Two scientists from The University of Queensland are leading a call to legalise international trade in rhinoceros horn in a bid to save the animals from extinction.
UQ's Dr Duan Biggs said the global ban on rhinoceros products had clearly failed, and legal controls could dissuade the lethal black market poaching that endangers the animals.
Dr Biggs is lead author of an ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) paper published in the international journal Science today (1 March 2012). CEED is based at The University of Queensland.
Dr Biggs and three other scientists, including CEED Director and The University of Queensland academic Professor Hugh Possingham, argue that death rates among the world's remaining black and white rhinos are soaring due to illegal poaching to supply insatiable international demand.
"Current strategies have clearly failed to conserve these magnificent animals, and the time has come for a highly regulated legal trade in horn," Dr Biggs said.
"As committed environmentalists, we don't like the idea of a legal trade any more than does the average member of the concerned public.
"But we can see that we need to do something radically different to conserve Africa's rhino."
The paper states that the Western Black Rhino was declared extinct in 2011, and there are only 5000 Black Rhinos and 20,000 White Rhinos left, most of which are in South Africa and Namibia.
"Poaching in South Africa has, on average, more than doubled each year over the past five years," the paper states.
"Skyrocketing poaching levels are driven by tremendous growth in the retail price of rhino horn, from around $4700 per kilogram in 1993 to around $65,000 per kilogram in 2012."
The paper notes that rhinoceros horn is now worth more than gold.
The price boom is attributed mainly to soaring Asian demand for Chinese medicines.
World trade in rhinoceros horn is banned under the CITES Treaty.
The scientists argue that this ban restricts supplies of horn, generating huge rewards for an illegal high-tech poaching industry equipped with helicopters and stun-darts.
Attempts to educate Chinese medicine consumers to stop using rhinoceros horn have failed to reduce the growth in demand, they say.
The scientists argue that world demand for horn could be met legally by humanely shaving the horns of live rhinoceroses, and from animals that die of natural causes.
"Rhinoceros grow about 0.9kg of horn each year, and the risks to the animal from today's best-practice horn harvesting techniques are minimal," the paper states.
"The legal trade in farmed crocodile skins is an example of an industry where legalisation has saved the species from being hunted to extinction."
Legal "farming" of rhinoceroses would lead to more land being set aside for them, which would help conserve other endangered savannah animals and generate income for impoverished rural areas in southern Africa, the researchers argue.
They advocate the creation of a central selling organisation to supervise the harvest and sale of rhinoceros horn globally.
This would attract buyers because its products would be legal, cheaper than on the black market, and safer and easier to obtain, they said.
"Horn sold through a Central Selling Organisation could be DNA-fingerprinted and traceable worldwide, enabling buyers and regulators to differentiate between legal and illicit products," the paper states.
Dr Biggs said there was an opportunity to start serious discussions about establishing a legal trade at the 16th CITES Conference of the Parties (COP-16), in Bangkok from March 3 to 14, 2013.
"Legitimising the market for horn may be morally repugnant to some, but it is probably the only sensible way to prevent extinction of Africa's remaining rhinos," Dr Biggs said.
The paper, Legal Trade of Africa's Rhino Horns by Duan Biggs, Franck Courchamp, Rowan Martin and Hugh Possingham, appears in the latest edition of the journal Science (March 1).
It can be read in full here: http://ceed.edu.au/ceed-news/113-ceed-rhino-release.html
Dr. Duan Biggs: In Chile, UTC-3 e-mail: email@example.com ; Mobile +56 9 9411 4878 and +56 9 7924 4853 (backup number)
Professor Hugh Possingham: In France, UTC +1: e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org ; Mobile +61 434 079 061 (Australian number on international roaming)
Dr. Franck Courchamp (who can speak to reporters in both French and English): In France, UTC +1: e-mail: email@example.com ; Office Tel: +33 (0)1 69 15 56 85 and Mobile: + 33 6 3113 0088
UQ media: Karen Gillow, +61 7 336 52450 firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: The University Of Queensland http://www.uq.edu.au/news/index.html?article=25907