It is the most inflammatory question you can ask in environmental circles. It provokes accusations of greed, corruption, naivety and even racism, with NGOs going head-to-head with landowners, economists and a growing number of conservationists.

The question? Should there be a legal trade in rhino horn and ivory?

In January, the argument intensified as governments took important steps in opposing directions. On January 13, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying promised to enforce a total ban on the sale of ivory in Hong Kong.

“The government is committed to the protection of endangered species,” says environment undersecretary Christine Loh Kung-wai. “We are exploring legislation to ban the import and export of ivory and phase out the local ivory trade; and we are working on imposing heavier penalties for smuggling and illegal trading in all endangered species.”

It was hailed as an important milestone for the NGOs that had campaigned long and hard for this historic moment.

A week later, South Africa, home to 80 per cent of the world’s remaining rhinoceroses, took a step in the opposite direction when a judge upheld a 2015 decision to lift the moratorium on domestic trade in rhino horn that had been in place since 2009. This caused an uproar in the conservation community, with voices clamouring on both sides of the argument that by not heeding their warnings, we would witness the imminent demise of these magnificent beasts.

In September, the 181 countries that have signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) will meet in Johannesburg to discuss whether there are benefits to the legal international trade of rhino horn and ivory. The pro-legalisation group will need a two-thirds majority to change the law and so will be campaigning vociferously over the next six months to have their voices heard.

ELEPHANT AND RHINO POACHING is a problem we thought had been solved in the 20th century. By the 1970s, the ivory trade had grown to such an extent that elephants faced the risk of extinction, but crackdowns on smuggling and the education of consumers had eventually reduced demand in the West and Japan to a manageable amount by 2000. And then poaching exploded: in the past five years, 150,000 elephants are estimated to have been killed across Africa.

The Asian rhino has been hunted to virtual extinction for its horn, which is made of keratin, the same substance that makes up hair and fingernails. It has been used in traditional medicine for centuries to treat fevers, despite having little proven medicinal value. However, the rhino population in South Africa was stable by the start of the 21st century. In 2001, only six rhino were killed, by 2006, this had increased to 36. Last year, though, 1,175 out of a total of 22,000 rhinos in South Africa were slaughtered..

The burgeoning middle classes in China and Vietnam are largely to blame for this sharp increase in poaching.

“For 3,500 years, ivory has held a special place in Chinese culture,” says Alex Hofford, the Hong Kong representative for environmental organisation WildAid. “The first carvings were mostly religious in nature, and so ivory became a commodity associated with the priestly classes, but the ivory in those days was taken from natural mortality and supplied only to the emperor and nobles. These days, a massive, growing middle class of newly rich Chinese all want ivory and industrial-scale poaching became the only way to satisfy the demand.

“We are talking about gunning down entire herds of elephant in Congo by well-equipped militias in helicopters who then use chainsaws to hack off their heads, to get at the tusks.”

Rhino horn is also becoming increasingly popular in Asian medicine as practitioners in China and Vietnam endow it with ever more fantastic properties, such as the ability to cure cancer and hangovers. As a result the value of a kilo of horn has hit US$65,000; gram for gram, it is now worth more than gold or cocaine.

If poaching continues to increase at this pace, the rhino could be extinct by 2025 and the elephant by 2030.

“Anyone who looks at these figures can see that the status quo, which focuses on demand reduction in Asia, is simply not working, and yet conservationists are going after it like a religious faith,” says Michael Knight, chairman of the IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group. “There is no example I can see that what we’re doing right now is helping, which makes me think it must be time to try something new.

“We’re sitting at a knife edge and need to think out of the box to save these animals.”

Knight is part of a growing conservation movement arguing that a legal, regulated trade in ivory and rhino horn is the only way we can keep these animals alive for more than a generation.

“Our current approach isn’t sustainable,” says John Hanks, environmental consultant and the author of Operation Lock and the War on Rhino Poaching. “These animals are only alive because Western governments and private individuals are funding our hugely expensive protection efforts. But one day, their attention will turn elsewhere and the money will run out, and we simply can’t keep begging. The animals need to pay for themselves. It’s simple – once they have a sustainable value, it makes more sense to have them alive than dead. It may not sit well with animal rights groups but that’s because they’re not seeing the bigger picture.”

The crux of Hanks’ argument lies in the need to work with local communities who live alongside game reserves. Poachers are employed by international criminal syndicates but they usually come from poor villagers deep in the bush. It is a highly dangerous game to be in – animals attack, rangers shoot to kill and in certain countries, such as Kenya, poaching carries a life sentence. But it also pays big rewards: one rhino horn can be worth nearly US$20,000.

“Conservationists cannot possibly keep these animals alive while the local Africans are not incentivised to do so,” says Hanks. “By focusing only on demand reduction, we’re advocating a Western solution to what is an African and Asian issue – bad Asian buyers and bad poachers versus good conservationists. It’s a very Euro-centric way of looking at this problem. Who am I to say Asian medicine is wrong? If they want to spend a lot of money on a commodity from Africa, then we should let them do so in legal channels. And instead of seeing local Africans as the enemy, we need to make them part of the solution.

“Poaching is so profitable that it will never stop until the people can live off the proceeds from live, farmed rhino.”

Unlike ivory, horn is a sustainable resource that grows back by about a kilo a year, so legal rhino farms could become very profitable.

“If local people were given farms to manage and run, they could make thousands of dollars a year, allowing their communities to prosper and build schools and clinics,” continues Hanks. “This would force them to protect their animals from poachers. And although elephants can’t regrow their tusks, hundreds of tonnes of ivory are collected each year from culling or from animals who have died naturally in the wild. Under a legal trade, that money could also be given back to local people.”

Private game reserves across Africa are also under immense pressure and many of them can no longer afford to keep rhino or elephant.

“Of the 5,000 rhino that have been poached in South Africa since 2009, 1,000 have been killed on private reserves, which is a crippling loss for us,” says Pelham Jones, chairman of the Private Rhino Owners Association. “We get no financial aid so we have to spend millions of rand of our own money to protect these animals each month – and we’re going into debt because of it. If the law doesn’t change, we will have to get rid of our rhino and elephant, but who will take them?


“It makes me so angry when people from NGOs sit around drinking chardonnay in their fancy apartments and tell us we’re greedy for wanting a legal trade, when we’re out in the bush every night risking our lives. I want to stop the demand for rhino horn as much anyone, but until that day comes, we private landowners need money from legal sales to help keep the animals alive.”

They have a lengthy battle ahead. NGOs such as WWF, WildAid, the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) and Save the Rhino are all vehemently opposed to a legal trade in any form and they have deep pockets and powerful allies. Britain’s Prince William has given speeches with NGOs in Beijing, Washington and London, urging people to stop buying ivory. Chinese stars Yao Ming, Li Bingbing and Jackie Chan have starred in AWF advertisements about the terrible consequences of buying parts of wild animals. Virgin Group’s Richard Branson has hosted dinners in Vietnam at which he has asked prominent businessmen to pledge that they will never again buy rhino horn. And, collectively, NGOs have lobbied governments worldwide, asking them to declare all trade in ivory illegal and enforce harsher penalties for those caught with rhino horn. They have directly influenced policy in numerous countries and have put millions of dollars into Asian education on the horrors of the wildlife trade. And they are now terrified that any mention of a legal trade will set back their campaign by years.

“The only way to stop this crisis is to stop the demand. And a legal trade destroys that approach,” says Patrick Bergin, chief executive of AWF and special adviser to American President Barack Obama, whose administration has donated millions of dollars to help stop poaching.

“If African countries start openly selling rhino horn, they send mixed messages and perpetuate the myth that it has some medicinal value. In the past we have experimented with selling stockpiles of ivory to Asian countries, and the consequences were terrible. Money did not go to local communities, demand and prices for ivory rose and an entire ivory industry sprang up in Hong Kong and China. Illegal ivory was sold as legal and nobody could differentiate between the two.

“Governments need to burn their stockpiles and keep their message simple: it must be illegal to buy rhino horn or ivory in any form.”

“The legal trade in Hong Kong has been very damaging,” says Hofford. “Hong Kong has been the Asian ivory hub since 1949 and the trade is out of control, rife with illegal activity, laundering, corruption, you name it. And so the government had to act, and act they did by stepping up enforcement. However, you can still pretty much walk in off the street into an ivory shop in Sheung Wan and get the guy to pick up the phone, call Africa and order an elephant to be poached for you right there and then. That’s how crazy it is, and that’s why our government needs to act quickly to stop these horrendous abuses.”

NGOs also dispute the idea that legal sales are a new solution, claiming that it was the original centuries-old trade that created the crisis in the first place.

“Legal trade has been tried and tested and it does not work,” says Adam Welz, the South Africa representative of WildAid. “And the idea that what we’re doing now isn’t working is patently absurd. Serious demand-reduction work on rhino horn has been under way for only a handful of years, and hasn’t been very well funded. In the early 1990s, large-scale media campaigns were instrumental in rapidly shutting down interest in rhino horn in Taiwan, which was then the world’s largest user. Ongoing talk of trade is very damaging.

“African and Asian governments need to be clear with each other and unanimous to their people that rhino horn consumption cures no serious disease and is driving magnificent creatures to extinction.” 

But Taiwan’s population is a 50th of that of China and even if the combined power of education, tighter government regulations and celebrity endorsements do result in a reduction of demand, will it happen in time to save the 22,000 rhino and 500,000 elephant left in the wild?

“Of course we are all in crisis-management mode, and desperate times and situations call for desperate measures,” says Bergin. “We are racing against the clock and we don’t have the luxury of taking the long and winding conservation road. It’s a state of emergency. But we are coming up with solutions that will make a serious impact. We are creating rhinoonly reserves within game farms that will be patrolled 24 hours a day to stop the poaching. We are sending highly trained dogs to ports and airports across Africa to stop the trafficking. And we are working closely with African diplomats and Asian governments to ensure they enforce harsher penalties on people caught with ivory or horn. These solutions will stop the crisis. Not an open trade, which will only stimulate it.”

In the face of these powerful arguments from NGOs, what chance does the pro-legalisation movement have of changing international law? Although it is currently legal to trade rhino horn domestically in South Africa, Edna Molewa, the minister of environmental affairs, plans to appeal the ruling. And because the demand within South Africa is virtually non-existent, rhino owners will still have no way of legally selling their stock if Cites does not vote to reverse the international ban in September.

“It’s ridiculous to think this change in law could go through,” says Bergin. “It’s one country, one vote, which means South Africa has as much say as Jamaica does. They have no hope of getting the two-thirds majority they need and if they don’t, who is going to trade with them? This argument is a waste of time and resources.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” says Jones. “South Africa stands to make billions of rand from a legal trade. Think of what that money could do for conservation and poverty alleviation. And if South Africa lobbies Cites hard enough, they could allow only rhino-owning countries in Africa to take part in the vote. And that changes everything.”

Government ministers are integral to this debate. Molewa declined to comment but Loh is opposed to a continuation of the legal trade in Hong Kong and mainland China.

“We believe the most effective measure would be for people on the mainland to no longer regard owning ivory as highly desirable,” she says. “Once there is high understanding of the plight of the African elephant, we believe the demand will drop, and this appears to be the trend.”

In a fight where everyone claims to have the best and only solution, perhaps the sad truth is that there is no right answer. Fighting for demand reduction in Asia is essential, but will we only make significant inroads in education once it is too late? Legalisation could be a strong option in Africa, creating the revenue needed to protect the animals and incentives for the local people to stop poaching. But the potential consequences of an open, legal trade in Asia are terrifying.

And because there is no real solution to this devastating crisis, visiting the African bush has become a rather poignant experience.

Last month, I sat under the hot sun watching a herd of elephants play in swamps; at dusk, we saw a rhino and her calf trotting through fever trees. But with poaching figures standing as they do now, no matter what Cites decides to do this September, we must accept that our grandchildren may never witness these quintessentially African scenes that have existed for thousands of years.