Cape Town - An online rhino horn auction is set to take place in August this year, putting South Africa's domestic rhino horn trade parameters as set by CITES to the test, with the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) stating that it does not allow rhino horn to be traded internationally.
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While the DEA recently issued a statement with a compliance warning, to make the parameters of the sale clear, saying "international trade in rhino horn is, and remains, illegal, and steps will be taken against any individual or group attempting to illegally move rhino horn purchased on the domestic market out of the country," confusion remains, as false impressions about the online auction spreads across social media. Especially with advertising for the auction being translated into Chinese and Vietnamese - known hotbeds for illegal rhino horn trade.
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The DEA issued another statement on Monday 17 July, raising its concern about the impression being created through the advertisement for an online auction of rhino horn by a South African game rancher that is using websites and social media to advertise.
"It is important to note that the content of various websites, some of which have been translated into Chinese and Vietnamese, as well all other Social Media sites, is misleading and creates the unfortunate impression that South Africa has approved of, and is promoting, the international trade in rhino horn," says the statement.
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While the website and Facebook advertising for the online auction in August 2017 of rhino horn makes no mention of the international trade in rhino horn, it creates the impression, because it has been translated into Chinese and Vietnamese, that the horns will be available for purchase by international consumers and speculators for export from South Africa.
"The Department would like to emphasise that such action, that is, international trade would be illegal in terms of domestic regulations and South Africa’s international obligations," says the DEA.
However, conservationists questioning the DEA's decision to allow the domestic auction, saying ultimately it is not good news for the species as a whole.
SEE: SA domestic rhino horn trade: Devil in the details?
Domestic trade only
According to the DEA, the Constitutional Court order setting aside the moratorium on the domestic trade in rhino horn on 5 April 2017 means that the domestic trade in rhino horn is subject to the issuing of the relevant permits in terms of the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act, 2004, its regulations and applicable provincial legislation in order to be able to trade nationally.
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The DEA highlights that the commercial international trade in rhino horn is and remains prohibited in terms of all international protocols that South Africa is party to, particularly the Convention on International Trade in Species of fauna and flora (CITES).
"The planned sale of rhino horn by private rhino owners relates to domestic trade only. The Department can confirm that it has received an application to sell rhino horn by means of an online rhino auction from a private owner and is in a process of evaluating the application in line with the provisions of the Threatened or Protected Species Regulations (TOPS) developed in terms of NEMBA," says the DEA.
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"In terms of the auction, it should be noted that national regulations and legislation with regard to the domestic commercial trade in rhino horn will have to be complied with," says the DEA, adding this means that the buyers and the seller would have to abide by all laws applicable within the borders of South Africa.
DEA says that, together with the SA Government, it remains committed to a well-regulated process implementing its domestic legislation, as well as all CITES provisions, to manage the trade in endangered species, such as rhino, in a manner that is not detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild.
'Added measures to ensure CITES compliance'
Opponents of a legal trade however argue that any exported horns would be hard to monitor and would possibly end up on the commercial market and defeating the intention to protect the threatened species.
Conservation bodies counter that legalisation will spur poaching as illegally obtained horns are laundered into the legal market, similar to the exploitation of elephant ivory.
Micro-chipping of stockpiles
In response the department says it has "developed an electronic database that will capture extensive details on all individual rhino horns in private and government-owned stockpiles and all newly acquired horns, which will be entered into the database on a monthly basis".
"In order to populate this database, the Directorate of Biodiversity Compliance and Enforcement in the Department (“the Directorate”) is conducting an audit of all existing stockpiles of rhino horn," says the DEA.
The department says it intends to ensure that every horn is tagged with a micro-chip, that DNA testing has been conducted on the horn, and that all horn is measured, weighed, marked and captured on the national database.
To date it says it has conducted audit inspections of government-owned rhino horn in all provinces and of privately-owned horn in two provinces.
"Six provinces have conducted audit inspections in respect of privately-owned horns. The Department is currently conducting ad hoc inspections to verify the provincial audits. One province is still in the process of inspecting privately owned rhino horn stockpiles. Once the inspections and audit are complete, department will conduct ad hoc inspections to verify the information."
"This will ensure that the Department has full and accurate information on the number of horns in South Africa at any given time and the registered owner of each horn. This is vital to prevent the smuggling of illegally-obtained horn out of the country."
Smuggling continues and conviction rates too low
However, conservationists continue to raise concerns about the conviction rate of suspected rhino poachers or horn traffickers, said to be relatively low - with cases of possible corruption in law enforcement suspected.
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