JOHANNESBURG – South Africa on Thursday reported a slight drop in the annual number of killed rhinos, but conservationists said rhino poaching remains unacceptably high and some warned that a South African court ruling in favor of a domestic trade in rhino horn could further imperil the threatened animals.
Poachers killed 1,175 rhinos in South Africa in 2015, down 40 from the previous year as a result of law enforcement efforts to protect wildlife, said Edna Molewa, the environment minister. South Africa reported 13 poached rhinos in 2007 and 83 in the following year as demand for rhino horn in parts of Asia, particularly Vietnam, began to accelerate.
Despite the surge in poaching within the last decade, Molewa said at a news conference that a "much-feared, year-end spike" in rhino poaching that usually happens in December did not occur in 2015, and she described South Africa's rhino population as "stable."
Kruger National Park, the country's biggest wildlife reserve, has between 8,400 and 9,300 white rhinos and 826 were killed there last year, according to government data. South Africa is home to most of the world's rhinos.
Meanwhile, a Pretoria court dismissed a government effort to preserve a ban on the domestic trade in rhino horn, prompting the government to declare it will try to take the case to South Africa's Supreme Court of Appeal.
The South African government had sought to appeal a November decision by a Pretoria court that rescinded a moratorium on the local trade, but a court rejected that bid on Wednesday. In the November ruling, Judge Francis Legodi of the North Gauteng High Court said the government had failed to properly consult the public before imposing the ban in 2009.
The legal battle pits those who say legalization will spur poaching in South Africa against rhino breeders and others who believe a regulated trade will undercut poaching. The regulated trade would likely allow the sale of horn stockpiles and the harvesting of horns from living rhinos.
"With immediate effect, anybody who wishes to purchase a rhino horn here in South Africa can do so," said Pelham Jones of the Private Rhino Owners Association. Horn buyers would require a permit, would be subject to a periodic audit and cannot export a horn, he said.
Jones said possible buyers would be "commodity speculators" who hope that an international ban on the rhino horn trade, in place since 1977, will eventually be lifted.
South Africa has proposed that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which oversees the trade of wild animals and plants, discuss lifting that ban at its next meeting in Johannesburg in September.
Molewa, the environment minister, said her application to the Supreme Court of Appeal, once filed, would effectively reinstate the ban on local rhino horn trade for the time being.
Peter Knights, executive director of San Francisco-based WildAid, said there is concern that rhino horn sold locally in South Africa could be laundered into the international market, increasing the threat to rhinos.
Consumers believe rhino horn, which is ground into powder, has medicinal benefits, but there is no scientific evidence to support the belief. The horn is made of keratin, a protein also found in human fingernails.
Ahead of a trip this month to Gabon, Kenya and South Africa, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said she was encouraged during a visit to Vietnam by public awareness campaigns against the use of rhino horn. And yet, she said in a conference call with journalists, "its mythology is leading to the wiping out of that iconic species from Africa."
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