Blood Money: How Legalising The Rhino Horn Trade Could Save The Species From Further Extinction

On average, a rhino is killed for its horn every 22 hours in South Africa.

In Kruger National Park alone, the rhino population has fallen by 59% since 2013, mainly due to the ruthless poaching they face. This is defined as the illegal hunting or capturing of wild animals.

Poachers and poaching syndicates kill rhinos to obtain the horn, which has fetched as much as US$65,000 per kilogram in 2012. Despite international trading bans and local law enforcement, poaching continues at an unsustainable rate.

Over a 9-year period from 2008-2016, around 7124 rhinos were poached across Africa. The high price and high demand of the horn is enticing criminal organisations to trade in rhino horn, as well as poverty-stricken individuals which turn to poaching to survive.

In 2018, the last remaining male Northern White Rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) died leaving only 2 females remaining. Functionally, they have long been extinct; sadly Africa’s other rhino populations are descending towards the same fate.

In an attempt to conserve endangered species, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) often places trading bans on critically endangered species (known as Appendix I).

In 1977 the trade of rhino horn was placed on this list. Since then, multiple species of African rhino such as the Northern White Rhino have gone extinct and many are facing high levels of poaching. Since 1960, the black rhino (Diceros bicornis) has been reduced by over 95%, from ~100,000 individuals to 2400 in 2012.

Legalising the trade of rhino horn has many benefits for both reserves and the conservation of all rhino species. Firstly, rhino horn is entirely made up of keratin; a compound found in hair and fingernails.

As our hair and fingernails grow, so does rhino horn. The horn itself can be removed safely if the rhino is sedated and it will regrow over the course of a few years meaning that the horn can be obtained and sold without causing the death of the rhinos.

Therefore, rhino horn can be sustainably harvested without decreasing population numbers, and the sale of this horn could be used by all reserves to fund further conservation and anti-poaching efforts.

Unfortunately, this process is expensive and is estimated to cost at least US$1600 per rhino especially as it should be completed every 12-24 months. If the trade was legalised, the dehorning process could be paid for through the sale of the horn. Currently reserves must raise money elsewhere to pay for this costly procedure, and many larger reserves such as Kruger National Park are opting to leave the horn on their rhino.

Secondly, by providing a market which is providing horn for a lower price than the illegal market, it will force potential buyers to buy the horn legally. Taylor et al 2017 estimated that up to 13,356kg of rhino horn could be obtained legally per year, which at its current price could sell for over US$800 million. Legal market prices would be far lower than the illegal markets, but it would still provide a strong income on a product that is currently legally unprofitable. 

It is important if rhino horn trade is to be legalised that the collection of horn and killing of rhinos is monitored closely. Trophy hunting would be a viable solution, allowing older rhino individuals to be shot for a price, and the horn could be sold to the hunter or the market. However, there must be a tight legal framework in place, alongside harsh penalties to prevent loopholes or corrupt individuals taking advantage of the situation and killing many rhinos for a quick profit.

If we don’t do something soon, the Southern White Rhinos could be functionally extinct in five years and may be fully extinct within the decade. As the population declines, the value of the horn will only increase and so will poaching incidents. Conservationists are doing their best to protect the rhino but sadly many of these projects are underfunded.

We have roughly ten years to reverse this unforgiving crisis.

On average, a rhino is killed for its horn every 22 hours in South Africa.