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Principles for the Legalization of Trade in Rhino Horn

Last Wednesday night in Kenya, on a private ranch near Nanyuki, armed gangs killed four rhinoceroses for their horns. According to a representative from the Kenyan Wildlife Service, this could be the worst rhino-poaching incident the country has seen in 25 years. 22 rhinos have been poached in Kenya this year. There are only 1,037 now left in that country, and fewer than 25,000 left in the world. The Western Black Rhino was declared extinct in 2011.

In many cases of poaching, rhino’s horns are cut off at the base and the animal is left to bleed to death. The horns—which fetch around $65,000 a kilo on the black market, more than gold or cocaine—are sold as status symbols and used in medicinal practices in many Asian countries. In traditional Chinese medicine, for example, ground rhino horn is believed to be effective in treating fever, rheumatism, and gout. At present, CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, forbids any trade in rhino horn, unless it is part of a hunting trophy. However, the difficultly of enforcing this ban has meant that there is still an active trade in rhino horn.

In the last few years, many people have proposed legalizing trade in rhino horn as a means of controlling what happens to the animals. The taking of the horn need not be fatal. Rather than cutting down to the base, it is possible for the horn to be ‘shaved’ off. This has little impact on well-being of the rhino, and may serve as a means of meeting demand while not risking the extinction of the animal. It seems to me that this is a good idea, and one that should be taken more seriously. There are already conservation groups that safely shave rhino horns in order to prevent further damage to the animals by poachers. However, given CITES’ ban on legal trade of the horn, those collected by the conservationists cannot be put to use in sating the desire that drives the black market trade. A legalization of the trade in rhino horn would help to sate that desire; and do so in a way that doesn’t risk the rhino population. When discussing possible alterations to extant law concerning animal welfare (and trade), there are three principles that ought to guide us: 1) Regulation, 2) Greater Accountability and, 3) Conservation. Taken together these support the legalization of trade in rhino horn. That is, legalization would be insufficient if not accompanied by other institutional changes. The three principles I’ve just mentioned can provide a guide for those changes.

Regulation: One of the biggest problems facing those opposed to current poaching practices is the difficulty in regulating the acquisition and sale of horn. The introduction of some policy that allows for the acquisition of horn for the purposes of selling can assuage these difficulties. Such policy could impose conditions on the treatment of the animal, the areas in which it is permissible to acquire horn, etc.

It would be fanciful to believe that poaching will stop completely in the event of legalization. However, if regulation allowed for more horn to become available, this would drive the price down. There would be an incentive to buy horn from the regular market rather than the black market. There would also be less of an incentive for poachers to risk acquiring horn illegally. If the sale were also taxed, then money could, for example, be put towards increasing the number of park rangers in areas in which illegal poaching occurs.

Accountability: Legalization will allow for greater accountability. The existence of a market in horn, and regulations on that market, would allow for greater transparency in the practice. It could also allow for a centralized body whose sole purpose is to monitor the market.

Conservation: This is perhaps the most important of the three principles. I hope there is common agreement on the view that it would be bad if rhinos were driven to extinction. Given that poaching, the current means of acquiring rhino horn, is dangerous to the animal, and that a continuation of current practices would see rhinos extinct within 50 years, it is desirable that we find an alternative. Coupled with the regulation discussed above, legalization could also lead to a decrease of mortality rates of those rhinos whose horns are taken. If the market in rhino horn were dominated by legal, regulated sale that imposed restrictions on the treatment of the animals, then conservation goals could be met. As above, there would be an incentive to keep the animals alive. Not only would maltreatment constitute an illegal act, but also it would be against everyone’s interest, as the horns grow back. To kill the animal would be to deprive oneself of possible future gains.

By Luke Davies. Follow Luke on Twitter.


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3 Comment on this post

  1. I like the idea. However, I find the suggestion that legalisation would bring down the price of ivory deeply unpersuasive. Could you discuss the relative costs of a unit of ivory from the two processes (poaching vs shaving off their horns). What appears more likely, to me at least, is the emergence of two separate markets where black market costs (65k seems like a lot) would still be more competitive.

  2. The article above raises some pertinent ethical questions but misses on one of the most critical needs for ethical decision making – being fully informed and taking all aspects into account. Recent peer reviewed scientific papers and organised crime specialists findings are not taken into account in the above mentioned comments.

  3. The pro-trade lobby has tried to justify rhino horn trade in economic terms. These justifications are based on flawed & dangerous assumptions and often proposed by those with a vested financial interest in trade.

    Legalizing trade will prevent poaching – On the contrary, legalizing trade has the potential to increase poaching to unsustainable levels by increasing demand and potentially even raising prices which will see a decline in rhinoceros populations. At face value, legalizing trade could bring much needed funding to South African National Parks and reserves. Notwithstanding the real risks and unintended consequences it would be morally reprehensible, highly irregular and irresponsible to promote trade at anytime into the foreseeable future before other more sustainable sources of revenue are thoroughly investigated.

    Demand will remain stable – Advocates of legalized trade predict that free trade will increase supply to such an extent that prices will drop. This prediction relies on a dangerous assumption that demand will not grow significantly in the future and that there is enough horn to satisfy demand. When illegal markets are legalized, new consumers enter the market thereby increasing demand, possibly even raising prices. The incentive to cease illegal trade fails when prices rise. The truth is, demand data is inaccurate or unknown, and arguments about lowering prices by increasingly supply only hold true if demand is predictable.

    All trade will be legal – Advocates of trade suggest that legal rhino horn sold through a Centralized Selling Organization (CSO) will eradicate illegal trade on the black market. However, restrictions on market participants and the quantities sold will drive those excluded from legal horn trade underground. The black market will not be subject to any taxes and /or levies and will thus enjoy greater profitability. The notion that legalizing trade will eliminate illegal trade displays an ignorance of how organized crime works and is naïve at best.

    On this basis alone any formal consideration of legalized trade is misguided, dangerous and could lead to increased demand and, ultimately, the extinction of the rhinoceros in the wild.

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