JOHANNESBURG – A rhino breeder in South Africa is planning an online auction of rhino horn, capitalizing on a court ruling that opened the way to domestic trade despite an international ban that was imposed to curb widespread poaching.
The online sale of rhino horn belonging to breeder John Hume will happen Aug. 21-24 and revenue will be used to "further fund the breeding and protection of rhinos," according to an auction website . Van's, a Pretoria-based auction house, is overseeing the sale and a "physical" auction will occur on Sept. 19, it said.
Rhino breeders believe poaching would be undercut by a regulated trade in rhino horn, though critics say trade will spur poaching that has occurred at record levels in the past decade. Poachers killed 1,054 rhinos in South Africa last year, a 10 percent drop from 2015, according to the government. By some estimates, South Africa has nearly 20,000 rhinos, representing 80 percent of Africa's population. Asia has several rhino species, including two that are critically endangered.
Hume has more than 1,500 rhinos on his ranch and spends more than $170,000 monthly on security for the animals, in addition to veterinary costs, salaries and other expenses, the auction website said.
"Each rhino's horn is safely and regularly trimmed by a veterinarian and capture team to prevent poachers from harming them," it said, adding that Hume has a stockpile of more than 6 tons of rhino horn.
Hume plans to sell half a ton of rhino horn in the upcoming auction, which is the first of its kind, said Johan van Eyk of the Van's auction house.
"We're not sure what people would prefer — it's just to give them the option," van Eyk said of the plan for both online and regular auctions.
He said the auction house supports trade in the horn of captive rhinos because "you can farm the horn and it grows back on and you still have the animal, you still protect the species."
Some consumers of rhino horn believe it can cure illnesses if ingested in powder form, although there is no evidence that the horn, made of the same substance as human fingernails, has any medicinal value. Rhino horn is also seen by some buyers as a symbol of status and wealth.
This year, South Africa's Constitutional Court rejected a government appeal to preserve a 2009 ban on the domestic trade, which was imposed as rhino poaching accelerated in response to growing demand for horns in parts of Asia, especially Vietnam.
An international ban has been in place since 1977.
Responding to setbacks in the courts, the South African government has drawn up draft regulations for a domestic trade and limited export of rhino horns. Those guidelines would allow a foreigner with permits to export "for personal purposes" a maximum of two rhino horns.
Opponents of a legal trade 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. They say legalization will spur poaching as illegally obtained horns are laundered into the legal market, similar to the exploitation of elephant ivory. Hume and other breeders counter that a trade ban has not worked and that alternative policies, including a legal market, should be pursued.
On June 13, South African officials announced the arrest of two travelers bound for Hong Kong and the recovery of 10 smuggled rhino horns in an operation at the main international airport in Johannesburg.
Some conservationists, however, say the conviction rate of suspected rhino poachers or horn traffickers is relatively low and have expressed concern about cases of possible corruption in law enforcement.
A suspected rhino poacher who was seriously injured in a shootout with authorities disappeared on Friday from a hospital in the South African city of East London, and police are investigating whether he escaped because of the negligence of an officer who was supposed to be guarding him, the News24 website reported.
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