The rhino is an iconic symbol of the wild in Africa, one of the Big Five and a symbol of an animal fighting for its survival. It is an incredibly emotive topic. Demand for rhino horn, predominantly – if not exclusively – from the Far East has led to an unprecedented attack on the animals.
Poaching has all but decimated rhino populations. Against this backdrop, the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria lifted the ban on domestic rhino horn trade yesterday, sending social media into a spin.
The reason was lack of consultation, and the judge said he could not rule out that the moratorium on domestic horn trade was linked to the surge in poaching.
The debate around legalising the trade in rhino horn, or flooding the market with existing stockpiles, has been going on for some time. The logic is that by flooding the demand markets with greater supply, the prices will fall and illegal poaching will lessen. Poaching is a huge problem, and hundreds of millions of rands are spent trying to stop it.
The other argument for legalising domestic trade is the possible spinoff and economic boost for local communities, with a strongly regulated industry ensuring rhino numbers are under control. Others have argued for the humane dehorning of rhino as they can grow their horns back in two years – again to feed product demand and to keep prices and poaching down.
Those who are against legalised trade say this is the final nail in the coffin for the majestic beast, as greed and mismanagement will cause the battle to be lost. South Africa can talk about renegotiating trade agreements with countries in the Far East, but we cannot control demand for traditional medicines there. And clearly we are losing the battle to poachers.
Everyone wants stability and security for the rhino. No one wants them to become extinct. And so, as government appeals the ruling and the applicants fight the appeal, we appeal to all parties to find a workable answer to the biggest wildlife question of our lifetime: how do we stop the rhino becoming extinct?