By Aryn Baker, TIME
Photo: Manuel Romaras—Getty Images on TIME
When South Africa’s high court overturned a six-year ban on the domestic sale of rhinoceros horn January 20, it reignited a simmering debate over the best way to save the iconic, and threatened, African animal.
Should rhino horn, like elephant ivory, be completely banned from the market, or should the horns, which can be harvested in a painless process that leaves the rhino alive, be sold at a profit in order to fund the fight against poachers driving the rhino to extinction?
Rhino horn has been banned from international trade since 1977, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) deemed rhinos under threat. But it wasn’t until 2009 that South Africa, which is home to 80% of the world’s rhino population, followed suit with a ban on domestic sales.
Game ranchers were left with stockpiles of previously harvested horn and herds of rhinos increasingly at risk from poachers. Two of those ranchers, holding stockpiled horns worth an estimated $300 million on the black market, sued the government.
The ban was overturned on a technicality. South Africa’s Minister for Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, says she will appeal. If she fails, South African game ranchers could legally sell their horns to domestic buyers. The question is: who would want them?
Rhinoceros horn is largely composed of keratin, the protein that produces toenails, hoofs and hair. There is no market for the horn in South Africa. But Asian consumers, mostly in Vietnam and China, have seized on its ancient reputation as a cure for fever to ascribe it near mythical properties—none of which have been backed up by science.
As a result, rhino horn is selling on the Asian black market for as much as $65,000 a kilogram, and increasingly sophisticated trafficking networks are poaching South Africa’s rhinos at an unprecedented scale.
Although the numbers of poached animals from South Africa declined slightly last year, 1,175 were still killed for their horns in the country. If the poaching continues, wild rhinos could be gone within a few generations.
Rhino farmers and even some conservationists say the only way to combat the poaching is to legalize international trade. Money made from horn sales could be used to pay for anti-poaching efforts.
Now that South Africa’s courts have lifted the ban on domestic sales, conservationists are speculating that the government may press CITES to lift the international ban when it convenes in the South African capital of Johannesburg in September.
If that happens, South Africa’s rhino farmers, or anyone else who has managed to amass a stockpile, will be sitting on a gold mine. That’s the only factor that might drives sales within South Africa, says Michael H. Knight, the South Africa-based chairman in charge of rhinos for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature [IUCN].
“I can’t see any other reason why anyone would want to buy horn [on the domestic market] unless they are speculating in the event that it will be eventually allowed for international trade.”
It’s quite a gamble. Changing CITES policy would require a two-thirds majority vote from amongst the 180 member nations, which few observers think would happen. Before South Africa can make the case that the international sales should be permitted, its government will have to prove that domestic sales can be conducted in a transparent and legal way.
The country’s past experience with domestic sales shows little promise. From 2003 to 2008, according to research conducted by the Ministry of Environment, for every 100 kg of horn sold legally, 150 kg were trafficked through illegal channels, most likely to Asia.
While Knight supports the sustainable use of rhinos, and does not rule out horn sales as a way to preserve the rhino population, he notes that setting up a corruption-proof sales system “can’t be done overnight.” Or even in time for the CITES 2016 meeting.
In 2010 South Africa added DNA profiling to the suite of tools used to track its rhino population. By law, each horn and rhino, whether in a national park or on a private reserve, must be photographed, microchipped and have its DNA profile registered.
Though it is not yet complete, the national inventory has proved invaluable in criminal cases, helping link horns, traffickers and poachers back to dead rhinos in about 50 cases, according to Dr. Cindy Harper, head of the Rhino DNA Index System (RhODIS) at the University of Pretoria’s Veterinary Genetics Laboratory. According to Minister Molewa, domestic sales should not take place until every single rhino and horn is entered into the database.
Harper, who presides over the only institute in South Africa capable of registering the rhino DNA, says that almost all the samples have been gathered from the field. But her center can only profile 48 specimens a day. At current rates, she says, it will take at least another five years to go through the backlog.
So what happens if the international community, as expected, shoots down South Africa’s proposal to legalize sales? Farmers and speculators will be sitting on piles of worthless—at least legally—horn, and caring for large, expensive animals with huge prices on their heads.
The temptation to turn to illegal markets will be high, and with so much money at stake, the risks of corruption within the bodies designed to regulate sales will be even higher.
Some pro-trade organizations and farmers in South Africa have posited the idea of a kind of “medical” tourism, in which Asian consumers come to South Africa to take their powdered horn, says Adam Welz, the South African representative for WildAid, a U.K. organization dedicated to ending illegal wildlife trade.
That model, albeit highly controversial, already exists for farmed tigers and bears in South East Asia, and the conditions for those animals are horrible. Farmed rhinos live better lives on vast private reserves. Still, even if it makes sense financially, tracking consumption would be nearly impossible, and it risks opening loopholes easily abused by international traffickers.
From a conservation standpoint, says WildAid’s Weltz, such a program would not only be catastrophic for rhinos, undermining years of work on demand reduction in Asia, but it also would be morally untenable.
“Rhinos are being killed off because desperately ill people are being lied to by criminals,” he says. “Any promotion of the curative myths about rhino horn is immensely damaging to ongoing efforts to spread the truth, which is that there’s no credible evidence that it cures any serious disease.”
So if the CITES ban stays in place, as it likely will, what options remain for the farmers and speculators counting on a future market for their horns?
Given the amounts of money at stake, many will likely keep lobbying for some kind of viable market. According to Neil D’Cruze, head of Wildlife Research and Policy at the UK-based animal welfare organization, World Animal Protection, the ranchers gambled, and lost.
The only thing left, he says, is to do what the rest of the world does now that elephants are at risk for the value of their tusks: burn the product before it reaches the market.
“If you want to save rhinos, you have to make it clear that horn is not for sale. Burning horns, like Kenya does with captured ivory, sends the message that this is a contraband item that will never enter any legal market, ever.”