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CITES Does Not Prohibit Trade in Rhino Horn


CITES has not, and cannot, ban trade in anything – whether rhino or otherwise.  Trade in virtually every endangered species (including rhino horn!) has been massive and ongoing throughout the history of CITES.


International trade in rhino horn (and all manner of other endangered species) is legal today, has always been legal, and has continued without stop, throughout CITES’ existence.  Managed trade is, in fact, a key tool for CITES parties to employ in saving animals from extinction.

How does CITES work if not to ban trade?

The answer to that lies in the often-ignored fact that the Convention text contains no provisions for imposing a ban on trade in any animal species.  It only allows the CITES member states to nominate species for the highest levels of protection CITES can request – Appendix I. So the critical question must be, what limitations to trade are created by an Appendix I listing?

Listing on this Appendix means specimens of an animal may not be imported if

  1. the specimen comes from the wild; and

  2. the imported specimen will be used for “primarily commercial purposes.” 


Thus, if a specimen comes from a captive breeding operation, instead of from the wild, trade in that specimen is fully legal, no matter what use the material is put to.  And, importation is fully legal, even if the specimen is taken from the last remaining wild representative of its species, so long as the purpose identified by the importing nation is for any of the uses CITES identifies as not being primarily commercial.

Readers might also be quite surprised to learn that CITES considers importation for zoos, circuses, medical use, science, breeding, hunting, or even “personal” use to be sufficiently non-commercial to permit trade.

Before one panics that CITES is an agreement without purpose, it is important to note that the Convention does impose one additional powerful ‘brake’ on trade in Appendix I animals, even if those animals come from captive breeding operations. CITES requires input from the officially designated Scientific Authorities of both the importing and exporting nation to determine whether or not the proposed trade would be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild. This very important test is the manner in which CITES hopes to block actions that do not legitimately further conservation goals.  The fact that it is an appropriate national scientific authority that makes the key decision is testament to the importance the authors of the Convention assigned to true science, rather than to the whims of any political body or movement.

If the Scientific Authority issues a ‘Non-Detrimental Finding’, certifying that the proposed trade will do no harm to the species in the wild, then the trade may proceed.  If the Scientific Authority says trade would harm conservation of the species, then it is blocked.


South Africa’s scientific authority – SANBI – issued their finding that trade in rhino horn would not be detrimental to the species in the wild roughly two years ago.  From CITES’ point of view, this was the only prerequisite to trade, and trade should now be proceeding.


CITES does not stop South Africa, or any other nation, from exporting the most highly endangered species. Because the Convention was founded upon the principles of sustainable use, it is very clear that the proposed trade in rhino horn is entitled to proceed without hindrance so long as

  1. the traded specimens come from captive breeding, which entitles even Appendix I specimens to treatment as Appendix II; or

  2. are used for medical purposes, a zoo, a breeding facility, or even personal use. 


Satisfying either one of these conditions would be enough to permit trade.  Most of the proposed trade in rhino horn that is necessary to save the species from its looming extinction satisfies both of these provisions.

Opponents of trade might now argue that we are merely seeking to exploit a loophole, but that isn’t true.  Trade in all wildlife is at the core of CITES itself. To prove this, we need only examine the data.


While some talk of a ‘ban’ on trade in rhino specimens, we now know from analysis of the CITES database that CITES member nations have traded rhino products over 650,000 times since joining the Convention.  The vast majority of that -- roughly 580,000 specimens – has been trades in horn products.  That is massive volume and clearly cannot be characterized as a ‘ban’.

The biggest importer is the United States.  If the United States is permitted by CITES to trade in horn products, why do we allow ourselves to believe that Africans are prohibited from doing so?

Despite officially repeating the claim that a CITES ban prohibits any trade in horn, South Africa has quietly been responsible for roughly 1% of the trade in horn –about 6,000 specimens traded legally, in full compliance with all CITES obligations. Across trade in all sorts of rhino specimens, South Africa accounts for roughly 58,000 specimens – about 9% of all trade in rhino.  There is no ban.

Indeed, there cannot possibly be a ban because CITES does not have the legal capability of implementing a ban, and would not do so if it could.  Trade is an integral part of the conservation foundation upon which CITES was built, even if many of the most strident organisations who buy their way into the CITES Conference of the Parties would prefer to have us all believe otherwise.

Having trouble believing that CITES promotes trade?  Perhaps this chart can help. 

It shows that 72 million specimens of the most endangered species - Appendix I animals - were traded for 'commercial purposes' - the type of import that is most heavily restricted by CITES.

Since the inception of CITES, over 91 million specimens of Appendix I animal species have been traded between member nations.  Two thirds of those were for explicitly commercial purposes.  Roughly a quarter of that - 19 million specimens - were permitted because they came from 'Captive Breeding' operations, just as the proposed trade in rhino horn from South Africa would.

There is nothing in CITES that either can, nor wants to, prohibit trade in this material.  Especially when such trade would save the species from extinction.

In fact, the data shows us that CITES nations have traded 525 species from such captive breeding programs.  203 countries have exported these most endangered species on the basis of the specimens coming from captive breeding operations, and 218 have imported on that basis.

There is no ban.

Perhaps even more interestingly, the data above shows that roughly half of all explicitly commercial trade in the most 

endangered species amongst CITES nations comes either from the wild, or from undisclosed sources.  The habit of not disclosing source is frowned upon.  And commercial trade in wild-caught specimens is one of the few types of trade that actually IS usually prohibited by CITES.  In most of these latter cases, however, the data is showing us not violations of the Convention but, rather, examples of countries that have lodged a ‘Reservation’ against placing the species in question on the list for Appendix I protections, and are, therefore, allowed to trade without limitation.


CITES does not ‘ban’ trade in any animal species.  Massive quantities of trade are taking place in all manner of species that might surprise the reader.  Among a broad array of endangered cats, CITES member states have traded over twenty-five million specimens of tiger products. Focusing just on the most recent twenty years of trade (so as to keep the chart legible),


the incredible abundance of endangered cat species traded in each year is immediately obvious (with tigers highlighted in orange).

Similar charts could be produced for birds, bears, whales, dolphins, elephants, and virtually every other species one could imagine.  Name your species, and a quick look at the data will show that trade in that species is abundant.

There is no ban.  Not for rhino horn.  And not for anything else.  CITES does not deal in ‘bans’. It simply applies regulations to the ongoing trade between states.


And this is no ‘exception’, exploited only by a handful of devious actors.  Rather, every single country to have joined CITES has engaged in trade in the most endangered species protected by that Convention, with some surprising states atop the leaders’ board.


That China accounts for a significant portion of trade in the most endangered species is, perhaps, not a surprise. But one might be surprised to see that China plays a massive role in exports, not just imports, of such species.


It is on the importing side of the trade, however, that we find the biggest surprises.  Yes, we see China again, at number three, and Hong Kong at two (counted independently of the Peoples Republic of China because of its historical relationship when CITES was formed).  But few casual observers would have expected to see the United States, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, and Switzerland amongst the top ten states importing endangered species.  Yet that is exactly what the data disclose.

South Africa, too, is a robust participant in the trade in endangered species.  Our country has, in fact, exported 150,000 specimens of well over 193 separate Appendix I animal species to 149 importing nations.  More than half of that trade was for commercial purposes; with more than a quarter of the trade coming from captive breeding operations.


Perhaps the biggest surprise in the South African data is the fact that this country has already exported rhino (horn and other forms).  For commercial purposes. From captive breeding operations.  In 1994, 1996, and 2013.  Absolutely every aspect of legal trade in horn that must be possible to save the species has already been done.  By South Africa.  There is no cause for further delay or legal discussion merely because opponents of vitally needed trade insist upon pushing their strident but uninformed agendas.


There is no ban.  We have the power to unleash the single most powerful conservation tool ever conceived in defense of our rhino.  We can no longer afford to fail because we falsely believe that CITES prohibits trade. This is the most unnecessary extinction in the history of humankind.  And it is entirely within our power to stop it. Now.

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