This week, the South African Constitutional Court overturned a ban on the trade of rhinoceros horn, legalizing the sale of the animal part within the country, reports Russell Goldman at The New York Times.
The ruling is likely the final move in a long legal battle. South Africa is home to some 20,000 white rhinos, about 80 percent of the world’s population, and 5,000 black rhinos. And while an international treaty prevents rhino horn from being sold across borders, it does not prevent sale within a country, Bryan Christy reported for National Geographic last year. So in 2009, the country implemented a moratorium on its domestic rhino trade.
Starting 2012, however, a rhino rancher, a safari operator and the Private Rhino Owners Association of South Africa challenged the moratorium in court. The case was heard several years later and in May of 2016 the South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal decided to strike down the moratorium. But soon after, the Constitutional Court reinstated the ban while it heard the case.
The Private Rhino Owner Association argues that legalizing the trade in rhino horn protects the animals. Instead of the animals being killed for their horns, the ranchers occasionally anesthetize the rhinos and saw off their horns, which (if properly removed) will eventually grow back. According to Bill Chappell at NPR, the Rhino Owners claim they have stockpiled enough horn that they could flood the market, reducing poaching pressure on wild animals.
Conservationists, however, argue that the practice only increases demand for the horn, which leads to poaching. There is little demand for rhino horn within South Africa itself—the vast majority of the horns is illegally smuggled out of the country to markets in China and Vietnam.
“Given that there is no existing market for rhino horn in South Africa, lifting the domestic trade ban could very easily spur increased illegal international activity,” Leigh Henry, senior policy adviser at the World Wildlife Fund tells Goldman. “South Africa must continue to focus its efforts where they matter most, stopping poaching and tackling the organized criminal syndicates involved in rhino horn trafficking.”
According to a press release, the government says the ruling does not mean trade in rhino horn will go unmonitored, and it still requires a permit. “Whilst we are studying the implications of the order handed down by the Constitutional Court, it should be noted that the court’s decision should not be construed to mean that the domestic trade in rhino horn may take place in an unregulated fashion,” Environment Minister Edna Molewa says.
The new rule comes at a difficult time for wild rhinos. According the WWF, poaching of rhinos in South Africa jumped 9,000 percent from just 13 animals killed in 2007 to 1,215 in 2014. In 2016, 1,054 rhinos were killed.
Because the price of rhino horn in Asia is so high, up to $30,000 per pound retail, poaching pressure has been steady in recent years. In fact, things have gotten so bad, just last month poachers broke into a zoo in Paris, shooting a rhino named Vince and cutting off his horn with a chainsaw.