JOHANNESBURG – South Africa's government is moving ahead with plans to allow a domestic trade and limited export of rhino horns, alarming many international conservationists who believe rhinos will be more vulnerable to poachers who have killed record numbers in the past decade.
Draft regulations would allow a foreigner with permits to export "for personal purposes" a maximum of two rhino horns. Critics argue that any exported horns would be hard to monitor and likely would end up on the commercial market, defying global agreements to protect threatened rhino populations.
Most of the world's rhinos live in South Africa. An international ban on trade in rhino horns has been in place since 1977, and South Africa imposed a moratorium on the domestic trade in 2009, when rhino poaching was accelerating to meet growing demand for horns in parts of Asia, especially Vietnam.
South Africa's government has lost court battles to preserve the 2009 ban, which was challenged by rhino breeders, and has leaned toward trade, backing a failed proposal by neighboring Swaziland at a U.N. wildlife conference in Johannesburg last year to legalize the international sale of rhino horn.
A 30-day period during which the public was invited to express opinions about the draft legislation on rhino horn trade ended Friday, the Department of Environmental Affairs said.
"The comments will be evaluated, the draft regulatory provisions will be revised based on the comments received, and the process for approval of the final legislation will be set in motion," the department said in an email to The Associated Press.
A foreigner who takes rhino horns out of the country must do so through O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg and cannot carry them in hand luggage, according to the draft provisions. They say authorized freight agents must provide authorities with DNA data and other information related to exported horns. Skeptics believe the system would be open to corruption.
Some consumers in Asia believe rhino horn in powder form can cure illnesses, although there is no evidence that the horn, made of the same substance as human fingernails, has any medicinal value.
Critics say legalization will spur poaching as illegally obtained horns are laundered into the legal market, similar to the exploitation of elephant ivory. Rhino breeders, however, believe poaching would be undercut by a regulated trade, which likely would allow the sale of horn stockpiles and the harvesting of horns from living rhinos.
The poaching is not confined to South Africa. This month, a 5-year-old white rhinoceros was shot three times in the head by poachers who broke into the Thoiry Zoo near Paris and used a chain saw to remove the rhino's horn.
"Banning the trade in horn has made the horn more and more and more valuable. Had we never banned it, the price of horn would never have got to where it is now," said John Hume, a rhino breeder in South Africa. "And that Parisian rhino would have been safe in its zoo because its horn would have been worth a fraction of what it is."
Hume described South Africa's draft legislation on the domestic rhino horn trade as "a step in the right direction."
But Allison Thomson, a South African campaigner against legalization, said putting rhino horns on the market would increase demand and that South Africa is sending "conflicting messages" about how to deal with poaching, jeopardizing its lucrative wildlife tourism.
"The risk we run at the moment is that if we open up trade and poaching escalates we will have no rhinos in the wild. We will only have rhinos on farms, being farmed like cows," Thomson said.
Poachers killed 1,054 rhinos in South Africa last year, a 10 percent drop from 2015, according to the government. While authorities attributed the decrease to increased security and other anti-poaching measures, some conservationists speculate that there are fewer rhinos to kill. Drought also killed some rhinos in the past year.
By some estimates, South Africa has nearly 20,000 rhinos, or 80 percent of Africa's population. Asia has several rhino species, including two that are critically endangered.
Associated Press journalist Renee Graham in Johannesburg contributed.