Legal trade in rhino horn proposed

New report advocates debate on conservative harvesting in effort to halt slaughter by poachers

A new research report in an international conservation journal has called for conservative harvesting of rhino horn to break the grip of poaching that is squeezing the life out of South Africa’s rhinos.

Published in Cambridge University Press’s conservation journal Oryx, the report suggests that shaving a small portion of horn from free-ranging rhino could be explored as an alternative to intensive ranching and full dehorning.

The report, by Rhodes-educated researcher Oliver Wright and co-authors Georgina Cundill and Duan Biggs, focuses on the issue of legal trade and the perceptions of rhino owners and managers on private land in the Eastern Cape’s Cacadu district.

Sketching the background, the report – “Stakeholder perceptions of legal trade in rhinoceros horn and implications for private reserve management in the Eastern Cape, South Africa” – notes that poaching in South Africa peaked in 2014 with 1 215 rhino poached, compared with 13 in 2007 when the upswing began.

A further 1 175 rhino were killed last year and the environment department said in its last official release in May that 363 rhino had been killed by poachers this year.

In the Eastern Cape’s worst year yet, 20 rhinos have been killed this year, from 14 last year.

“Rhino population growth is expected to become negative if current poaching levels continue,” the report said.

 “This raises concern for the survival of rhino in Africa as South Africa is home to 93% of the continent’s white rhino and 41% of its black rhino.” Private rhino owners are custodians of a quarter of South Africa’s rhino and, in the Eastern Cape, 20% of the total conservation estate is private land.

Any introduction of legal trade would have significant implications for this private conservation industry and therefore rhino conservation, the report noted.

The researchers interviewed 25 rhino owners and managers on 17 private reserves and farms.

“More than half of the respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that regulated trade in sustainably harvested rhino horn should be legalised.”

The report said more dialogue was needed between NGOs, with their non-commercial approach to conserving rhino, and private custodians, with their more pragmatic and utilitarian approach, and compromise should be promoted between supporters and detractors of legal trade.

“Conservative harvesting methods could be employed to combat poaching in the short term, alongside continued efforts to reduce consumer demand in the long term,” it said.

“This could be seen as a more realistic solution to the poaching crisis given the rapid rate at which rhino numbers are plummeting towards extinction.”

International Union for the Conservation of Nature African Rhino Specialist Group chairman, Bay-based Dr Mike Knight, said the report’s focus on the views of private landowners and custodians of rhino was key.

“These are the guys investing their money in rhino conservation,” he said yesterday.

“This report gives them a platform to express their opinions.

“Fundamental to science is the opportunity to debate both sides of the question to ensure a measured response.”

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