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.