In a shocking decision handed down late last week, a panel of three South African judges struck down the country’s ban on trading rhino horn. Two of the country’s largest rhino farmers, upset that they couldn’t profit from the sale of their herds’ horns, challenged the 2009 ban on the grounds that it had been imposed on the country without any public input.
The ranchers claim they have a constitutional right to sell rhino horn, describing it as a “renewable resource.” While it’s true that it’s possible to harvest the horns without killing the animal (the horn is made of keratin, the same substance that forms human hair and nails), the fact is that poachers don’t bother to sedate rhinos in order to remove their horns. The procedure is risky and needs to be performed by a veterinarian — making it simpler for poachers to kill the animals immediately. With the trade in rhino horn legalized, it will be impossible to tell whether a horn was humanely harvested, allowing poachers to slip under the radar.
Making matters worse is the fact that South Africa is home to approximately 80 percent of the world’s rhino population. That makes any threat to South Africa’s rhinos a threat to the survival of the species as a whole. In 2014 alone, over 1,000 rhinos were killed by poachers, the highest number in a decade, and 2015 isn’t looking any better. WWF estimates that only 20,000 white rhinos and 5,000 black rhinos remain in the wild. Some species, like the western black rhino, have already been hunted to extinction.
Despite all this, there is some good news: the South African Minister of Environmental Affairs plans to appeal the ruling, so the moratorium on trade will remain in place for now as the government prepares to make its case. It’s important to note that the ruling would only legalize trade within the country itself. Under CITES rules, it’s still illegal to trade rhino horn outside the country’s borders — at least for now. According to Save The Rhino, South Africa is considering submitting a proposal at next year’s CITES meeting in Johannesburg asking for international trade to be opened up as well.
Via The Dodo