The decision by a South African court to allow a domestic trade in rhino horn is a setback for the fight to save the world’s rhino population, but likely to be a hollow victory for the pro-trade lobby says David Barritt, Network for Animals’ African director.

He explained that the short-term implications for rhino are limited because there is no domestic trade in rhino horn.  “What the rhino horn traders want is unfettered access to the illegal Vietnamese market, which is the world’s largest.  However, the decision is bad news for rhino because a legal domestic trade makes it easier to move rhino horn around and of course smuggle it out of the country.”

The decision was made on a technicality because the South African government failed to complete some necessary public consultation steps.  “There will be justified finger-pointing at the South African government for not doing its job and properly consulting the general public, but the government is to appeal the court decision.”

Barritt said that a larger concern is the attempt by the South African government to reintroduce next an international trade in rhino horn which would have a devastating effect on rhinos.

“The government is being told it can make money from a legal trade and it is well aware that it owns 21 tons of rhino horn which is worth billions of rands if legal trade was resumed.”

The downside though is huge because experience with elephants shows that a legal trade makes it easier to infiltrate illegal ivory and rhino horn into the system.  The South African government is listening to rhino horn traders rather than conservationists and this will prove to be a massive mistake, one that will damage South Africa’s enormously important tourist trade and lead to the extinction of rhinos in the wild.

“We must remember that a worldwide ban on the trade in rhino horn exists; it is just poorly enforced.  What is needed is international cooperation to clamp down on the illegal trade and also for South Africa to be even more vigorous in its fight to prevent rhino poaching within its borders. At the moment rhinos are dying at the rate of three a day,” said Barritt.