January 01, 2014

Rhinos and the Illegal Horn Trade Top CITES Agenda

Craig T. Donovan

The sharp rise in rhinoceros poaching in South Africa and Zimbabwe, and the involvement of criminal organizations in the illegal rhinoceros horn trade, were two of several important issues at the 16th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES CoP16) held in Bangkok, Thailand, March 3–14, 2013. The Convention adopted or revised several measures, which became effective on June 12, 2013, to control rhino poaching and the illegal horn trade. These measures were based on findings in a report (Joint Report) from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission (IUCN/SSC) African and Asian Rhino Specialist Groups and TRAFFIC to the CITES Secretariat.

CITES is an international treaty between governments, drafted from a resolution adopted by the IUCN in 1963. The primary objective of the Convention is to regulate the illegal wildlife trade. What Is CITES, available at www.cites.org. The treaty establishes a licensing system for the import, export, reexport and introduction of regulated species. Each member nation to the Convention must designate one or more Management Authorities to administer the licensing system and one or more Scientific Authorities to advise each member on the effects of the trade on a species’ status. Id. CITES also establishes a framework, whereby each member should act to be the best protectors of their own wild fauna and flora. Id. Each member may establish domestic legislation to implement the treaty, clarify its effects, and allow for the treaty’s enforcement through its judicial system.

CITES regulates species listed on three Appendices, according to the degree of protection required for each species. Appendix I includes species threatened with extinction and prohibits trade in these species unless exceptional circumstances are shown. Mara E. Zimmerman, The Black Market for Wildlife: Combating Transnational Organized Crime in the Illegal Wildlife Trade, 36 Vanderbilt J. of Transnat’l Law, 1657, 1663 (Nov. 2003). Appendix II lists species whose trade must be carefully regulated for sustainable development and to prevent the species from becoming threatened. Appendix III’s listings concern species that are usually not threatened with extinction but may be rare in nature requiring protection within a member nation. Id.

Rhinoceroses have existed for approximately 50 million years and were once found extensively throughout Eurasia and Africa. Today, only five species of rhinoceros remain in the world, and all face serious threats to their survival. Three species of rhinoceros exist in Asia: the Sumatran rhinoceros (Didermocerus sumatrensis), the Javan rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus), and the Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis). In Africa, there are two species of rhinoceros: the black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) and the Northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni), which are the focus of the poaching and the illegal wildlife trade discussed in this article.


The black rhinoceros once ranged from Cape Province and southwestern Angola to east Africa, including Somalia, southwestern Ethiopia, southern Sudan, and westward to the rain forests of the Congo and Nigeria. The black rhinoceros, however, inhabits only a fraction of its former habitat today and is listed as “Critically Endangered” on the IUCN’s Red List. Scientists estimate the black rhinoceros’ current population numbers to be around 4,880 individuals. National parks and wildlife sanctuaries provide the main protection for this species from habitat destruction and poaching. Beacham’s Guide to Int’l Endangered Species, vol. 2, 405–407 (2001). The white rhinoceros also faces threats from poaching for its valued horns as well as habitat destruction and drought. This species is listed on the IUCN’s Red List as “Near Threatened.” Formerly, this species roamed throughout Africa and extended south of the Sahara desert and north to Morocco and Algeria. Today, the white rhinoceros inhabits only a fraction of its former territory and is extinct except in the Sudan and the Republic of Congo, where a small population manages to hold on. Id. at 401–404.

Based on the IUCN/SSC and TRAFFIC Joint Report, the CITES Secretariat found that approximately 95 percent of all recorded rhinoceros deaths in Africa have occurred from poaching incidents in South Africa and Zimbabwe since 2006, with a total of 448 individuals killed in 2011 and 455 individuals killed in 2012 in both countries. Secretariat Report, CoP16 Doc. 54.2 (Rev. 1), at 4. In Zimbabwe, virtually all rhinoceros populations are seriously affected by illegal hunting in national animal parks and other protected areas. Poaching and the illegal horn trade have also adversely affected the rhinoceros in South Africa by impacting not only the Kruger National Park, but also other rhinoceros sanctuaries and private game ranches. See Simply Green website, Study Confirms Zimbabwe, South Africa Form Epicenter of Rhino Poaching Crisis, available at www.simplygreen.co.za. The CITES Secretariat also concluded that the rhino poaching crisis in Zimbabwe and South Africa is driven by well-funded criminal organizations. Id. at 4–5 (citing to Joint Report at 19–20). Recently, South African officials uncovered that the structure of organized criminal groups in rhinoceros poaching is composed of five different tiers, with individual or group poachers and couriers at the local level, facilitators and exporters at the national level, and end consumers at the international level. Id.

The Joint Report also highlighted Vietnam as a country of particular concern regarding the illegal rhinoceros horn trade. In addition to China and Thailand, Vietnam is one of the main destinations for illegally taken rhinoceros horns from South Africa and Zimbabwe. Vietnamese criminal organizations play a major role in this trade. The demand for rhinoceros horn comes from the horn’s use in traditional medicine and the belief that the horn serves as an effective treatment for cancer and alleviates withdrawal symptoms from recreational drug use. Possession of rhinoceros horn is also viewed as a status symbol among the affluent. Id. at 5–9. There is also strong evidence showing that wildlife speculation is contributing to a rise in demand for rhinoceros horn. Wildlife speculators bank on extinction of the rhinoceros by investing in private stores or stockpiles of rhinoceros horn, hoping that the combination of weak enforcement of wildlife laws in certain countries and high prices on consumer markets will incentivize poachers to deplete the species’ numbers in the wild in the near future. As the common stock of rhinoceroses in the wild decreases, these horn stockpiles become more valuable for speculators, resulting in increased market power. Speculators may also earn monopoly profits by restricting supply of rhinoceros horns. Id. (citing to Charles F. Mason, et al., Banking on extinction: endangered species and speculation, 28 Oxford Review of Econ. Policy, 180, 181–182 (2012)).

Organized criminal groups in the illegal wildlife trade establish pseudo-hunting schemes in South Africa and Zimbabwe. These organizations recruit individuals to obtain hunting licenses for rhinoceroses under false pretenses. These organizations then take advantage of loopholes in the law by exporting rhinoceros horns as hunting trophies to other countries with the ultimate purpose of selling the horns illegally, mostly on the Asian black market. Vietnam, S. Africa Target Illegal Rhino Hunters, available at www.phys.org. In February 2012, South Africa’s National Department of Environmental Affairs advised its provinces to cease issuing hunting permits to Vietnamese citizen applicants until Vietnamese authorities verify and confirm rhinoceros horns exported from South Africa to Vietnam as hunting trophies were still in the legal possession of hunters as trophies. In addition, South African wildlife officials must now attend all rhinoceros hunts and applicants must present a resume of their hunting qualifications and experience with African big game before a hunting permit is issued. CoP16 Doc. 54.2 (Rev. 1), at 5.

Moreover, criminal organizations in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States are actively involved in the illegal rhinoceros horn trade. These organizations increasingly focus on “soft targets” like museums, auction houses, and antique shops to steal rhinoceros horn. Id. at 4. According to EUROPOL, the European Union’s law enforcement agency that handles criminal intelligence, criminal organizations are responsible for a crime wave of rhinoceros horn thefts from displayed taxidermy and artifact collections of several museums in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States since 2009. Id.; See Joint Report at 20–21. For instance, in June 2011, two men entered the Ipswich Museum in Suffolk, England, and wrenched off a 45 cm (18-inch horn) from a mounted head of a black rhinoceros, displayed on the wall of the museum. Esther Addley, Epidemic of Rhino Horn Thefts Linked to One Criminal Gang, The Guardian (Aug. 8, 2011), available at www.theguardian.com. Similar incidents have occurred in Europe and the United States In July 2011, a black rhino head dating from 1827 was stolen from the Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Sciences in Brussels. In 2012, authorities arrested two men allegedly selling rhinoceros horns outside a gas station off the New Jersey Turnpike and an American antique dealer who sawed rhinoceros horns off a mounted trophy head in a motel parking lot. Id. This rise in rhinoceros horn thefts appears to be occurring at the same time that poaching has increased in Africa. This trend indicates that the illegal trade in rhinoceros horns has now become worldwide in scope and presents serious challenges for international law enforcement.

In order to combat poaching and organized crime’s involvement in the illegal rhinoceros horn trade, the Convention directed several measures for adoption by all its member nations. Members should report rhinoceros horn seizures to countries of origin if a horn’s origin is determinable for follow-up investigations. All members should also use innovative investigation techniques such as forensic technologies to analyze DNA from seized rhinoceros horn. For instance, in South Africa, conservation enforcement authorities use a database called the Rhino DNA Index System (RhoDIS). This database, developed by the University of Pretoria’s Veterinary Genetics Laboratory (VGL), allows authorities to identify individual rhinoceroses from blood, horn, and tissue and serves as a repository for this information. In addition, the South African government has trained its conservation enforcement authorities in proper DNA collection techniques as well as maintenance of the evidentiary chain for admissibility of this information in court when prosecuting criminals involved in poaching and the illegal wildlife trade. Other African countries like Zimbabwe also have submitted DNA samples for inclusion in this database. CoP16 Doc 54.2 (Rev. 1) at 14.

Moreover, in countries where strong rhinoceros horn demand exists, members should develop campaigns to reduce consumer demand and increase public awareness about the serious involvement of criminal organizations in the rhinoceros horn trade and its impact on the species. The Convention directed that strategies to curb demand should be implemented for an adequate time period and on a large enough scale in countries to effect a reduction in consumption of rhino horn by the public. Id. Furthermore, the Convention directed that Vietnam should promptly adopt legislation to strengthen its enforcement against the illegal rhinoceros horn trade and implement control measures to confirm that individuals importing rhinoceros horns as hunting trophies do not later sell these horns illegally. Vietnamese authorities should initiate investigations when individuals are no longer in possession of the horns they imported. Id. Lastly, the Convention mandated that the Secretariat convene a CITES task force composed of members affected by rhinoceros poaching and the illegal wildlife trade. The task force will partner with scientists, EUROPOL, and other international organizations to develop strategies to promote international cooperation in the control of rhino poaching and the illegal rhinoceros horn trade.

Craig T. Donovan

Mr. Donovan is an attorney-advisor in the Division of General Law of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of the Solicitor in Washington, D.C. and a member of the editorial board of Natural Resources & Environment. The views expressed in this article by the author are in his personal capacity only and do not necessarily represent those of the Office of the Solicitor, the Department of the Interior, or the United States.