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Why South Africa's Proposed Rhino Horn Auction Won't Work As Advertised

What happens in a year, or five years, after thousands of pounds of horn has legitimized demand but the auction funds go away?
A southern white rhino hanging out in Kruger National Park, via Sheree/Flickr

The South African government is reportedly preparing for a massive rhino horn auction that could see thousands of pounds of horn trade hands to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. If it happens, the one-off sale would raise an enormous amount of funds for the South African government and, proponents argue, quell demand by flooding the market. Opponents argue that the auction essentially legalizes horn, and that flooding the market only signifies to buyers that horn—whether used as medicine or a party drug—is a legitimate product.

South Africa has the vast majority of the world's southern white rhinos, and last year a record 668 were poached. More than 460 have been poached so far this year. With roughly 20,000 left in total (that number is likely a bit lower considering recent attrition), poaching at its current rate is an existential threat to the mammals.


To its credit, South Africa has put an enormous effort into combating the rhino crisis, including increasing spending, deploying the military, and stepping up its use of technology. Even so, poaching continues to increase.

It hasn't always been this way. At the end of the 19th century, only around 20-50 southern white rhinos remained in South Africa, and a strong conservation tradition has brought them back into the tens of thousands. But in the last decade—and really the last few years—poaching has skyrocketed as increasingly-wealthy southeast Asian countries fuel demand.

"What we are not able to do is the same thing every day, which is to increase the budget. Of course we are doing this, but we need to devise other means and try other mechanisms to stop this killing," Edna Molewa, South Africa's minister of environmental affairs, told Mail & Guardian.

So, with all that in mind, how could selling off South Africa's more than 16,000 kilograms of stockpiled horn quell poaching? Well, first off, it could ease monetary problems. With a pound of horn trading for thousands of dollars on the street, a legal auction could rake in tens of millions of dollars that could be dedicated to environmental protection.

But even if tens of millions of dollars were suddenly to flood into the budgets of park rangers, poachers would still get to their marks. In a bid to convince the CITES convention to lift its 36 year old ban on international rhino horn trade, proponents also argue that flooding the market with rhino horn will push current astronomic prices down to levels that won't make poaching worth the effort.


That argument has been made for many years, including by prominent conservationist Dr. Ian Player, who had a large hand in the rhino's comeback last century. It does have some merit: a large reason why the rhino horn trade has been taken over by massive crime rings in Asia and militant groups in Africa—both of which are incredibly difficult to fight—is that it's become so lucrative that the small-time players have been pushed out. If prices for horn collapsed, then perhaps the most hardcore elements, and the resulting violence and corruption, would fade away.

There are two major problems with that assumption, however. Most immediately is that an auction wouldn't necessarily lower prices for end users. Because the trade is currently dominated so heavily by criminal networks, suddenly putting up thousands of pounds of horn at auction won't necessarily affect users in Asia, as it still has to get there somehow. Why wouldn't international brokers, who already have enough wealth to keep the trade moving, just buy up as much of the stockpile as possible to keep prices artificially high?

For example, rhino horn prices rise along each step of the Africa-Asia trade route, much like how things work for cocaine from Latin America to the United States. If cocaine was legalized tomorrow, current trafficking networks would still control the trade for some time, at least until Walgreen's and Duane Reade could find a distributor.


The same goes for rhino horn, and with traffickers also dealing in ivory and things like pangolin, it's hard to imagine the trade networks shifting hands any time soon. With a one time auction, there's little reason to believe that the bulk of the product would go to anyone but current traffickers, which would defeat the purpose of trying to price them out of the market. Plus, we're talking about 16,000 kilos for all of southeast Asia and China, which has well over a billion people in total. It's not like newly-released horn is going to sit on shelves for long, waiting for a buyer.

More importantly, flooding the market with rhino horn in a one-time auction signals to users that rhino horn is okay to use. The biggest conundrum in the rhino horn trade is the fact that, medically speaking, it does absolutely nothing. Nouveau riche in Vietnam may think it cures hangovers, and people without access to quality healthcare may believe that it can cure cancer, but both are incorrect. Yet that misconception, which is hundreds or thousands of years old, is what's fueling the trade.

Protecting every rhino in South Africa's wild lands is, as of now, feasibly impossible. There's just too much space and too few individuals. Reducing attrition rates is hugely important, of course, but as long as people are willing to pay for horn, poachers will be willing to kill for it. (Yes, farming rhino for their horn, which can be cut off relatively painlessly, is possible, but poaching will still remain cheaper, and poachers will still be willing to take the risk.)


The only way to truly end the poaching crisis is to kill demand. On the surface, it seems like a straightforward thing to do: Tell buyers that they are legitimately throwing their money away. Realistically, awareness campaigns are costly, and it will take years to buck centuries of tradition.

And yet, with a single auction, South Africa could undo decades of rhino advocacy work already done. Don't fall under the illusion that a rhino horn auction will do anything but give the appearance that rhino is a legitimate product that's okay to use. To make things worse, it will give poachers a perfect conduit to launder horn, just as we've seen with ivory. Aside from a flimsy patchwork of permit systems, there's currently no international framework for tracking whether or not horn is legal.

More than anything, I'm for data-driven approaches to conservation, and not just whatever feels good on the surface. In this case, conservationists are in between a rock and a hard place: Current efforts are not enough, while an auction to raise cash and ease demand could fail catastrophically. If there was clear evidence that an auction would prove positive, such as Doug Bandow's proposal to farm elephants like cows, I'd be all for it. But currently there is not.

For a legal trade to work, it needs to be fully legal. Legalize horn altogether, and build a far better regulatory framework to keep the trade above-board and deliver the fullest monetary benefits to source countries as possible, and it could work. Rhinos would still be poached, but it would also offer a stronger incentive to protect them, as well as a better method of controlling—if not stopping—the trade.

But that is a huge gamble, and the current regulatory state of the trade—in which enforcement efforts are regularly hampered by corruption—makes trying to create a legal, commodified trade extraordinarily difficult. But even then, South Africa's auction proposal is a different beast. A one-time auction has the same trade-off—an influx of cash in exchange for implicit support for rhino horn use—but none of the long-term structural changes needed.

What happens in a year, or five years, after thousands of pounds of horn has legitimized demand but the auction funds go away? We'll be right back where we are, with poachers killing rhinos for incredible profits.