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Why the Trade in Rhino Horn Should Never Be Legalised

Esmond Bradley Martin in Kenya is doubtless a world authority on the trade in rhino horn, both to Yemen during the years when dagger handles were made of horn, and to the Far East for medicinal purposes. Nigel Leader-Williams put together many of Esmond’s findings in a TRAFFIC report in 1992 (The World Trade in Rhino Horn: A Review) that contains much of the information I use here. Nigel’s report contains several inconsistencies in the Tables presented, but those do not change the overall picture.

There are two interlinked reasons for writing this blog – a historical perspective and a current one. The latter relates to calls from South African rhino owners to legalise the trade in horn and indeed this has been brought up at CITES. Why? Well, because rhino horn is now worth huge amounts of money so the private owners can make enormous profits. For example, an adult White Rhino can carry an average of 4kg of horn, and taking the conservative value of $65,000 per kilo that is often quoted, that means a White Rhino is now worth a staggering $260,000. No wonder poaching is out of control, and the rhino owners are crassly using such poaching to claim that by legalizing the trade they can “flood” the market with legal horn and make poaching a thing of the past. I’m sure with those kinds of profits to be made they will commission all sorts of glossy reports full of statistics to present to CITES – but they will ignore what history can teach us.

And that CITES was persuaded to allow several “one off” sales of ivory in the past from stockpiles maintained by southern African nations like Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa. Elephant poaching is now at an all-time high, and CITES does not see a connection…

So let’s have a look at the historical trade. Esmond was able to dig up some figures from 1893 – 1895 showing that Tanzania exported roughly 29,500 kg of horn during that time. Those horns came from Black Rhinos (average adult horn weight about 3kg) meaning that 7,470 rhinos were killed in those three years. The average price per kilo in those days was about $20 (all prices quoted here are in 2012 US Dollars). During 1949 to 1975 (27 years) Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania exported 56,694kg of horn representing 18,900 rhinos or 700 killed per year on average. Main destinations were Hong Kong, Yemen, Zanzibar (a transit point), Japan and China. Horn prices were $58/kg in 1949 to $138 in 1975. Esmond rightly points out that these numbers might have been under-reported by a minimum factor of 3:1, and even when the sale was legal (Kenya joined CITES in 1979) there was much smuggling to avoid import duties etc. By 1980 Black Rhino horn was worth about $1,130/kg but during the 1970’s when prices were much lower ($239-$362/kg: 1970-1975), it is estimated that between 2,660 and 2,800 rhinos were killed per year across Africa.

It should be noted that Asian rhino horns have always been worth much more – in 1986 for example, African horn was selling at an average price of about $1,250/kg while Asian rhino horn was fetching about $35,115/kg. This is for two reasons – Asian rhino horns are smaller and therefore supposedly more “potent” and desirable, and Asian rhinos are much more scarce than African rhinos. It would be interesting to find out how much one kilo of Asian rhino horn is worth today – they are getting ever more scarce and it should not be surprising that the last remaining rhino in Vietnam was poached this year…

Leader-Williams prevaricates greatly on the issue of legalising trade, basically saying it is a “complex issue” and that more data was needed in 1992 when he wrote the report. He could, in fairness, not have anticipated the great surge of personal wealth in Asian nations like China and Vietnam, the continuing belief that rhino horn is medicine, seeing rhino horn as a luxury product to be shown off as a sign of wealth (as it was with the rhino horn dagger handles in Yemen) and regarding rhino horn as an investment opportunity - a cynical means of predicting that rhino numbers will continue to plummet and therefore the value of the ever more rare commodity will keep rising. In fact, an investment of $2,350 in 1986 would be worth $260,000 now – even art masterpieces have not increased at that rate.

But overall, the message is clear. There has historically, and will always be, a huge demand for rhino horn. With ever decreasing rhino numbers, the paltry amounts that could be put on the legal market will not make even a small dent in the demand. It might depress prices in the short term, but even this is doubtful – 179 horns were legally sent from South Africa to Vietnam 2006-2010 (91 in 2010 alone) and 241 “hunting trophies” (more horns) to Vietnam 2003-2010. We know China and Vietnam have rhino breeding farms to supply the trade and 217 live rhinos were sent from South Africa to China as well as 22 to Vietnam (2000-2010).  But still the poaching continues unabated and in ever increasing numbers. 

Bottom line - there is already a legal trade but it has only stimulated demand and hence poaching. Historically, when there were very many more rhinos in Africa than now, the numbers killed per year for their horns is staggering. Horns were then sold for a pittance, but today there are very many more people in China and Vietnam who can afford horn even at today’s prices. African nations should burn the stockpiles, any trade in rhino horn should be illegal, protection of wild rhinos should be increased and those involved in the illegal trade both in Africa and Asia given long prison sentences. 

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Posted by Pieter Kat at 17:24

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