A DECISION taken this week by five southern African countries to sell rhinoceros horn as a way to undermine poaching has been criticised by a leading conservationist, who says it will only increase the illegal practice.
Government officials from Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, Angola and Namibia reportedly met in Windhoek on Monday, where they agreed to allow the sale of rhino horn powder in clinics and pharmacies around the region.
Zimbabwe’s environment and tourism minister, Francis Nhema, said during the week officials hoped the approach would act as a way to reduce profitability of the illegal trade, levels of which have risen dramatically in southern Africa over the last four years.
“We agreed that we will demystify the rhino issue by selling horn powder in clinics as well as pharmacies in all the Kaza [Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area] member states. We hope this will shift the attention of the poachers.
“Instead of going through dangerous operations where one is likely to die, or even killing the animals, walking into a pharmacy will be a safer decision,” South Africa’s the Times newspaper quoted Mr Nhema as saying.
Mr Nhema did not say what the rhino horn powder would be sold as a remedy for. In southeast Asia it is used in traditional medicines to treat fevers, rheumatism and gout, and as an aphrodisiac.
Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force founder Johnny Rodrigues said the Kaza states’ decision was ill-advised as it would only make the situation worse.
“Poachers will simply decide to push volumes with lower prices for the horn as they try to beat the middleman [pharmacies and clinics]. Besides, there is nothing that can beat the original raw material, and the underground dealers will always prefer the horn as raw as it comes,” he said.
While it remains unclear how legalising the sale of rhino horn in some African countries will reduce demand for it in southeast Asia – its main market – some rhino farmers in South Africa also believe it is the only way forward.
South African rhino-farming tycoon John Hume told the weekly Mail and Guardian yesterday that legalising the sale of rhino horn locally would drive down its value, which he estimated to be about €52,000 per kg at the moment.
“I personally don’t need the trade to be legalised,” he said, “but it is the only chance we’ve got to stop the slaughter of rhinos.”
Yesterday, new figures released by the South African government revealed the decimation of South Africa’s rhino population, estimated to be in the region of 19,000 animals, was continuing unabated despite an increase in security measures at game parks over the past 12 months. The animal appears on most lists of endangered species.
Black and white rhino are being killed at the rate of almost two every day in South Africa, and 600 of the endangered animals could be dead by year-end, environment minister Edna Molewa said in a statement.
This projection for poaching levels, if it was to come to pass, would outstrip last year’s total of 448, the highest recorded.
In 2010, a total of 333 rhino were killed by poachers in South Africa, while in 2008, when it became apparent poaching was a problem, the figure was 83.
South Africa has up to 90 per cent of the world’s rhino population, it is believed.