• Jon T. Peterson

The Rhino on the Table


Delegates for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) have gathered in Geneva, Switzerland for its Conference of the Parties. This meeting is where the important decisions are made about the international wildlife trade. While there are roughly 5,000 species of animals covered by CITES, none is more discussed than the rhinoceros.


Starting in 2008 there has been a dramatic increase in the number of rhino being poached for their horn. There has been extensive media coverage of the rhino poaching epidemic in South Africa. Rhino horn is used in traditional Chinese medicine (with dubious effects) and coveted as a status symbol. Rhino horn has become a very valuable commodity and no shortage of people are willing to exploit these animals.


Over the last decade there has been a corresponding dramatic increase in both the attention and money spent on fighting this problem. Tens of millions of dollars are spent annually protecting rhino with little attention paid to local communities. With international trade of rhino horn prohibited, a vast illicit network has grown to supply demand in Vietnam and China.


It is important to understand that CITES does not determine whether a species is “endangered”, its rules only govern the trade in that species. Increasingly CITES has been seen as an organization that has become politicized. Instead of sticking to its mandate of regulating trade it has become a battleground for competing ideologies funded by donations and political favor.


No where is this more apparent than with the discussion of trade in rhino horn. Since 1977, when trade was prohibited, contentious arguments have ensued whenever the issue has been put on the table. Not only is legalizing trade controversial but so is the private ownership of rhinos. One simple fact has intensified this debate: rhino horn can be cut and it will grow back. Killing the animal is unnecessary as the horn can be removed without causing harm to the animal and they can effectively be “farmed” for their horn.

Proponents of legal trade are quick to point out that legal markets by definition are more transparent and accountable than illegal ones. If demand cannot be curbed, supply must be increased. They claim that a dependable supply of horn will reduce poaching and generate revenue. Opponents say legal trade serves to legitimize the product and will only accelerate the killing.


Unfortunately, the staggering amount of money being spent has not solved the problem. It has not reduced the incentive to illegally poach nor has it helped communities who could stand to benefit from legalized trade. Poaching continues to take a toll on the animals and their human guardians. Rangers engaged in anti-poaching operations suffer with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. In this never ending war, the same policies continue to have the same results.


Will 2019 be the watershed year for the rhino? Will legalization be given serious consideration? Will CITES choose to continue down the same path that has brought us increased militarization, increased violence and the disenfranchisement of local communities?

The time is now and the fate of the rhino is on the table.




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