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South Africa’s first legal auction of rhinoceros horn fails to attract buyers

Few bidders in controversial sale of horn still restricted by international agreements

by Anna Sansom  |  28 August 2017
South Africa’s first legal auction of rhinoceros horn fails to attract buyers
A rhinoceros in South Africa (Photo: Wegmann/Wikimedia Commons)
South Africa's first legal, online auction of rhinoceros horns—prized by some collectors but banned for international trade due to the animal’s threatened status—drew few bidders.

The three-day auction, which closed Friday 25 August, was hosted by Pretoria-based Van's Auctioneers. On offer were 264 pieces of rhino horn, weighing a total of 500kg, consigned by rhino breeder John Hume, who, according to Agence France-Presse, owns the world's largest rhino farm. The sale had sparked controversy as some conservationists fear that legal domestic sale will encourage poachers.

The auction took place after rhino breeders filed a lawsuit against the South African government in April to lift the eight-year-long moratorium on rhino horn trading. However, the minister of environmental affairs, Edna Molewa, withheld the Tops (threatened or protected species) permit, resulting in the auction being delayed by two days before the High Court ordered that it could proceed. 

“The auction yielded fewer bidders and fewer sales than anticipated [...],” read a statement from Hume's lawyer, Izak Du Toit from Seymore du Toit & Basson Attorneys. He blamed this on the delay in getting the auction permit, leaving limited time for bidders to register, and added that many lots are still available. Humes argues that legally selling horns from live rhinos will help conservation and hamper poaching and the black market.

Trade in rhino horn remains banned internationally, as stipulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites). The South African government was scrambling to close "any possible loopholes that could pave the way for a circumvention of [international] regulations” ahead of the auction, according to AFP. The horns are especially popular in Asia, where some believe they can cure illnesses or have aphrodisiac qualities; for others, they are a symbol of social status. 

Rhino breeders argue that legal sales will discourage the black market. But the fact that the auction's website was translated into Mandarin and Vietnamese fuelled speculation that it was targeting Asian collectors and that the horns could end up being smuggled out of the country. 

“Demand is driven from South-East Asia,” says Mike Knight, chairman of the African Rhino Specialist Group, part of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “If the auction leads to increased laundering of horn to Asian markets, some may argue it could lead to increased poaching while others would argue that it may lead to reduced poaching pressure."He adds: "There is insufficient information at the moment to make a decision one way or the other. The auction is really putting the private rhino rancher, from a point of view of sustainable use, and the South African government, from a regulatory perspective, to the test. It remains critical to monitor the outcomes.”

Van’s did not disclose the sale total, but Hume complained in the press about the result, blaming the delay. “It’s hard to understand why anyone would buy rhino horn within South Africa when there are limited numbers of local consumers and it’s still illegal to export rhino horn internationally,” says Dr Jo Shaw, rhino programme manager for World Wildlife Fund South Africa. "It also suggests it might be easiest for enforcement purposes to simply reinstate the domestic moratorium,” Shaw says. 

Poachers killed 1,054 rhinos in South Africa last year, a 10% drop from 2015, according to the government. South Africa is estimated to have nearly 20,000 rhinos, representing 80% of Africa’s population.

UPDATE: This article was updated with quotes from Izak Du Toit's statement, Mike Knight and Jo Shaw.

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