Horns of a dilemma: Saving the rhino is in its DNA
New South African website aims to show the world that rhino horn can be legally harvested and sold
There are 32 sellers of verified, legally acquired rhino horn on the South African website, Rhino Horn Trade Africa.
The two-month-old site aims to create a marketplace to buy and sell legally harvested horn from living or naturally deceased rhinos. The only catch is that there are no legitimate buyers.
When Johannesburg-based financial traders Warren de Klerk and Allan Thomson created the website, they knew this would be the case.
It is legal to buy and sell rhino horn within South Africa, after the Private Rhino Owners Association won a court case against the Department of Environment Affairs’ trading ban on a legal technicality in 2017.But there is a global ban on trading rhino horn so it can’t be sold to markets where there is demand, such as Vietnam and China.One way to bypass the law is to acquire a hunting permit to hunt a rhino in South Africa and export horn from the killed rhino.
Thomson says this exception and poaching mean “rhino is more valuable dead than alive”.
The purpose of the website, which was launched in March, is to change that.
The website and its DNA testing systems are primarily to show the global community, which bans rhino horn trade, that horn can be legally harvested and sold.
Rhino horn is a renewable resource and can be removed by reserve owners from rhino every 18 months, while the rhino stays alive. Horn is made of keratin, the substance in fingernails, and removing it is viewed much like cutting fingernails.
The website is more than an online marketplace, said Thomson. It has been set up to be compliant with the National Environmental Management and Biodiversity Act and TOPS, the Threatened or Protected Species Act.
Sellers of horn need to have permits to keep rhino, they need an environment official present when the horn is removed, and sellers and buyers will be subject to FICA, or financial laws.The DNA from the rhino and its horn to be sold is taken and kept on a database managed by Onderstepoort Veterinary School at the University of Pretoria. It is matched against the RhODIS database – the Rhino DNA Indexing System – of poached rhino. This database is run by the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at Onderstepoort.
Thomson said DNA testing means no “blood horn” can be sold because it would be linked to a poached rhino or would not have a paper trail.
If someone came off street with 10 horns but didn’t own a game reserve, they would not be allowed to sell them on the site.
On the website the horn’s price is set at about R64,000 per kilogram, undercutting poached horn, which is said to reach up to $25,000 per kilogram in Southeast Asia.
By meeting the Asian demand for horns with cheaper horns from living rhino, they hope to save the rhino, Thomson said.About 90% of the world’s rhino are in South Africa and about 30% live on private game farms. But this is changing.
“There is no incentive to own rhino as security costs reach millions,” said Thomson. “The only people making money from rhino are criminals.”
Pelham Jones, CEO of the Private Rhinos Owners Association, said private owners of rhino are choosing not to own and breed the animals anymore. Three years ago, there were 400 private owners, keeping them on game farms. NMarket research by the association, using an independent research firm, shows there are now 330.
Jones said the association calculated there are 200,000 hectares of privately owned land that are now without rhino, which reduces breeding and therefore the number of privately owned rhino.Data that the association collects from every South African private rhino owner shows that from 2009 until 2017, R2-billion has been spent on security to protect rhino.
Jones asks: “What part of the ban on rhino horn trading – with horns taken from living rhinos – is working?”
“It’s a disaster.”
Rhino horn trading is banned under the global Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). In the more than 40 years this ban has been in effect, 23 countries have lost all their rhino to poaching, he said.
South Africa loses more than 1,000 rhino a year to poaching.
Thomson explains: “Farmers can keep significant herds of rhino on a game farm if they can recoup their security costs and rhino stops being a liability. Legal trade is the only way to recoup costs.”
Thomson said that when South Africa, Swaziland and Namibia go to the global CITES Convention of the Parties in Sri Lanka in May 2019, they might try to lift the ban on the global trade of rhino horn.The website and DNA databases show how legal, transparent selling can be done, undercutting black-market prices and giving game reserve owners an incentive to own and breed rhino.
Thomson said: “One hopes sane minds will prevail at the 2019 CITES Convention of the Parties, but there is no guarantee that will happen.”
Environmentalists against the legal sale of horns say it will drive up demand for it and increase poaching.