The South African Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa has cautioned that all domestic trade in rhino horn is subject to the relevant permits in terms of the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act, 2004 (Act No 10 of 2004) (NEMBA), and applicable provincial legislation being obtained.

However, in its Constitutional Court application for leave to appeal, the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), noted this could take up to a year and requested 18 months to “put in place appropriate mechanisms to regulate domestic trade in horn and to manage the effect of uplifting the Moratorium on the domestic trade in rhino horn on its international treaty obligations”.

Much like Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini’s dragging of heels over the social security payments debacle, the DEA now finds itself in a massive legislative and capacity hole. Indeed, despite not being able to adequately monitor and regulate the sector, South Africa has effectively opened the proverbial floodgates. Criminals now have an ideal opportunity to ‘launder’ poached rhino horn, under the cover of the ‘legitimate’ sale of privately owned and / or government-stockpiled supplies.

A WWF spokeswoman said:

“A decade has now passed since the initial upsurge in poaching and South Africa is still losing three rhinos a day. We do not believe law enforcement officials have the systems or capacity to manage parallel legal domestic trade on top of current levels of illegal poaching and trafficking”.

“We are very concerned by the court’s decision to lift the ban on domestic trade in rhino horn. While we respect the court’s decision, we note the grounds for lifting the moratorium relate to the procedures that were used to put it in place rather than to the substantive merits of the ban. Without proven control measures we cannot ensure the legal trade won’t allow ‘laundering’ of so-called ‘blood horns’ from our wild rhino populations. We believe the risks are too high, especially at such a critical time for safeguarding the future of wild rhinos.”

This development is even more concerning when one considers allegations raised by al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit towards the end of 2016. The news outlet identified South Africa’s Minister of State Security David Mahlobo as being connected to at least one self-professed rhino horn trafficker. Of course, Mahlobo has denied the allegation, but the old adage that there is “no smoke without fire” rings true. Particularly when one considers the timing of the court’s ruling.

The commodification of any animal species, let alone one as magnificent and vulnerable as rhino, is not only problematic, but counter-productive. Conservation, and those truly committed to the cause would no doubt agree, is about sustainable preservation. For its own sake. So that the generations yet to come will be able to enjoy the natural beauty of this world. It is certainly not done to line the pockets of and further enrich those private land owners fortunate enough to ‘own’ these animals.

In a country beset by inequality, government simply cannot support a policy that will serve only to exacerbate the issue. Rhino, and all the wild animals of this land, are our collective natural heritage. Don’t commodify them - protect them!