• Olivia Earth

Rhino Horn Trade: Policy Evaluation


South Africa is plagued by the resource curse which has infiltrated all elements of society ,including biodiversity protection. This paper deals with the trade in rhino horn and seeks to understand how the current policy regulating the trade in rhino horn in South Africa came to exist. This has been done by evaluating competing arguments and, drawing from that evaluation, has presented a nuanced understanding of the policy in its current form. This understanding has been used to analyse the practical implementation and consequences of the policy, which is perhaps the most important criteria for assessing the success of a policy. This paper found that rhino poaching related deaths have decreased from 2016 to 2018, thus far, after implementation of the policy which lifted the ban on domestic trade. This suggests that the revised policy framework was indeed effective at curbing rhino poaching incidences by regulating the national trade in rhino horn. It is important to remember that there could be additional contributing factors to the reduction in poaching related deaths that are outside of the ambit of this paper.


Photograph: Olivia Taylor


South Africa has always emphasised principles of sustainability and conservation with regards to its environment, which boasts enormous diversity in flora and fauna. This can be seen by the specific commitment in the constitution to creating “a prosperous, environmentally-conscious nation, whose people are in harmonious coexistence with the natural environment, and which derives lasting benefits from the conservation and sustainable use of its rich biological diversity” (Milliken & Shaw, 2012:8). Consequently, for some, the lift of the ban for the trade in rhino horn in South Africa came as an unpleasant surprise. Many feel as though the trade is a gross moral violation of an endangered species while others believe that only through trade can the rhino poaching problem be alleviated. This stark division in the camp of conservationists has elicited heated debates, highlighting the necessity and relevance of the analysis to follow.

This paper seeks to understand how the policy for the trade in rhino horn in South Africa came to exist by evaluating the competing arguments for and against legalisation, and then, drawing from that evaluation, the nuance of the policy as it exists right now will be understood. Perhaps the most important dimension of policy evaluation is assessing its practical consequences, as it is only when the consequences of policy manifests tangibly that it can be considered successful.

To understand the complexities behind the evaluation of the conflicting arguments, it is important to understand that evaluation is a tool of political analysis which “aims to advance understanding by highlighting significant relationships and interactions” (Heywood, 2002:19). Both evaluation and implementation as analytic tools aid the analyser to notice things and recognise structure instead of the purely analytical. Evaluation is the most appropriate tool to engage in this analysis, as it is uniquely capable of drawing reasoned conclusions from that which would otherwise be a baffling and messy assortment of facts. Heywood (2002:22) states that at the end of the day one must aware that “all political and social enquiry is conducted within a particular intellectual framework.” Because enquiry can be biased, intellectuals and thinkers must take care not to view concerns through only one ‘lens’ i.e. from the view or lens of the commercial rhino farmer in comparison to the view of the biologist or conservationist.


A particularly prolific trade in endangered species has emerged in South Africa, precisely because it boasts a remarkable biodiversity, including a noteworthy array of animal species. Rhinos, among other species, have benefitted greatly from ingenious natural resource policies. South Africa’s legacy of more than 100 years of conservation successes has, however, recently come under fire. Ceratotherium simum simum, more commonly known as the southern white rhinoceros, is a subspecies of rhino that has bred from a single population of between 20 and 50 individuals in 1895. This significant feat for conservationism was achieved in a specifically protected area of South Africa called the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve (Milliken & Shaw, 2012:8). Today, South Africa is undergoing its second “catastrophic rhino poaching crisis” which has already exceed the first which showed a decrease in Black Rhinoceros, Diceros bicornis, from 100 000 individuals in 1960 to 2410 individuals by 1995 Reserve (Milliken & Shaw, 2012:8).

Simply put, the rhino poaching industry exists because of the multitude of misconceptions surrounding the rhino horn. These horns are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and can allegedly cure many diseases. The significant economic growth seen in the east, and Southeast Asia, the main market for horns, is the driving factor behind recent demand growth for the product) (Biggs, 2013:1038). A growing market stands tandem with another pressing concern, as the use of horn as a status symbol in countries such as Vietnam as well as China has become prolific. Especially damaging to the misnomers about the “benefits” of rhino horn is the recent “urban myth” that a senior Vietnamese actor had survived a bout of cancer due to his reliance on rhino horn. This incident is presumed to have caused the renewed demand in rhino horn, which is also being used more frequently as a “hangover tonic” (Carrington, 2017).


Following the poaching of a white rhino in a zoo in Paris in 2017, a heated debate began about what would happen to the black market if the trade was legalised, the ban lifted and, perhaps, the commercial breeding of rhinos was implemented to harvest their horns. Sills (2013:1167) argues that Biggs has overlooked some issues with regards to the lift on a trade ban. Biggs argues that rhino horn trading would be an effective response however, a statement with which Sills vehemently disagrees, a criticism which is composed of two main parts. Before a more detailed analysis of these criticisms it is important to highlight that there are two commonly accepted methods to use policy to help alleviate the rhino poaching epidemic. Ban the trade of rhino horn in South Africa (there is already an international ban). The ban can alternatively be lifted entirely, allowing trade to supress poaching, as an increase in supply from the private sector (enabled by legalisation) would reduce the demand from illicit poaching rings. South Africa’s current policy has lifted the ban on national trade.

Biggs claims that the legalisation of the trade will work if “the demand does not escalate to dangerous levels as the stigma associated with the illegality of the product is removed” (Sills, 2013:1167). Sills (2013:1167) claims that there is no proof this stigma indeed exists, and further that the price of the horn, coupled with significant population growth rates and rising per capita incomes in the major markets for rhino would likely drive demand higher. Secondly, Biggs has detailed that the possibility of using DNA profiling, now that it is commercially viable thanks to lower costs, would help to determine if products are real rhino horn or counterfeit. Sills counters this by arguing that if poachers and syndicates were aware of the profiling, they will be necessarily incentivised to continue to poach real horn, as it would no longer be possible, as it was in the past, to sell counterfeit products at market prices Accordingly, Burgess (2012:3) clarifies that the market is now grappling with the creation of fake horns, which are of such high quality that they are virtually indistinguishable from the genuine product. Sills says that the decrease in fakes in the market could push up the price of the remaining real horns as the supply would drop (Sills, 2013:1167). Sills argues that removing the counterfeits from the market would cause supply to decrease sharply, pushing up the price of the genuine horns that remain.

Biggs, however, has more to contribute with regards to why lifting the ban would be beneficial. Biggs highlights that prohibitions on trade have, in the past, precisely expanded the market share and opportunities to profit for organised crime syndicates, who are willing to meet demand in a market where supply is severely restricted. This fact is exemplified in the markets for banned narcotics, alcohol, and certain animal products (Biggs, 2013:1038).Furthermore, South Africa is notorious for struggling with corruption in government and Biggs’ next point becomes even more pertinent. The reality of rampant corruption in South Africa highlights the importance of Biggs’ next argument. He suggests more robust efforts to regulate the market will be more vulnerable to corruption on the part of government officials, often offered significant payoffs by organised crime syndicates to allow the trade in horns by the “co-option of corruptible government officials by crime syndicates in a very lucrative illegal trade” (Biggs, 2013:1038). Lastly from Biggs, he discusses something he dubs the “economic supply-and-demand extinction vortex” which will arise as wildlife products, such as rhino horn, become more scarce and in effect, their prices skyrocket These arguments ultimately culminate in what he calls a ‘’supply and demand extinction vortex’’, a term used to express the reality that prohibitions reduce supply and a market with fairly static demand, pushing prices to astronomical levels (Biggs, 2013:1038).

Biggs (2013:1038) states that the ban in trade during 2013 and before did not gain traction due to the drastic price increase of rhino horn an estimated $4,700 per kilogram in 1993 to approximately $65,000 per kilogram in 2012. These high prices, which exceed those of cocaine and gold per kilogram, pushed poaching issues to the forefront of the public mind, aided by the infamous burglaries of rhino horn samples from galleries and museums all over Europe. Biggs (2013:1038) adds that even in an attempt to save rhinos in the field by dehorning them, the remaining “horn stubs” are still so valuable that poaching efforts have remained violent and desperate attempts for the stubs have been successful. The high monetary gains by poachers is not only financially expensive to defend against but has also cost many people in the line of defence, their lives. These remarkably high prices have meant that not only is there no cessation in the attempts of poachers, against whom it is becoming increasingly expensive to retaliate, but further that growing violence has threatened the lives of many of the front line of conservationism. As the defence of rhinos escalates, so does the sophistication of the tools and equipment of the poachers (Biggs, 2013:1038).

Additionally, Biggs (2013:1038) predicted that as the rhino ‘arms race’ continues, the price will be pushed up due to the rapidly growing demand and lack of any substitutes in the eyes of consumers. Luckily, this price spike did not materialise, as it was reported by Carrington of The Guardian (2017). The price spiked in 2012 at $65,000 a kilogram and has decreased since. Carrington emphasised that this price fluctuation is common knowledge, but that in the market of wildlife crime, rhino horn remains more highly valued than traditionally prized products such as elephant ivory. Rhino horn is still pointedly more valued than other animal products such as elephant ivory (Carrington, 2017).

It thus seems that although there is at least some logical basis for lifting trading bans on rhino horn, it is far from cut and dry. With regards to removing trade bans Sills (2013:1167) makes a convincing argument against the captive breeding of white rhinos for harvesting of the horns. The idea of breeding rhinos for their horn is associated closely with the ban on local trade lifted, as farmers can now presumably profitably enter the market which was previously monopolised by poaching syndicates. Sills highlights that specifically because South Africa’s rhino population was revived from the brink of extinction from one specific group of rhinos, as discussed above, there is a significant risk of genetic diseases and weaknesses brought on by the miniscule gene pool. A severely restricted gene pool means that the intensive breeding of the animals, initially destined to populate wildlife reserves, that would be necessary to meet market demand in a legalised market could bring these weaknesses to the fore (Sills, 2013:1167). This is contextually important, as trade without captive breeding would be a non-starter as the mortality rate of rhinos at 2.6 per cent may not be enough to sustain such a high demand (Sills, 2013:1038).


The ban on the trade in rhino horn was lifted in South Africa in 2017. The Department of Environmental Affairs released a statement, via their website, declaring the ban on rhino horn lifted. This announcement, however, did not amount to a full scale deregulation of the trade in rhino horn, as persons are still prohibited from selling, donating or trading in any way with rhino horn without a permit. These permits are to be issued by the relevant provincial conservation department and remain an important caveat to the lifting of the ban (Environmental Affairs, 2017). The statistics for 2018, estimated by the South African Wildlife College (2018), gave their “conservative estimate” that by mid-July/August the number of poaching deaths would be closer to 300. If this proves true, it would indicate a decline of at least 20 percent in rhino poaching deaths in 2018 (South African Wildlife College, 2018).

2017 was significantly the first year in which a decrease in rhino poaching related deaths in South Africa has occurred since 2007, when the death toll began gaining momentum (Stop Rhino Poaching, 2017). The poaching deaths decreased from 1054 rhinos in 2016 to 1028 individuals in 2017. This decrease of 26 animals is a conservation win with regards to a simple statistical comparison. However, Steyn (2018) claims that the success has been “overshadowed by a growing concern for the increase and broadening of poaching elsewhere in South Africa as only 1 in 10 rhino poachings resulted in convictions”. News24 (Mitchley, 2018) reported that the CEO of SANParks, Fundisile Mketeni, commended the efforts of the SANParks anti-poaching teams on the arrests that have taken place this year. Mketeni emphasised that the organisation had an effective strategy in place to combat the blight on the rhino population. He renewed commitment to significantly decreasing poaching numbers, highlighting that SANParks had a goal of ensuring less than 400 poaching incidents materialised in 2017, a figure which they hope to further decrease to below 160 in 2018. “there was a strategy in place to deal with the scourge of rhino poaching” and that “the organisation was committed to ensuring that less than 400 rhinos would be poached in South Africa in 2019 and less than 160 in 2020 (Mitchley, 2018).

The Department of Environmental Affairs, reported the arrest of 359 accused poachers and traffickers were arrested in South Africa between January to June 2017 (Environmental Affairs, 2017). This statement, however, does not provide information on the number of successful convictions which result from these arrests. In this context of limited information of successful convictions, it becomes valuable to examine the newest statistics announced by government According to government, 2017 saw a total of 502 accused poachers, 16 accused traffickers arrested, bringing the national figure for arrests for rhino poaching involvement to 518. This number is significantly lower than the 2016 figure, which saw 680 alleged poachers and traffickers arrested (Environmental Affairs, 2017).

In order to evaluate the efficacy of a policy, it is necessary to establishing a metric for success against which a policy is to be measured. Considering the above discussion of the opinions of industry experts, the tool of evaluation has elucidated a clear conclusion: it seems that both proponents of legalisation and maintaining an outright ban share a common goal. It is thus that this paper will measure the success of the policy at hand based on the statistics of poaching related deaths and whether or not the population is increasing. Another dimension of policy success is directly tied to the number of successful convictions of arrested persons, but this falls beyond the scope of this paper. This dimension is a particularly crucial avenue for further research, as information is more scarce and thus makes it more difficult to evaluate. Regardless, the framework set out above remains one of the most important standards for ensuring the continued health of the rhino populations in South Africa in the long term. Using this matrix, the decrease in rhino poachings from 2017 to current statistics in 2018 can be called successful. It is therefore the conclusion of this paper that, at least in the dimension of preserving the number of individuals in the species, the policy has indeed been successful.

Along the dimension of measuring the success of prosecuting criminals in this arena, it must be emphasised that an understanding of the true ramifications of the policy remains impossible without better access to data on convictions and prosecutions in the trade. Additionally, to complete a thorough analysis the author proposes that there needs to be better access to data on the total convictions made in the country for rhino poaching related crimes. It is exceedingly difficult to measure the success of the policy without such information as arrests do not necessarily lead to the ‘bad guys’ being put away. Arrests are insufficient as without the conviction poachers can resume their trade and continue to plunder the earth. This raises many issues with regards to the rigorousness of the South African judicial system. Jamie Joseph, founder of Saving the Wild and environmental activist, claims that the lack of convictions is due to corruption in the criminal justice system who seem to endlessly delay trials for poachers and arrests made in line with rhino horn syndicates. Jamie gravely states that, “if we lose the war on corruption, we lose the war on everything” (Buthelezi, 2018). Jamie’s sentiments are shared by DA spokesperson, Ann McDonnell, who has “called on the government to address the inadequacy of rhino poaching prosecutions” (Buthelezi, 2018). McDonnell says additionally that “most magistrates did not appreciate the seriousness of rhino poaching cases” and so she is calling on the department to of justice to “urgently escalate the crime of rhino poaching to higher courts” (Buthelezi, 2018).

What seems to be the case is that the policy implementation of national trade in rhino horn is wanting and that only when the government takes the cases seriously, which they should with any violation of the law, only then can serious inroads be made with regards to curbing the poaching crisis. A reiteration of the original proposition, policy is mute if it does not have tangible effects. A poignant article published in 2016 states that the prosecution rate of rhino related crimes was only “a pitiful 15%” (Verwoerd, 2016). Conservation Action Trust explained that this rate is dangerously low as “83% of those arrested were not prosecuted and are thus free to repeat their activities”. They added that some of the arrested may not in fact be guilty however, those who were guilty “and got away with it will be likely to try again”. Their last point is that because the percentage of convictions is low but the arrests are high it might give the appearance that there is something to celebrate where “the battle against rhino poaching” maybe, in fact, being lost (Verwoerd, 2016).

The illegal trade in rhino horn needs to be countered by well-executed and sound policy. The lifting of the ban is based on the assumption that unmet demand for rhino horn is a major driver of poaching. Part of the rhino trade argument is backed up with the intention to farm rhinos which increases the reproduction rate and therefore can guarantee horn for trade. The commercial farming of rhinos seems to be a pragmatic response to the potential of extinction however, two concerns need to be discussed – both genetic and ethical issues with regards to commercial breeding. The question of genetics and whether or not the gene pool is strong enough to breed needs to be answered by scientists and biologists and is not a question of policy. The ethical question is not something science or policy can answer and will require rigorous debate in determining whether it is morally sound to breed a wild species for trading.


It would be a useful comparison to look at the effects of the policy for the trade in elephant ivory however, the research shows that policy results in this regard are unreliable due to the fact that the trade is inextricably linked to corruption. Smith et al (2014:953) states that domestic markets for legal ivory trade have been “subverted by corruption and are allowing the laundering of illegal ivory”. Smith et al continues that “corruption potentially undermines every aspect of elephant conservation” and that there is “no evidence that any approach is more or less susceptible”. In this way Smith et al (2014:953) suggests that the future of the elephant population “requires conservationists to learn lessons from other sectors to understand and tackle this problem”. So what is corruption? Corruption has been defined by Smith et al (2014:953) as the “the abuse of public office for private gain” and that it can be found in many forms such as “bribery, cronyism, embezzlement, fraud, and nepotism”. This is unfortunately not a new issue prevalent in South Africa. The conservation world mirrors other policy sectors in that many of them struggle with corruption which “tends to thrive when there is weak rule of law, abnormal concentrations of power in one individual or institution, and no counter-balancing mechanisms in place” (Smith et al., 2014:953).


Using the metric detailed above, the policy implementation of the lift in ban on local trade in rhino horn has been successful. This can be seen due to the decrease in rhino poaching related deaths from 2016 to 2018 thus far. Evaluation and implementation were used as analytic tools to aid the reader to notice things and recognise structure above that of the purely analytical. For the policy to become more effective a few suggestions have been made. There is a need for better access to the statistics on successful rhino poaching prosecutions in South Africa as an understanding of the true ramifications of the policy remains impossible without better access to data on convictions and prosecutions in the trade. However, expert debate is additionally required on both the morality of captive breeding and the possibility of genetic weaknesses.


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Burgess, M. 2012. Rhino poaching and East Asian policies: Facts and debates. The Centre for Chinese Studies. Stellenbosch: Stellenbosch University.

Buthelezi, S. 2018. Paucity of Poaching Prosecutions due to Draft? The Sunday Independent, 4 February. Carrington, D. 2017. High price of rhino horn leaves bloody trail across the globe. The Guardian, 10 March.

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Environmental Affairs. 2017. Minister Molewa highlights progress on Integrated Strategic Management of Rhinoceros [Online]. Available: https://www.environment.gov.za/mediarelease/molewa_proresson_integratedstrategic_managementofrhinoceros_rhinopoaching. [2018, August, 10].

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Milliken, T. & Shaw, J. 2012. The South Africa – Viet Nam Rhino Horn Trade Nexus: A deadly combination of institutional lapses, corrupt wildlife industry professionals and Asian crime syndicates. Johannesburg: TRAFFIC.

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Sills, J. 2013. Rhino Poaching: Supply and Demand Uncertain. Science 340(6137):1167-1169.

Smith, R. J. et al. 2014. Elephant conservation and corruption beyond the ivory trade. Conservation Biology, 29(3): 953–956.

Steyn, L. 2018. Rhino Poaching Stats: Slight Decrease But still Far Too High. SA Breaking News, 26 January. Available: https://bit.ly/2OqbvhL. [10 August 2018].

Stop Rhino Poaching. 2017. Rhino Statistics – Poached and Population Figures [Online]. Available: http://www.stoprhinopoaching.com/pages.aspx?pagename=stats. [2018, August 10].

South African Wildlife College. 2018. Rhino poaching statistics – June 2018 [Online]. Available: http://wildlifecollege.org.za/news-media/articles/rhino-poaching-statistics/. [2018, August 10].

Verwoerd, M. 2016. South Africa Conviction Rate ‘Pitiful’ for Rhino Crimes? [Online]. Available: https://conservationaction.co.za/media-articles/south-africa-conviction-rate-pitiful-rhino-crimes/. [2018, August 10]

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