JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Almost two rhinos a day are being poached in South Africa for their horns, which are worth more than their weight in gold.
This surge in rhino killings has coincided with a rise in elephant poaching for ivory across the continent and reignited debate about whether or not the trade in the commodities these animals are being killed for should be opened up.
The questions raised are not just ethical or ecological but also economic, and we are not talking small change.
Take rhino horn, which now has a street value of $65,000 a kg, making it more valuable than gold, platinum or cocaine.
Used to treat a range of ailments in China and southeast Asia, its demand has rocketed in tandem with the region’s blistering economic growth and appetite for other commodities.
Trouble is, the sale of rhino horn is strictly banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the global treaty that governs trade in plants and animals.
Almost 450 rhinos were poached in South Africa last year and at current rates, that number could reach 600 or more in 2012.
African rhinos have a pair of horns and in the case of the white rhino, the biggest and by far the most numerous of the two species on the continent, their average combined weight is usually close to 6 kgs, researchers say.
The average weight of both horns on the smaller black rhino is about 2.5 kgs but over 90 percent of the poaching incidents involve white rhinos. So over 600 animals could mean 3,600 kgs of horn worth close to $234 million on the street.
Advocates of reopening the trade including game farmers and end users make arguments similar to those who support the legalisation of drugs: they say such a move would remove criminals from the equation, allow the business to be regulated, and enable governments to tax it.
In the case of rhino horn, the annual figures could far exceed $234 million annually if the animals were farmed for that purpose with their horns, which grow back after being cut off, harvested on a regular basis.
Sound far-fetched? Well, according to government data, in 2010, 4,531 of South Africa’s population of 18,780 white rhinos were in private hands on game farms and ranches.
In private collections there may be tens or perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars worth of rhino stockpiles. No one knows the precise figure but it almost certainly significant.
Rhinos are a key species in game farming, which according to the Financial Mail, is now South Africa’s sixth-biggest agricultural sector, employing more than 100,000 people.
The argument goes that privately-owned rhinos could be bred and their horns harvested to meet the burgeoning Asian demand.
Horn harvesting could also be done in national and provincial parks with the proceeds put back into conservation. This part of the argument seems compelling when one considers the limited resources South Africa’s government has compared to the country’s pressing social needs.
Spending money on animals may not go down well in poor black townships that still lack power or reliable water supplies.
There are also huge stockpiles of ivory from elephant tusks locked in government vaults. The last CITES-sanctioned auction from such stores in 2008 by South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe were supposed to generate funds for conservation.
The bottom line is that in impoverished Africa, home to the last great numbers of what biologists term mega-fauna - meaning really big animals - wildlife must pay for itself.
Opponents of opening up trade in rhino horn and ivory, including some conservationalists and animal welfare organisations, argue that wildlife in Africa is already paying for itself as it is the top draw in countries such as Kenya, east Africa’s largest economy, which relies heavily on tourism. Tourism took a record 98 billion shillings there in 2011.
One concern is that “dirty” ivory or rhino horn will get laundered with the licit stuff - a point underscored by the involvement of organized crime groups in the illegal trade.
The initial ban on the ivory trade in 1989 was credited with stemming a slaughter of African elephants at the time.
Changing the rules for rhino horn or ivory is not easy and requires a two-thirds majority vote at CITES’ Conference of the Party meetings, held every 2 to 3 years.
South Africa has already signaled it will not put in a proposal to sell rhino horn at the next one in Thailand in 2013 but is widely expected to do so at a following meeting.
One thing is clear: Asian demand for ivory and rhino horn, like its thirst for coal and oil, is only going to grow. Striking a balance and finding a way to meet it, while protecting African wildlife, may be essential.