An online auction of 264 rhino horns will start Wednesday after a South African court ordered the government to hand over a permit allowing the sale to proceed, according to lawyers for a rhino breeder who is conducting the legal sale.
A law firm representing breeder John Hume said he believes a legal trade in rhino horn will help to protect the threatened species, an argument based on the idea that a regulated market would undercut poaching that has occurred at record levels in the past decade. Some leading conservation groups, however, believe it would have the opposite effect, spurring demand and encouraging poachers to more actively target rhinos whose horns could be laundered into the legal trade.
An April ruling by South Africa's Constitutional Court opened the way to a domestic trade in rhino horn, though authorities say anyone who buys from Hume must have a government-provided permit barring any international trade. An international ban has been in place since 1977.
"All potential buyers are now invited to urgently submit the required information to the auctioneers," Seymore du Toit and Basson Attorneys said in a statement on behalf of Hume, who owns more than 1,500 rhinos and has over 6 tons of rhino horn in storage.
Commenting on the release of the permit for the two-day online auction, the law firm said Hume views it as a positive step in keeping with the "sustainable use of renewable natural resources, which will enable and facilitate the protection and conservation of rhino as an endangered species."
South Africa's environmental affairs department said it had opposed Hume's request for a selling permit, but was instructed on Sunday by a provincial court to give it to him within 12 hours. The government previously drew up draft regulations for a domestic trade and limited export of rhino horns that include allowing a foreigner with permits to export "for personal purposes" a maximum of two rhino horns.
A legal trade in rhino horn would be hard to monitor and could be vulnerable to corruption, according to the Endangered Wildlife Trust, a South African group.
"The premise that the sale of rhino horn will remove pressure from wild populations and provide an avenue for satisfying some demand in a legal manner is not based on any published research," the group said.
Vietnam and China are key illegal markets for rhino horn. Some horn consumers 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.
Some 529 rhinos were killed for their horns in South Africa in the first half of this year, a drop of 13 over the same period in 2016, according to the government. Estimates put the number of rhinos in South Africa at nearly 20,000 rhinos, or about 80 percent of Africa's population.