A plan by the South African government to sell some of its $1 billion stockpile of rhinoceros horn could potentially flood the illegal black market and cause prices to plummet as well as enable the country to further finance its conservation efforts.
Trade of rhino horn has a centuries-old history in China, where it's used as medicine and for jewelry. A newly affluent class in Vietnam views acquisition of rhino horn as a status symbol, which has driven up the price and fueled the business of poaching and international organized crime. One kilogram of rhino horn can fetch as much as $65,000, a price higher than gold. In Vietnam, small quantities of rhino horn are frequently exchanged as gifts.
There are concerns, however, that South Africa's plan may backfire by further increasing demand in Asia, where rhino horn is erroneously believed to contain beneficial medical properties. Rhino horn is made of keratin , the same substance as human fingernails.
"Recent research on consumer behavior suggests that there is a latent demand for rhino horn in Vietnam and it is unclear whether a sustainable legal supply would be able to satisfy it," Alona Rivord of the conservation group WWE International, told Reuters.
South African Environment Minister Edna Molewa said Wednesday that nearly three-quarters of all the world's rhinos live in South Africa. Poaching of rhinos is on pace this year to be at an all-time high. South Africa expects to lose 800 of its 20,000 rhinos to poaching by the end of 2013.
In an attempt to curb the thriving market for rhino horn, South Africa will seek permission from CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, to sell some of its 16,400 kilogram stockpile of rhino horn.
"South Africa cannot continue to be held hostage by syndicates who are slaughtering our rhinos," Molewa said, according to Reuters.
After 2010, the number of rhinos poached skyrocketed, fueled by an increased demand over a rumor that a Vietnamese minister claimed it cured a relative of cancer, the Guardian reported.
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