South Africa is seeking permission from conservation authorities to sell off some $1 billion worth of stockpiled rhino horn. The move, officials have said, may thwart black-market sales of the valuable, but illegal commodity, which has gained popularity in Asia for its alleged medicinal uses. That hunger for rhino horn has decimated South Africa's population of the rare and endangered animal.
South African officials say they want to open a new front in the ongoing war against illegal rhino poaching.
Already, the government has deployed soldiers to fight poaching in Kruger National Park. They've reached out to the government of neighboring Mozambique to stop cross-border poaching, and have signed agreements with major rhino horn markets Vietnam and China to stop black-market rhino horn sales.
Officials have even tried de-horning live rhinos to make them less attractive to poachers and opening a rhino orphanage in a secret location.
Still, 461 rhinos have been killed this year alone, according to the most recent government statistics. If rhino killings continue at that pace, they could exceed last year's record death toll of 668 rhinos.
So this time, they say they want to take a different tack, by focusing on the simple laws of supply and demand.
South Africa possesses a stockpile of more than 16,000 kilograms of rhino horn. At today's market prices -- which value rhino horn over gold -- that's worth about $1 billion.
South Africa Department of Environment spokesman, Albi Modise, says the government is putting together a proposal to sell their stockpile legally - a move that could flood the market with legal product. They'll present the proposal to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in 2016.
"The research that's been done tells us that there's a huge demand for the rhino horn in the Asian countries. And that the absence of a legal market has actually driven people to the underground black market," Modise said. "Hence the black market has been thriving, because it has been meeting the demand and needs of the particular market. So we're trying to say, 'if there is a demand for the rhino horn, let's rather be the ones to drive it in an open, regulated fashion, than to drive those who want the rhino horn to go into the black market, which has vastly been fuelling the ongoing scourge of poaching that South Africa has been experiencing in the recent years.'"
He says environmental officials hope to use the profits to help conservation efforts.
Modise says the rationale behind the sale is simple: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em - and then beat them at their own game.
"We actually are saying that we are very worried that if we don't do something legal, we might end up with our rhinos being wiped out. That we'd rather be doing something proactively, and learn from that from that proactive, measured and regulated opening, and take lessons from it while also embracing principles of sustainable development," he said. "For us, really, it is to say, we could sit here and say, 'we don't want to open trade,' but then lose our rhinos to the black market. Or we could take the black market head-on and open the legal market and try to compete in a very competitive fashion with the black market, and consequently with the hope that we would be able to drive down the price."
Jo Shaw, rhino coordinator for WWF South Africa, says her conservation group is not convinced. She says the group has recently done a study that shows that demand may outstrip even a large supply: the study found that the demand in Vietnam is roughly five times larger than the current market base.
"We remain unconvinced that a legal international trade in rhino horn is a feasible approach at this point in time, given a number of concerns that would need to be addressed," she said. ..."I think it's dangerous to view the idea of provision of a legal supply as cutting out the illegal black market chain being operated by sophisticated criminal syndicates."
The horn is reputed to have medicinal benefits in Asian traditional medicine - among them, as an aphrodisiac, a hangover remedy and even a cancer cure. Those theories have been largely dispelled by scientific research. But that hasn't stopped Asian consumers from snapping up the rare product at the whopping price of $65,000 a kilogram - money that South African officials say they want to use to help conserve the rapidly dwindling population.