With the number of rhinos poached increasing despite government efforts, could legalising the trade in rhino horn solve the problem?
The poaching of rhinoceros in Africa is a growing problem. The increasingly prevalent photos of brutally-slain beasts in conservation reserves or African savannahs provide an insight into the cruelty of the trade, but dramatic numbers reveal its extent.
In South Africa, home to three quarters of Africa's remaining rhinos, the number killed per year has increased from 13 in 2007, to 333 in 2010, to 668 in 2012.
In Mozambique meanwhile, rhino numbers have plummeted from 300 in 2002 to zero as of this April when poachers killed the final 15.
These statistics drive home the fact that the killings are rarely isolated acts but rather part of an extensive global trade involving experienced criminal networks and inevitably some official complicity.
Worryingly, this trade has not only been increasing in recent years, but it has been increasing despite concerted efforts from governments, NGOs, security forces and game rangers.
Amidst these failures, many are now calling for a new approach, with some even proposing the legalisation of the trade in rhino horn.
A tough-skinned problem
South Africa is home to around 90% of the world's white rhinos and around 40% of the world's black rhinos. This makes South Africa central in the fight against poaching, and to tackle the problem the government has supported conservation efforts and even involved the military and police.
However, even South Africa - probably the best-equipped African country to deal with the issue - is struggling.
The main market for rhino horn is Asia - in particular Vietnam and China - where it is used in traditional medicines. Recently, demand has grown - particularly thanks to China's growing middle classes - causing the black market value of horn to skyrocket; rhino horn currently stands at around $60,000 per kilogram - more than its weight in gold.
Meanwhile, the poachers and the criminal gangs involved have become increasingly well-armed and complex - with some reports of armed insurgent groups also joining in and poaching as a source of income - especially in terms of duping customs officials and bribing their way out of Africa and into Asia.
Understandably, given the sophistication of these illicit activities, the introduction of the military into the fight has done little to stem the flow. And now, a different approach, previously advocated by some conservationists, is becoming more widely considered amongst senior decision-makers.
At the recent Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), South Africa pushed for the legalisation of the trade, its third attempt since 1994. "We believe it is the right direction", Edna Molewa, South Africa's Environmental Affairs Minister, said in an interview with the Mail & Guardian, adding "we need to address this issue of trade in a controlled manner so that we can at least begin to push down this pressure."
Charging ahead with legalisation?
According to Duan Biggs, a conservation expert and co-author of a study into the possible legalisation of rhino horn, the current ban "artificially restricts supply in the face of persistent and growing demand". This, he says, drives prices higher, making the incentives to poach greater. Furthermore, any ban is very difficult to uphold given the ability of gangs to get past restrictions by bribing officials.
Instead of a ban, Biggs and his colleagues advocate the controlled harvesting of horn from rhino by sedating the animal and shaving off of portions of the horn.
Given its keratin structure, the horn grows back. These shavings would be managed by a Central Selling Organization (CSO), which would regulate the harvesting of horn and manage its trade. This alternative model, according to Biggs, would be sustainable, drive down prices and undercut criminal gangs.
Not everyone is convinced, however. One major concern is that harvesting horn may not meet demand and that even if it could, the increased availability of rhino horn would increase demand, driving prices - and the interest of poachers - back up.
"Legal trade may stimulate more demand", argues Lucy Boddham-Whetham, former Deputy Director of Save the Rhino. "There are only c. 28,000 rhino in the world and a potential market of 1.5 billion users in China, Vietnam and other East Asian countries."
Biggs argues that current demand can be met by 5,000 of South Africa's 20,000-strong rhino population, leaving room for expansion if necessary.
This population would also increase once poaching was curbed. But there remain fears that Biggs has underestimated the potential for demand to increase once an expensive, illicit and already highly-treasured item becomes far more affordable, widely available and legal.
Another main concern is that the corruption which currently hinders the ban on the trade of rhino horn would also permeate any organisation monitoring its legal trade.
Controls ensuring that any rhino horn being sold was legally farmed, for example, could presumably be undermined by the same forms of bribery operating today, allowing poached horn to enter the market as legal, farmed horn.
Again, Biggs thinks this problem can also be overcome. "The technology now exists to track the legality of individual horns through the selling chain to the end consumer to minimise laundering and the illegal trade", he told Think Africa Press.
But nevertheless, this question of enforceability remains a key argument against the legalisation of the rhino horn trade. Boddham-Whetham states that "since authorities cannot police the current ban, they would not be able to control a legal trade and prevent it".
Additionally, still in the minds of some environmentalists is the failure of a similar initiative whereby 'one-off' trade of stockpiled ivory was legalised in a bid to meet demand and drive down prices.
Some fear the unforeseen consequences of this scheme would undermine a full-scale legalisation. In the case of ivory stockpiles, many criminal gangs benefited as they were able to get their poached ivory fraudulently verified as 'stockpile ivory' through bribery, while demand for ivory is believed to have increased.
Flogging a dead rhino
If enough consensus were to be found to legalise the trade in rhino horn, there would clearly be a number of complex problems that need to be overcome. But with the current battle for the survival of the rhinoceros in Africa being lost, many still believe the point has been reached where new strategies must be considered.
"The reality", said Edna Molewa, "is that we have done all in our power and doing the same thing every day isn't working".
Indeed, as numbers continue to dwindle despite bolstered security programmes, it may simply be too costly not to try something new. But whether that something ought to be legalisation remains highly contentious.
Alex Upton is an editorial intern at Think Africa Press. He graduated from the University of Sussex with an MA in International Security. His interests inlude African security and politics, global health security and conservation. He can be contacted at email@example.com