JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The trading of rhino horns is putting the beasts at risk of extinction. Yet legalizing the trade could actually help save the rhinoceros, according to South Africa's top environment official.
"Our rhinos are killed every day and the numbers are going up," Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa told the Mail & Guardian.
"The reality is that we have done all in our power and doing the same thing every day isn't working," Molewa added. "We do think that we need to address this issue of trade in a controlled manner so that we can at least begin to push down this pressure."
While the Southern African government has made no secret it was studying the possibility of legalizing the rhino horn trade, this is the first time its environment minister has publicly backed the idea.
It's a controversial tactic, and one that shows South Africa's desperation to stop the poaching crisis. Despite a slew of military-style efforts to halt the killing of rhinos for their horns, already this year at least 158 have been poached, the majority of them at the Kruger National Park.
Rhino horn sales have been banned for more than 30 years under CITES, the global convention on trade in endangered species.
South Africa is home to both the white rhino and the black rhino. White rhinos, which trophy hunters wiped out almost entirely by the late 19th century, are now near threatened, according to the Red List of threatened species. There are far fewer black rhinos, which are critically endangered.
Proponents of legalization argue that restricting rhino horn sales has a similar effect to alcohol prohibition in the United States, which created a black market for alcohol.
Earlier this month, four scientists expressed similar sentiments, writing in the journal Science that the rhino horn ban has been ineffective and that a regulated market would better protect the animals.
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"Current strategies have clearly failed to conserve these magnificent animals and the time has come for a highly regulated legal trade in horn," lead author Duan Biggs told Reuters in a statement.
Some experts argue that rhinos could be saved by being bred specifically for the horn trade, with the animals being kept alive and put under anesthetic to get their horns. This is already done to some of the animals living in South African private game reserves, according to Deutsche Welle.
Game reserve owners in South Africa hold stockpiles of rhino horns, and were sales legalized, they would stand to make a mint. Currently, private game reserves are reluctant to keep rhinos because the pricey animals are a poaching liability.
However, opponents of legalizing the trade point to the example of ivory: Whenever limited sales of ivory stockpiles have been allowed, a surge in demand has followed, fueling the slaughter of Africa's elephants for their tusks. After four sanctioned auctions of ivory in 2008, poaching actually increased.
The World Wildlife Fund is among the groups opposed to legalization. "This is just a change from the elite-trend to mass-trend. I think we will be lighting a fire that will be difficult to extinguish," a WWF spokesman told Deutsche Welle.