Trading in horns

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

Three rhinoceroses are killed in the South African bush each day; their horns are sawn off and sold to intermediaries operating in lucrative wildlife markets. South Africa houses 79% of the globes remaining rhinoceros. Of the 20 306 South African rhinos, 18 413 are southern white rhinos and around 1 893 animals belong to the black species. An estimate of one-third of South Africa’s white rhinos are on private land, local communities protect 0.5 % of the black rhino population through a custodianship programme, and national and provincial parks authorities look after the remainder. The South African Minister of Environmental Affairs announced that rhino poaching had stabilised in 2015 with 40 animals less killed than the previous year, however the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission’s African Rhino Specialist Group warns of ‘the deepening rhino poaching crisis in Africa’ with poachers killing 1377 rhinos across the continent in 2015. At the core of the rhino crisis is the relentless demand for rhino horn in consumer markets. Powdered rhino horn has been used in traditional Asian medicine for more than four millennia as well as carved into hilts for traditional daggers known as ‘yambiyas’

Rhino horn is made out of compacted hair.

What is rhino horn used for

The recent increase in rhino poaching in South Africa is largely due to heightened demand for rhino horn, which has long been revered as an ingredient in traditional Asian medicine however this has been denied recently by both China and Vietnam. It has been claimed recently that rhino horn holds cancer-curing properties as well as the ability to cure impotence; despite there being no medical results or research to support the claims. Each rhino horn weighs around 10kg and currently draws in over US$ 20,000 per kilo on the Asian market. The use of rhino horn as an ingredient in medicine originated in China several thousand years ago and later spread to Japan, Korea and Viet Nam. Rhino horn is classified as a “heat-clearing” drug with detoxifying properties. It is normally used in conjunction with other medicinal ingredients, resulting in a wide range of conditions for which it has been traditionally indicated. These conditions generally do not include cancer, although rhino horn is now being advertised by some as a cancer treatment in China and Viet Nam. In Viet Nam, rhino horn has recently been used as a powerful “aphrodisiac”, and a cleansing drink to help a hangover due to overconsumption of alcohol.

The factory production of medicines containing rhino horn appears to be changing in practice and operation, since factories are trying to comply with domestic trade bans, so that the main medicinal distribution channel today is generally as powder or chunks of horn for grinding at home, sold by traditional pharmacies that prepare prescriptions from dried ingredients. This distribution channel is complicated to monitor and detect illegal trade due to the large amounts of shops, clinics, hospitals, pharmacies, doctors and informal doctors. These are a few of the reasons why rhino horn is trafficked to Asian countries.

Rhinos are usually solitary but come together during mating season.


Worldwide populations of rhinoceros white Ceratotherium simum), black (Diceros bicornis), greater one-horned (Rhinoceros unicornis), Javan (Rhinoceros sondaicus), and Sumatran rhinoceroses (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) have declined profoundly, from about 500,000 at the beginning of the 20th century to 29,000 in 2016, largely due to an escalation in poaching for rhino horn. The current global rhinoceros population is composed of 3 Asian species and 2 African species. In Africa, they live in South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. In Africa, the southern white rhinoceros population is estimated at 20,700, and there are approximately 4885 black rhinoceroses. The greater one-horned rhinoceros lives in Nepal and India and has a population of approximately 3555.

The other Asian species are confined to Indonesia, and the populations are much smaller: 100 Sumatran and 58–61 Javan rhinoceroses. Illegal poaching in Africa accelerates serious threats to biodiversity, including the possible extinction of other species. The continent recorded an estimated 67% decline in black rhino (Diceros bicornis) between 1960 and the early 2000s. More than 6 000 rhinos have been killed in South Africa since 2007. Statistics released in February 2017 showed a 10.3% year on year decline in rhino poaching, however, 1 054 rhinos were still poached in South Africa in 2016, and another 1 175 in 2015. In response to wildlife crime, some countries have declared a ‘war on poaching’.

In Africa there are two species of rhinos, namely black and white.

While the report to CITES CoP15 was tabled in late 2009, since then the situation has worsened. In 2010, poaching increased dramatically throughout the year, almost tripling and reaching a previously unimaginable 333 rhinos killed. Noting urgent attention, the IUCN warned that if this rapid rate of escalation in poaching were to continue, then in just a couple of year’s rhino numbers in South Africa would begin to decline. In 2011, rhino poaching again climbed to a new annual record of 448 rhinos lost. If poaching continues to increase annually as it has done since 2007, then eventually deaths will exceed births and rhino numbers in South Africa will start to decrease. Overall, the total amount of rhinos killed per year in South Africa over the past five years has shown a continued increases, even if there are fluctuations in the daily amount of poaching.

Concerns about the decline in rhinoceros numbers is not a twenty-first century phenomenon, as, for example, “In Kenya responsible people began to worry about the dwindling numbers of rhino’s as early as 1906, when large scale poaching was reported”. As early as 1932, extinction of the rhino’s was seen a credible threat. Extinction is approaching quickly. In 2011, the IUCN declared the Western Black Rhinoceros extinct with poaching being the main cause for this species demise. The remaining five species are presently listed on the IUCN’s Red List of threatened species with three of these being classified as critically endangered. The Kruger National Park has remained the biggest target for poachers. As a result, the IUCN and the South African Department of Environmental Affairs are attempting to address the issue by lobbying for revised regional and international trade laws which will alter the supply of rhinoceros horn. This has been complemented by a strong effort at educating Asian consumers to combat the cultural belief that the animal’s horn can be used as an aphrodisiac. The South African Police Service has also joined the fight, declaring the illegal trade of rhino horn to be of priority issue. This has gone hand-in-hand with revisions to legislation including stricter controls on hunting permits and the transportation of horn leading to a reduction in the number of hunting applications. At the same time, the National Environmental Management Laws First Amendment Bill and the National Environmental Management Laws Second Amendment Bill have been tabled in an effort to curb the abuse of the hunting permit system and make it easier to hold individuals engaged in these activities criminally liable.

It is illegal to kill a rhino and sell its horn, however when your family is starving, ethics go out the window.

The bills will further restrict the transport of specimens making trafficking of horns more difficult. Nevertheless, the country’s decreasing population of rhino’s remain at risk. Poaching units are generally well equipped and trained, making it hard for park rangers (with limited funding) to detain these criminals. This has initiated a strong response from the private sector with many of South Africa’s largest companies introducing many initiatives to raise funds to deal with the poaching of one of South Africa’s “Big Five”. We see from the analysis that follows the many initiatives and projects underway to reduce poaching, enhance rhinoceros populations and prevent extinction. It is, however, extremely difficult to prevent extinction when a species such as the rhinoceros has attracted financial value, constructed through the cultural perceptions associated with rhinoceros horn, with the cost of trophy hunting, as well as the value of rhino’s for business purposes such as ecotourism, “because of the way we have constructed the world to operate, wildlife must have an economic value to make it viable and keep it worthwhile. It is not enough to say that the African bush and wildlife must be preserved for its own safe, for aesthetic or moral reasons”.

Africa’s rhinos are not necessarily the highest priority pachyderms for conservation actions. White rhinos (global population estimate: 20,170) and black rhinos (4,880) are more abundant and probably more secure than the Great Indian Rhinoceros unicornis (2,575), Sumatran (275), and Javan Rhinoceros sondaicus (60) that are all listed as Critically Endangered. Given that these last three species put togetherare less common than Africa’s rarest rhino, they must be seen as a higher conservation priority for ex situ conservation. The current population estimates for black rhino suggest a significant increase since 2012, while those for white rhino show no significant change since 2012 reinforcing the fact that these are the lowest priority rhino species. While making a decision to carry out conservation actions are likely to be more effective when populations are large, there already exists a viable captive population for white rhinos and the other rhino species are in much greater need of conservation action than white rhinos.

For a poacher, there's a lot of money in this picture.

With a thin coat of iron-tinged hair and a lifestyle adapted to the mountainous rain forests of Indonesia, these are the smallest rhinos on earth. They are also the most endangered rhino species—and isolation threatens to wipe them out. Researchers now estimate that around 80 of these rare creatures remain between the islands of Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo, and the survivors are split into around 12 subpopulations with no gene exchange. In fact, the remaining rhinos have become so separated, the world’s experts now consider isolation the biggest threat to their existence, overtaking poaching and habitat loss. Making matters worse, due to a quirk of their biology, if females go too long without reproducing they develop problems in their reproductive tracts that can prevent successful pregnancies. Now, a coalition of international conservation organizations, including the National Geographic Society, announced a new plan today (Sep. 20 2018) to turn the animal’s fortunes around. It’s called the Sumatran Rhino Rescue. At its heart, the new strategy aims to safely capture as many wild rhinos as possible and then transfer them to nearby sanctuaries where scientists and wildlife managers can assist in their reproduction. There’s currently only one such facility, called the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary, built by the International Rhino Foundation in Way Kambas National Park in south Sumatra. Other facilities are planned for the north end of the island and across the way in Indonesian Borneo, too, provided the coalition can find enough wild rhinos from those regions to start captive breeding.

Whilst by no means a silver bullet, technology has a role to play in the conservation of endangered species. From the long-standing use of camera traps, to the introduction of cutting-edge DNA analysis, technology is a tool that should be, and is being, used to assist anti-poaching as well as building a safe environment for wildlife.

Social factors affecting rhino poaching

When asked whether the rhino carried cultural significance or symbolic value, poachers stated that the rhino was ‘feared’, ‘admired’ and ‘respected’ but it was not customary to hunt the wild animal. For example, children are warned to stay clear of the rhino because it was an ‘angry’ and ‘dangerous’ animal. Why is the rhino hunted in spite of the reverence and respectful admiration? The most stand out answer would be the high price tag paid at the source and rising demand for rhino horn in consumer markets. The rhino has a price on its horn that far outweighs the average yearly income of rural communities along the western (South African) and eastern (Mozambican) boundary of the KNP. Poachers and community members cited the loss of their land, hunting and land use rights as triggers for dissent and drivers of poaching behaviour. An old woman who had been recently relocated from the LNP explains: “We were happy where we come from. There’s no peace here, no hope. They can give you a house and the next day, they can remove it from you, and give it to someone else. We don’t have a school here, no fields to grow our own food, and the youths are struggling to get jobs in this village. The youths do nothing. Some end up stealing because of the lack of jobs, others do rhino poaching. Some come back, some die, and some get arrested”.

Economics and poverty play a huge role in rhino poaching as well as the illegal wildlife trade in general.

A rhino kingpin operating from a village in the LNP explained that the villages inside the Park were not only catalysts for poaching excursions into Kruger, but that they had also become effective recruiting grounds for poaching operations. The relocation of villagers has been a disjointed and extracted process. Due to limited food security, increasing human–wildlife conflict and social fragmentation at the village level many villagers are looking for voluntary and speedy relocation to lessen the disruption to their personal lives and livelihoods. However, political and economic processes, as well as financial greed, are delaying the relocation of some of the remaining villages. Mozambican government authorities have given the land initially set aside for relocation and given it to a private investor for a sugarcane and ethanol plantation. According to the South African Minister of Environmental Affairs, the resettlement of communities should have been complete by the end of 2017. Displacement and dispossession have emerged as minor factors, motivating men to become involved in poaching, and likewise motivating communities to shield offenders from law enforcement. Conflicts have arisen over inequitable income distribution of beneficiation initiatives. Local political elites in the form of traditional leaders, chiefs, headmen and sub-headmen often act as intermediaries, negotiating political, economic and social factors and traditional affairs between outside parties and communities in rural southern Africa.

Community members remarked: ‘If you are on the wrong side of the chief, then you will see no money or benefits’ The role and function of traditional leaders remain somewhat contested in post-apartheid South Africa as the system of indirect rule served both colonial and apartheid rule. Feelings of anger, disempowerment and marginalization tie in with the frequent occurrence of service- delivery protests in the semi-urban and rural areas along the south-western boundary of the KNP in South Africa. A South African poacher remarked: You see in a rural area, they [political and traditional leaders] used to call each and every one that stayed there, and they talked with us to decide about things that concerned us. Now things are different. And they [the government] put the president on the chair. They don’t ask us anymore.

They do things on their own. It is them that behave like they are crooks. That’s why we end up killing the rhinos. When asked about poaching motivations, most of the interviewed poachers showed feelings of shame of not being able to provide for their families (and shame of having to do so through illegal means), emasculation, stress, disempowerment and anger. It is against this backdrop that rhino kingpins and poachers have emerged as self-styled Robin Hoods, who use rhino poaching for social and economic upward mobility. Says one kingpin based in a Mozambican village community. We are using rhino horn to free ourselves. The rhino has become a lucrative item for the continuing relative deprivation and economic marginalization of village communities.

Rhino horn can be worth millions of dollars on the black market.

Economic pressure

While many poachers originate from village communities, others join hunting crews from other communities, even from neighbouring countries. The level of social embeddedness of kingpins and poachers varies and carries structural and logistical factors for the flow of rhino horn. Of importance are community perceptions of whether their livelihoods are improving. Although many kingpins have an incredible criminal past in a range of illegal markets and organized crime, policing or conservation, they show their criminal careers in rhino poaching as legitimate livelihoods throughout the process of data collection. Two charismatic Mozambican kingpins, for example, have constructed their identity around the notion of being ‘economic freedom fighters’. who struggle for the economic and environmental rights of their communities. Others have labelled themselves as ‘businessmen’, ‘developers’, ‘community workers’ or ‘retired hunters’. Legitimation strategies also include the appropriation of job labels from the wildlife industry. Rhino poachers regard themselves as ‘professional hunters’ or ‘hunters’. Rangers are easily swayed to look the other direction or assist with operational intelligence, especially when relatives are involved in hunting crews. In light of the low wages paid to wildlife guardians, it is also not unsurprising that rangers, field scouts and other staff in parks start their own hunting crews, get involved or become informants (so-called ‘spotters’ who provide information on the location of rhino and anti-poaching units) to supplement their meagre earnings. Mozambican poachers and kingpins also (quite rightly) pointed out that hunting a wild animal was not a crime in Mozambique.

As the you go higher up the ladder so more money is involved.

The long-term effects of poaching on tourism may be devastating from an economic, social and ecological perspective and since tourists associate Africa with the Big Five, not being able to experience these animals would result in tourist decline with severe economic implications for profit, taxes and contribution to GDP. A reduction in tourism will mean less employment for local communities involved in the accommodation, restaurant and guiding sectors, greater social inequality and escalating costs for the wildlife experience with a potential lack of value for money. In the short term, the tourist experience may be affected by poaching and anti-poaching activities. This study investigates the impact of rhino poaching on tourism in terms of tourists’ experiences and their decisions on future visits.

According to the DEA report, 400 rhino poaching suspects were arrested in 2018, of which 162 were in Kruger National Park. In addition, five Chinese and eight South African wildlife traffickers were apprehended by the Hawks. However, arrests are not following into court appearances. Only 70 cases, involving 163 accused, have gone to court. There are also still 530 rhino poaching-related cases still on court rolls, which involve over 750 accused on more than 1,700 charges. And despite 300 of these cases being ready for trial, only a few appear to have set court dates. According to the report, following the lifting of the moratorium on the local trade in rhino horn, 28 permits have been issued for the sale of 1,219 rhino horns. According to the Environmental Wildlife Trust, this presents opportunities for laundering illegal horn through legal trade channels. Responding to the report, it said: ‘there is a concern that it’s not possible to keep track of all legally supplied rhino horn and to distinguish it from illegal horn due to capacity constraints, resource shortages and corrupt practices.

Armed forces on the ground is a big help but sometimes not enough.

Conservation Strategies

In addition to the National Strategy for the Safety and Security of Rhinoceros Populations and Horn Stocks, South Africa has established the following law enforcement agencies to fight the scourge:

Ø National Wildlife Crime Reaction Unit (DEA)


Ø National Joints Committee

Ø National and provincial nature conservation officials

Ø Deploy members of the South African National Defense Force at the KNP

Ø Beef up security at ports of entry and exit

Ø Established a SADC Rhino Management Group

Ø National Prosecuting Authority

Ø Rhino and Elephant Security Group/INTERPOL Environmental Crime Working Group

Legalise the commercial trade in rhino horn

Arguments for legal trade in rhino horn

Some of the major private and State rhino stakeholders in South Africa are actively promoting for the legalization of trade in rhino horn, saying that a legal supply of horn could be part of the solution to the current poaching crisis and contribute to continued expansion of rhino range and numbers. The South African government has received a number of statements for legalizing trade, including one from the provincial authority Ezemvelo Wildlife (Kwazulu-Natal), although all remain under consideration and none have been given the go ahead. There is no denying that the debate around legal trade in horn is an incredibly “hot topic” in South Africa and one that has become increasingly polarized, with few objective considerations of the costs and benefits of market approaches under different trade regimes and timeframes. In addition, factors of legal trade additionally offer that the required rhino horn could be supplied from rhinos that did not have to be killed for this purpose, such as stockpiles of horn from natural deaths or legal dehorning activities. The hope is that rhino horn could be provided on a sustainable level without killing animals as horn regrowth occurs at the rate of about 3.5–6 cm each year, depending on the age of the animal. Factors of this strategy do not expect poaching to stop completely, but hope that legal supplies would meet some of the demand that would otherwise have to be fulfilled by killing rhinos.

Arguments against legal trade in rhino horn

Opponents of legal trade in rhino horn also agree that a recharged demand for rhino horn currently exists in Asia, but remain opposed to legal trade at the present time for a number of reasons. Like those on the other side of the fence, a diversity of opinions is found, ranging from dogmatic or philosophical opposition on principle to more pragmatic considerations of timing or other detail. On one side of the spectrum there are those who believe that any form of trade or sustainable utilization of wildlife is inherently wrong and should never be countenanced. However, such theories are contrary to the sustainable-use philosophies that form the cornerstone of conservation approaches adopted by the majority of African rhino range States and many other conservation bodies. Indeed, the practical application of sustainable-use principles has been one of the reasons for South Africa’s White Rhino conservation success story, the current poaching problem notwithstanding.

Real unicorns have curves and two horns, lets protect them.


Research of countries that have dehorned rhinos in an attempt to prevent poaching have proved, it is no deterrent, and may have many other problems such as loss of calves where large predators such as lion and spotted hyena are present. Many cases are on record that where rhinos were dehorned but were tracked down and killed by poachers to recover the small amount of the remaining horn or killed and then left by poachers so they would not track the same dehorned rhino on a separate day.

The Australian Rhino Project

The Australian Rhino Project ( plans to move 80 rhinos from South Africa to Australia between now and 2019 in an effort to combat the impacts of the poaching crisis that is afflicting Africa. The current cost of this action is estimated at $AU70,000 per rhino, which equates to $AU 5,600,000 ($US4,200,000; or ZAR61,670,000 based on the exchange rate on June 21, 2016), and it is unclear whether this sum accounts for the costs of returning these animals and their progeny to South Africa when the poaching epidemic ends. The project is partnered or supported by major corporations (Investec, Coca Cola-Amatil, Carlton & United Breweries, The Classic Safari Company inter alia), sporting teams (Waratahs Rugby), conservation management organizations (Taronga Conservation Society, Zoos South Australia, Australian Zoo and Aquarium Association), as well as academic institutions (University of Sydney). The project is also reported as having the support of both the Australian and South African governments.


Since 2012, WildAid has worked to raise awareness of the rhino poaching problem in Vietnam and China. This year, WildAid launched a new message from Kung Fu Panda’s Po, who states that “poaching steals from us all.” WildAid distributed Po’s messages via billboards, print and social media in China, Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Africa and the United States. There are signs that these campaigns are being effective. A survey in 2014 showed that prior to seeing WildAid posters featuring Jackie Chan or Yao Ming, 69% of Vietnamese residents believed that rhino horn had medicinal benefits. A 2016 survey found a drop to just 23%, a 66% decline. Furthermore, only 9.4% of participants believed rhino horn could cure cancer, down from 34.5%. Sir Richard Branson featured in WildAid’s high-profile Nail Biters campaign. A post-campaign survey found a 258% increase in the participants’ knowledge that rhino horn is composed of keratin found in hair and fingernails, compared with two years earlier.

A poster from wild aid communicating to the Asian community about rhino poaching.

Take home message

Due to cultural beliefs and ancient traditions, Rhino populations are collapsing. No matter what strategy we use to try and save them, it will not be enough until we change our mind sets. These new mind sets not only need to understand the difference between traditional medicine and modern medicine, but also what we value in life. In other words what are we doing in order to preserve our environment for the future? There are two sides to the poaching crisis, one the environmental issues connected to ecosystem functioning and tourism. The other is the socio economic side which deals with the livelihoods of people, in regards to feeding their families


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