Question: What would happen if rhino horn were supplied legally?

Pretoria News Weekend21 Oct 2017SHEREE BEGA

SOUTH Africa could produce anything between 5 319kg and 13 356kg of rhino horn in one year to supply a potentially legal rhino trade in the future.

This is the main finding of a new scientific paper, “Sustainable Rhino Horn Production at the Pointy End of the Rhino Horn Trade Debate,” which provides the first estimates of “sustainable” rhino horn production from natural mortalities, de-horning, trophy hunting and stockpiled horn.

Published in the journal Biological Conservation, its authors, who include personnel from the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), Panthera, WWF-SA , experts from the University of Pretoria and independent conservation economist Michael’t Sas-Rolfes, say the estimates take into account “uncertainty” surrounding rhino population sizes, mortality rates, horn growth rates and the attitudes of private rhino owners to legalisation.

The researchers calculated the potential supply of rhino horn that could be extracted sustainably from current rhino populations in South Africa for one year, and compared this with the estimated mass of poached horn that may be entering the illegal market.

“The intended purpose was to fill one of the gaps in knowledge needed before a responsible, science-based decision on trading rhino horn can be made,” explains Dr Andrew Taylor, of the wildlife in trade programme at the EWT.

“Knowing how much horn could be produced is a necessary step in the process of assessing whether a legal international trade in rhino horn would be viable because it gives us an idea of the size of the market that could be supplied (while taking into account price as well),” he says.

“A major problem is that we don’t know the true size of the market. Although one could infer the current extent of rhino horn demand from the amount of illegal horn (our estimate was 5 346kg or the equivalent of 909 white rhino horn sets), there are a number of factors that complicate the situation.”

These include “we don’t know much about what the horn is being used for – specifically, what proportions are being used for medicinal purposes, what proportions are used for ornaments, and importantly what proportions are being stockpiled for speculation.

“We don’t know what will happen to demand if the stigma of buying horn is reduced once it has been legalised. For example, there may be many potential buyers that are not buying because it is illegal, but will start buying if it becomes legal. We don’t understand the price elasticity of demand for horn – what will happen to the price of horn if there is an increased (legal) supply? These are things we think need to understand before risking legalising trade.”

In their paper, the researchers – who emphasise that this estimate provides only one piece of a large body of evidence that will be necessary to determine if legal trade is viable – note how the amount of rhino horn leaving South

Africa illegally every year “is not an indication of the potential size of the consumer market, which may in fact be considerably bigger if rhino horn were legally available.

“It’s therefore not reasonable to assume that the potential supply of rhino horn can meet potential demand.”

They note how the implementation of a legal international trade in rhino horn is controversial and has “divided governments and conservationists worldwide”.

There is limited international support for legalising the international trade, but recent developments in South Africa regarding domestic trade in horn may change the dynamics of illegal trade, “making it even more important to know how much horn is available from legitimate sources,” referring to the recent over-turning of the moratorium on domestic trade.

For their research, they used data to estimate the average annual growth rate of horn using de-horning records from John Hume, who runs the largest rhino farm in the world.

Taylor says the EWT do not support legal trade in rhino horn “because we have not yet seen credible evidence that trade will lead to a reduction in poaching. This could change if scientific evidence indicates that legal trade is the best way to conserve rhinos in the wild.”