JOHANNESBURG– South Africa’s Private Rhino Owners’ Association has launched an online horn trading platform which it says will not only curb poaching but generate revenue to keep rhinos safe on private reserves.

South Africa is home to the largest population of rhinos in the world. Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) regulations, international trade in rhino horn is still not permitted. However, the moratorium on domestic sales was lifted in 2017.

While private rhino owners are backing this new trade desk, Rhino Horn Trade Africa, as a viable answer to stemming the tide against rhino poaching, conservation groups are questioning why South Africans would be purchasing rhino horn at all.

A Constitutional Court ruling last year lifted the ban on the domestic sale of rhino horn despite an appeal by the Department of Environmental Affairs. This means that the precious horn can now be sold and bought within South Africa.

This prompted private rhino owners to vote unanimously in favour of an online horn trading platform to facilitate what it is calling and the sale of clean rhino horn.

The Chairperson of the Private Rhino Owners’ Association, Pelham Jones, says every rhino horn offered for sale on the platform must possess a DNA certificate to guarantee it is a clean horn and that it has not been gained through poaching.

The horns have been harvested from animals via dehorning or from natural mortality or alternatively the blood horn comes from an animal which has been killed illegally, he added.

“We cannot be seen to be laundering illegal or blood horns through a legal, state mechanism and that’s the reason we rely so heavily on DNA verification. If a horn is presented for trade and we check it out for its DNA we can verify the origin of that horn if it’s a legal or an illegal horn back to a crime scene. And immediately we would provide that information to the law enforcement officers and that horn would not be available for trade, Jones said.

The generally accepted view is that illegal rhino poaching has been feeding demand on the international market, particularly Asian countries. However, Jones argues that there is a market domestically for rhino horn too.

Since the Constitutional Court set aside a moratorium, already some 360 kilogrammes of horn have been traded. So that confirms to us that there is a demand for rhino horn domestically in South Africa. And obviously what is most important is that the revenue from the sale of that first 360 kg is already going back to rhino conservation.

Conservation groups are not convinced that the trade platform will prevent the horn from entering the international market.

In a statement, the Outraged South African Citizens Against Poaching (OSCAO) said: In all likelihood these legitimately bought horns will still find their way out of the country.

OSCAP says it has regularly expressed doubt about the pro-trade assertion that lifting the trade ban will stem poaching and create “self-sustaining funds” for rhino conservation.

There are more than 7,000 black and white rhino under private ownership in South Africa. That is more than the rhino population in than the rest of Africa combined.

Although private owners say they are desperately in need of funds to conserve the precious remaining few animals, conservation groups remain concerned that there are simply not enough law enforcement personnel to control the movement of horns purchased through Rhino Horn Trade Africa.