South African Court Overturns Ban on Domestic Rhino Horn Trade

13 April 2017

South Africa’s Constitutional Court lifted the moratorium on the domestic trade of rhino horns last week, which was instated in 2009.

Implemented under the National Environment Management: Biodiversity Act, 2004 (NEMBA), the domestic ban covered various rhino species classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List of Threatened Species. The list documents the conservation status of different flora and fauna.

South Africa hosts the largest amount of the world’s rhinos and environmental groups say that poaching levels have escalated since the mid-2000s, though the past two years have seen some improvements.

Long legal fight

The high court’s ruling concludes a legal battle between two of South Africa’s most prominent private rhino breeders, Johan Kruger and John Hume, and Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) Minister Edna Molewa and her agency. Hume owns the largest rhino ranch in the world and has accumulated a stockpile worth US$240 million from regularly dehorning his nearly 1200 rhinos.

Rhino breeders say that their stockpiles are sufficient to address demand for rhino horn and thus disincentivise poaching. Rhino horn is made of keratin, the same component found in human hair and fingernails. The demand for rhino horns, their shavings, and powder, is largest in East Asian and Middle Eastern countries for traditional medicinal purposes and other use.

Although harvested horns can grow back when removed, poachers often kill the animal, unlike breeders that use anaesthetics.

Following the 2009 ban, Kruger and Hume, supported by the Private Rhino Owners Association and Wildlife Ranching South Africa, pursued lawsuits against the DEA and subsequently won on a technicality, with the case then facing appeals at different levels of the country’s legal system.

While Minister Molewa’s application for leave to appeal the order was dismissed by the constitutional court, a ban on international commercial trade remains in place.

International trade in rhino horn has been banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since 1977, though the Convention can authorise some limited trade for personal use, with the appropriate permits.

A proposal tabled by Swaziland to conduct limited international sales of white rhino horn from its stockpiles or recovered from poachers failed to advance at the 17th Conference of the Parties to CITES (CoP17) in 2016.

South Africa is a signatory of CITES and hosted CoP17 in Johannesburg. (See Bridges Weekly, 13 October 2016)

Environment ministry: domestic trade must be regulated

In its press release following the ruling, the South African environment ministry acknowledged the result, while noting that such trade will still be subject to existing regulations.

“Whilst we are studying the implications of the order handed down by the Constitutional Court, it should be noted that the court’s decision should not be construed to mean that the domestic trade in rhino horn may take place in an unregulated fashion,” said Molewa.

“In terms of NEMBA a permit [issued under that legislation and applicable provincial laws] is required to among others possess, transport, and trade rhino horns,” the ministry said, while also reaffirming its commitment to uphold the international CITES ban.

However, draft regulations proposed in February 2017 would allow for “the export of rhinoceros horn for personal purposes, from the Republic,” with established limits. It would also regulate domestic trade or other exchanges of horn within national borders. (See Bridges Weekly, 23 March 2017)

Opposite the breeders, conservation groups argue that potential leakages of horn into the international market would intensify the poaching crisis by stimulating demand. Furthermore, some question whether rhino horn has any proven medicinal properties.

“Without proven control measures we cannot ensure the legal trade won’t allow laundering of so-called ‘blood horns’ from our wild rhino populations. We believe the risks are too high, especially at such a critical time for safeguarding the future of wild rhinos,” said World Wildlife Fund spokeswoman Jo Shaw in comments to The Guardian news outlet.

ICTSD reporting: “South Africa lifts ban on domestic rhino horn sales,” THE GUARDIAN, 6 April 2017; “South African Court Allows Domestic Rhino Horn Trade,” ENVIRONMENT NEWS SERVICE, 7 April 2017; “Breaking: Rhino Horn Trade to Return to South Africa,” CONSERVATION ACTION TRUST, 5 April 2017; “A Big Day at CITES: No Ivory or Rhino Horn Trade,” NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, 3 October 2016; “Rhino Horns Are Legal To Sell, South African Court Rules,” NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO, 6 April 2017; “South Africa’s top court lifts ban on domestic sales in rhino horn,” REUTERS, 5 April 2017.

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