After years of fruitlessly fighting rhino poaching, South Africa is considering legalizing the rhino horn trade in hopes of driving down price.
In 2008, South Africa began experiencing a significant increase in rhino poaching. Though the international rhino horn trade was shut down by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1977, South Africa allowed the domestic trade of rhino horn for many years after signing the treaty.
In response to the increase in rhino poaching, South Africa banned all domestic trade in rhino horns in 2009 in hopes of closing loopholes that criminal organizations were using to purchase and illegally export the horns.
This may have made the problem worse, and the numbers of poached rhinos has steadily risen each year since 2009 to a total of 1,004 in 2013.
A recent report by the South African government stated that:
The rhino-poaching crisis is being driven by a persistent demand for rhino horn that cannot be supplied through legal channels because of the national and international trade bans. The ensuing high price of horn... provided strong incentives for poachers to risk their lives to acquire horns through poaching.
Even though the South African government has thrown considerable weight behind efforts to protect rhinos, including increasing anti-poaching patrols and even getting the South African military involved, poaching continues to extract a terrible toll on the rhino population. Rhino horn is so valuable, going for as much as $100,000 a kilo, or twice its weight in gold, that poachers are willing to risk their lives by continuing to poach rhino.
To be sure, legalizing the trade of rhino horn will not halt poachers completely. Though legalizing the trade may slightly increase the supply of rhino horn on the market, and thereby slightly decrease the market price for rhino horn, winning the war on rhino poaching will require many other coordinated efforts, such as demand reduction and end-user education.
The bottom line is that as long as people in Asia are willing to pay $100,000 a kilogram for rhino horn, rhino poaching in South Africa will continue to be a serious problem, regardless of the legal status of the domestic rhino horn trade.
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