Despite a forty-year ban on the international trade of rhino horn, international efforts at rhino conservation were dealt a massive blow last week when the first-ever legalized rhino horn auction took place in South Africa. This development came about after John Hume, a businessman and rhino farmer from Klerksdorp in South Africa, won a Constitutional Court ruling to overturn an eight-year moratorium on the sale of this critically endangered animal’s horn.

It’s a development that implicates both government and those who purport to protect rhinos, as the obvious contradictions of the domestic trade of a product on which there is an international ban have been underscored. To most conservation groups it smacks of dis-ingenuity, double-speak, and greed and as such, they are vehemently opposed to it, as is ROAR AFRICA. However, there are those like John Hume who see it as a step in the right direction.

For Hume, legalizing the sale of rhino horn is the only way to ensure the future of rhinos. ‘Illegal trading is succeeding because there is no competition to counter it,’ he says, on his website. He goes on to extol the virtues of legal trade routes for ‘their potential to correct the perverse value of horn, that is currently driving rhinos to extinction.’ Hume, who owns more than 20% of the world’s ‘wild’ rhino population cites the cultivation of rhino horn as a way to protect the species. As such, he has systematically anesthetized and dehorned his rhinos for years.

He also asserts that without private ownership, the species would be all but gone. While private ownership has helped increase rhino numbers over the last four decades, it’s a conservation success story precisely because it was built without an international trade in horn. ‘The messy debate of horn trade is clear if you appreciate that farmers are in business to make money not to further conservation,’ says Dereck Joubert, filmmaker, conservationist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. ‘The argument that legalizing horn for the rate at which a few thousand captive rhinos can provide a potential market of a few billion buyers doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t anticipate horn farming to help at all, in fact, I think it creates a ‘grey market’ under which poaching will thrive.’

Furthermore, what’s not clear in Hume’s line of argument is how the sale of rhino horn will contribute towards the protection of those rhinos still in the wild. All profits from the sale of his horn will go back into his own rhino farm and not towards tackling the root causes of rhino horn poaching. Namely the false perception that rhino horn has medicinal values nor the organized crime syndicates that intentionally create propaganda to support these ludicrous claims. ‘It’s a scientific fact that consumed rhino horn doesn’t actually do anything, it’s bogus medicine,’ says Dereck Joubert. ‘Under normal circumstances, marketing and selling something that has proven NOT to work as advertised is illegal, and in this case certainly morally bankrupt.’

But it is when you learn of the stupendous profits that Hume stands to earn on the sale of his reported six-ton stockpile that it all begins to sound a bit hollow. With rhino horn selling for between $80-100 000 per kg on the black market, (more than the price of platinum) his stockpiles alone are worth more than $480 million. With not a cent going towards the conservation of those rhinos in the wild, it’s clear that John Hume’s rhinos are more a lucrative commodity than a conservation cause.

‘Many species are being turned into commodities in South Africa for the benefit of their ‘owners,’ says Map Ives, the National Rhino Coordinator for Botswana and the Environmental Director for Wilderness Safaris. ‘Animals that look like wild animals and that are bred purely for trade or for ‘hunting’ or for parts thereof, to be harvested for international markets do not benefit from the kind of intact biodiversity that a wild system delivers.’ Map’s point is that turning so-called ‘wildlife’ into commodities for humans to make money cannot be termed pure conservation and as such anyone claiming this takes advantage of a moral principle.

Those against the legalization of rhino horn sales in South Africa (farmed or otherwise) believe a legalized trade will only serve to increase the appetite for rhino horn internationally and open new markets. To them, the permit of sale’s stipulation that the rhino horn must remain in the country after a sale is farcical when you consider that there is no market for rhino horn in South Africa. Furthermore, the online rhino horn auction site’s obvious targeting of Asian markets with translations in English, Vietnamese and Chinese is no coincidence. Nor is the fact that demand for rhino horn from Vietnam has escalated since 2006 when a government official suffering from cancer was rumored to have gone into remission after taking it.

‘Conservation solutions are seldom one magic bullet, but a united front of efforts against what I call this ‘Battle for Africa,’ says Dereck. ‘One method is to quite simply move rhinos out of hot spots and secure them under protection somewhere else. Add to that the fact that rhinos come from a very small original gene pool (after the last large poaching cycle 50 years ago) and mixing up the genes to get as much diversity into breeding populations as possible makes sense.’ It is these two motivations that drove Dereck and Beverly Joubert to establish Rhinos without Borders and move both southern species from poaching zones in South Africa to safe zones in Botswana. ‘We set a target, rather randomly, to move 100 and we are up to 77 this month. Botswana is ideal in that the military is deployed to protect wildlife and they have a shoot to kill policy, so the risk for poachers is high. It is also one of the least corrupt countries in the world.’And all the while the killing continues. In South Africa alone, 527 rhino were killed in the first six months of this year, while for the first time an endangered white rhino was killed in a French zoo for its horn in March this year. It’s a contentious issue and one that Map sums up succinctly when he says: ‘The support for the legalization of rhino horn trade internationally, within South Africa, from within conservation practitioners and even civil society, can only result from the fact that conservation organizations (both government and private) are desperately short of money and have joined the pro-lobby in the hope of generating much-needed revenue for their work.

And all the while the killing continues. In South Africa alone, 527 rhino were killed in the first six months of this year, while for the first time an endangered white rhino was killed in a French zoo for its horn in March this year. It’s a contentious issue and one that Map sums up succinctly when he says: ‘The support for the legalization of rhino horn trade internationally, within South Africa, from within conservation practitioners and even civil society, can only result from the fact that conservation organizations (both government and private) are desperately short of money and have joined the pro-lobby in the hope of generating much-needed revenue for their work.For our part, ROAR AFRICA will continue to take a stand against the legalization of the sale of rhino horn and will do everything in our power to

For our part, ROAR AFRICA will continue to take a stand against the legalization of the sale of rhino horn and will do everything in our power to educate, inform and create awareness about alternative forms of conservation as well as hold these organizations accountable for where our funds go. We remain committed to the protection of rhinos in their wild spaces.