Rhino Horn Stockpiles are Increasing – So is Their Role in the Illegal International Trade

On the night of July 19th, thieves broke into the offices of the North West Parks Board (NWPB), the provincial agency responsible for wildlife conservation and management in South Africa’s North West province, and stole 51 rhino horns from the ostensibly secure store room. At time of writing, three suspects – two Malawian nationals and one South African national – have been arrested in connection to the theft. None of the rhino horns have been recovered.

This type of incident, while brazen and almost certainly conducted with assistance from someone on the NWPB payroll, is unfortunately not an unheard-of occurrence. Rhino horn stockpiles are kept by national and/or provincial government agencies in all countries located along the illegal rhino horn trade chain, and by private citizens in countries like South Africa and Namibia where personal ownership of rhinos and rhino horn is legal. Stockpiled horn can come from a variety of sources including seizures from law enforcement operations, dehorning procedures, and carcasses of rhinos that died of natural causes.

Unless kept for legitimate enforcement or scientific purposes, rhino horn stockpiles are counterproductive to rhino conservation efforts. As evidenced by the case highlighted above, stockpiles present a major risk of theft – which is exacerbated when corruption is thrown into the mix – and the costs associated with securing stockpiles are significant. The mere existence of these stockpiles also emboldens those who advocate for legalizing the international trade in rhino horn, despite the huge risks associated with legal trade and major flaws with pro-trade arguments.

Sadly, the theft of these 51 horns last month is only the latest incident of stockpiled horns going missing. Botswana, Malaysia, Namibia, South Africa, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe have all experienced thefts from government and/or private stockpiles in recent years. You can find details on these and other rhino horn stockpile thefts by checking out EIA’s publicly accessible and interactive Global Environmental Crime Tracker.

As the rhino poaching crisis in Africa has stretched on for more than 15 years, wildlife managers have increasingly resorted to dehorning their rhinos as an anti-poaching measure. This controversial process requires a team of vets and wildlife professionals to track, immobilize, and remove the horn of a rhino.

REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

The theory is that without horns, poachers won’t risk targeting the rhino. While in certain circumstances dehorning does appear to be a deterrent and can be a useful tool in the anti-poaching toolbox as a last resort, it is not without its drawbacks. For one, the horn grows back, which necessitates regular dehorning at typically 1.5 to 2-year intervals. Studies have shown that, at least for black rhinos, dehorning can result in behavioral changes. Putting rhinos under anesthesia is especially risky, and sometimes they simply don’t wake up. It also requires entire teams of wildlife professionals to carry out and can be costly, especially when helicopters are involved. Finally, it does not always have its desired effect – dehorned rhinos are still sometimes killed by poachers.

Despite these drawbacks, wildlife managers are increasingly turning to dehorning across southern Africa in a desperate attempt to stem the tide of poaching. Private rhino owners, which typically have smaller rhino populations to manage and are better-resourced than some government agencies, have been dehorning their rhinos for years, and it has only been in the past couple years that national and provincial governments have started to dehorn rhino populations living in state-run protected areas.

Kruger National Park began dehorning its female rhinos in 2019 before eventually adopting a policy to dehorn all white rhinos in the park. Botswana embarked on a major dehorning operation of the Okavango Delta’s white rhino population in 2020, and in September of last year Zimbabwe announced it too would dehorn all of its rhinos. Just a few weeks ago Namibia announced it would be dehorning approximately 600 black rhinos located primarily in Etosha National Park.

As dehorning has become the rule rather than the exception for most rhino populations in southern Africa, the amount of rhino horn held in stockpiles has ballooned dramatically. According to the IUCN SSC African Rhinoceros Specialist Group, at least 2,217 rhinos were dehorned between 2018 and 2021. That comes out to a whopping 4,434 horns added to stockpiles over three years.

Transparency surrounding rhino horn stockpiles, however, is nearly non-existent. There is no official, publicly-accessible data on the number of stockpiles, the amount of horn kept in stockpiles, nor the composition of stockpiles (i.e., how much stockpiled horn was derived from seizures compared to dehorning) across southern Africa. Private stockpile owners can be reluctant to share this information with the government, and sometimes government agencies themselves are unaware just how much horn is stockpiled within their jurisdiction.

The best available rhino horn stockpile estimate for South Africa is from August 2019 and was only obtained after a South African NGO made a formal information request to the national government. According to the Department of Forestry, Fisheries, and the Environment there were more than 27.7 tonnes of rhino horn in government stockpiles and another nearly 22.5 tonnes held in private stockpiles.

The rapid accumulation of horn, lack of transparency and oversight of stockpiles, and a legal domestic market for unmodified rhino horn (e.g., full horns that have not be carved or powdered) in South Africa have contributed to the movement of rhino horns from stockpiles to the illegal trade. In one high-profile case from 2019 that involved permit violations and forgery, the South African authorities seized 181 horns sourced from a private stockpile and allegedly destined for Southeast Asia according to the South African Police Service. In another major case from 2019, the China Customs Anti-Smuggling Bureau, together with other Chinese enforcement agencies, seized 245 kg of rhino horn from a ship off the coast of Southeast China and arrested more than a dozen people involved. This was the largest rhino horn seizure made outside of South Africa in nearly the past 30 years. Dozens of horns contained microchips, which means those horns were sourced from one or more stockpiles in southern Africa.

The most cost-effective, foolproof way to avoid situations like what has transpired in South Africa’s North West Province is to destroy rhino horn stockpiles. By destroying the horn, the money used to safeguard these stockpiles can be invested into more proactive solutions to protect rhinos from poaching and illegal trade, and the risk that stockpiled horn will be stolen or trafficked will be eliminated.

Joanna Gilkeson, USFWS

Nevertheless, some governments and private rhino owners are determined to hold onto, and continue to grow, their rhino horn stockpiles because of a desire to one day profit off the sale of their stocks – despite the many significant hurdles standing in the way of legalization and the strong likelihood that legalizing rhino horn trade would once again increase rhino poaching to meet increased demand.

Rhino horn trade is largely illegal in countries like China and Vietnam where the demand for rhino horn has historically been the greatest, and the international commercial trade in rhino horn has been prohibited by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) since 1977. With 184 Parties, nearly the entire world has joined CITES (minus a few countries like North Korea, Turkmenistan, and South Sudan), which has considered proposals to legalize international rhino horn trade eight times since 1977. Every time, the global community has chosen to uphold the ban on international rhino horn trade.

There are some range states in both Africa and Asia that have embraced stockpile destruction as an important measure to help protect their rhino populations. For instance, Kenya destroyed 1.5 tonnes of rhino horn in 2016, and in 2021 India destroyed 2,479 rhino horns after a transparent accounting of their stock.

The investigation into the perpetrators behind the theft of the 51 horns from the NWPB’s stockpile, and the search for the horns themselves, remains ongoing. As long as countries that allow rhino horn stockpiles insist on maintaining and adding to them, the leakage of stockpiled rhino horn into illegal trade will only continue.

Stockpiling rhino horn is all risk and no reward. Rhino range state governments and private rhino owners, especially those engaged in dehorning, must widely embrace rhino horn stockpile destruction as an anti-poaching, anti-trafficking, and demand reduction tool that will contribute to the protection of rhino populations throughout Africa and Asia.