It is also thought that regulated trade could help reduce criminal activity, and allow for traceable, ethical and sustainable consumption of rhino horn.

Although TRAFFIC appreciates the frustration of private rhino owners having to bear extremely high security costs to protect their rhino herds, concerns remain regarding South Africa's capacity to fully regulate and enforce a legal domestic market alongside the dangerously high levels of illegal activity already taking place. Given South Africa’s past difficulties in regulating legal trade in another threatened species, abalone Haliotis midae, when it was briefly listed in Appendix III in CITES in 2007, and coupled with the simple fact that there is no domestic demand for rhino horn in the country, there is insufficient evidence to suggest that South Africa's domestic rhino horn market would benefit rhino conservation.

Instead, it is likely that the new legislation might further exacerbate the potential for criminal involvement, creating further enforcement challenges or even helping to drive higher levels of consumer demand.

the role of behavioural change

As with ivory, the potential and ability for demand reduction approaches and targeted social and behavioural change initiatives to reduce the motivation for rhino horn consumption is evolving at a rapid pace.

Since 2011, TRAFFIC has been at the forefront of convening expert discussion to coalesce ideas and targeted approaches in influencing consumer behaviour, identifying archetyal rhino horn consumers and developing targeted messaging most likely to resonate with their motivations. In order to ensure this type of insight-led approach is delivered at a sufficient scale and for a significant duration, TRAFFIC is facilitating collaborations among key stakeholders, including government, corporate leaders and those influential in society.

Initiatives in Asia, alongside enforcement and policy action, are already seeing positive resonance amongst targeted consumer groups, and encouraging traction among "agents of change" that can realistically undermine the social and cultural factors that are driving serious organised wildlife crime.

Find our more about our Social and Behavioural Change Communications initiatives.