A South African ban on domestic trade in rhino horn was struck down by the nation's Supreme Court of Appeals. The court rejected a government bid to uphold the 7-year ban.
International trade in rhino horn remains prohibited.
A spokeswoman for South Africa's department of environmental affairs said it would comment Monday on the ruling, which was made on Friday.
It was not clear if South Africa's department of environmental affairs would appeal to the Constitutional Court, the nation's top court.
"Legal finality has now been achieved," Pelham Jones, chairman of South Africa's Private Rhino Owners Association said, adding that trade could resume this year.
The ban on domestic rhino horn was imposed in 2009. The court's repeal comes just months ahead of a major UN conference on wildlife trade, hosted by South Africa.
Rhino owners challenged last year the domestic trade ban.
Both buyers and sellers of rhino horn in South Africa still need to apply for a permit, which will allow the government to continue monitoring the trade.
John Hume, the world's largest rhino rancher with roughly 1,300 animals, said he held five metric tons of rhino horn.
"We will certainly try and sell some rhino horn very shortly," he said.
South Africa reduced the number of rhinoceros killed on its territory in 2015, but the continent as a whole saw a record high number of the animals slaughtered in the past year, wildlife advocates reported in January.
The number of rhinos killed in South Africa fell to 1,175, down from 1,215 in 2014, Environment Minister Edna Molewa announced. More than 800 of those were killed inside Kruger National Park, a sprawling preserve along the country's northeastern border.
But conservationists warned that South Africa's progress was offset by the spread of poaching in neighboring countries. Namibia saw 80 rhinos killed by poachers, up from 25 in 2014, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). And in Zimbabwe, the number of rhinos killed grew from a dozen in 2014 to at least 50 in 2015, the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC added.
"It's still deeply concerning," TRAFFIC spokesman Richard Thomas said. While South Africa's losses may have declined, "There's still an awful lot of work to do to bring these numbers down."
'We have a big problem in South Africa, but it's not only a South African problem.'
The animals, which can grow up to 3,000 pounds (1,360 kilograms), are killed primarily for their horns. Though international law has banned trade in rhino horn since 1977, it's still popular in Asia, where it's used as both a folk cure and a status symbol.
The WWF estimates fewer than 30,000 rhinos remain in Africa, with most of them in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya. The black rhino is a critically endangered species, with fewer than 6,000 left. The white rhino has rebounded due to conservation efforts from near-extinction in the early 20th century to more than 20,000 today — but only a handful of northern white rhinos remain on a sanctuary in Kenya.
Bas Huijbregts, WWF's manager of African species conservation, said South Africa's news marks the first time that rhino losses have gone down in seven years, but the numbers remain unsustainably high.
"We have a big problem in South Africa, but it's not only a South African problem," Huijbregts said.
Poachers not only have spread into countries like Namibia — which had been considered a safe havens until recently — they have been able to smuggle products like rhino horn and ivory from elephant tusks out of ports in places like Mozambique, which borders Kruger National Park. From there, rhino horn gets shipped east to places like Vietnam, where that country's rising upper middle class has become its primary consumer.
"It's become a status symbol among the nouveau riche," he said. "It's a way of flaunting one's wealth and trying to impress one's colleagues. It's crazy to think that this is having a knock-on effect right across the other side of the world, but it's having a devastating impact."
Users purchase chunks of horn, grind them into powder and mix them with water to produce a milky fluid, which is then drank to boost their egos. Thomas said TRAFFIC and other organizations are trying to combat the demand by convincing users that success comes from within, their personal "chi," and isn't "something that can be brought in from outside from consuming rhino horn." The message is being spread to upscale consumers through business organizations, even at first-class check-in desks at airports.
"Overwhelmingly, we find it's the successful business community who are users, but they're also the ones that users will respond to," he said.
And Huijbregts said government are treating trade in products from endangered species more seriously than they once did.
"We do have hope that there will be, in terms of rhino horn, a similar shift to what we've seen in terms of ivory," he said.
Molewa said a South African crackdown on poachers netted 317 arrests last year, including 202 in the park — as well as the expulsion of a North Korean diplomat suspected of being involved in the trade in poached rhino horn. The WWF is trying to support government efforts to crack down on poaching and smuggling, as well as trying to boost rhino populations, Huijbregts said.
"You try to get the kingpins behind the trade and not only focus on arresting the poachers," he said. "One poacher can be replaced by somebody else the next day. You have to try to disrupt those criminal networks as high as you can in the food chain."
But South Africa, which hosts the annual conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, may have a problem of its own brewing, Thomas said. A court has struck down the country's 2009 ban on trade in rhino parts, and the government's appeal was rejected this week.
"This is an added complication," he said. "We've previously expressed concern about this, because there isn't a market for rhino horn within South Africa. It may just pave the way to open up illegal trade from South Africa into Asia."
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Reuters contributed to this article
Editor's Note: This article was originally published January 22 and was updated on May 23 to reflect a decision by South Africa's Supreme Court of Appeals to overturn a ban on domestic trade in rhino horn.