Why would you want to shoot these guys? Image: Richard Ruggerio / USFWS
More than 270 rhinos have been poached this year, which means poachers are on pace to top last year's record high. Yet even as poachers running rampant, registered rhino hunting in South Africa is still legal. That's led to absurd schemes to skirt rhino horn restrictions, like the time a guy got arrested for hiring Thai prostitutes to pretend to kill poached rhinos for legal purposes.
Now, the AFP reports that Vietnam and South Africa will finally work to try to close the hunting loophole by setting up a database of registered hunters to help cut down on people faking permits.
"As part of the cooperation between the two countries, Vietnam is going to provide us with a list of accredited trophy hunters," Peter Mbelengwa, a South African government spokesman, told the AFP.
"We will be able to verify the legitimacy of the hunters," he added.
Trade in rhino horn worldwide is almost unilaterally banned worldwide. Aside from corruption and illegal trade—which is an overwhelming problem, of course—there are a few exceptions. One is in trade of antique horn, and another major one is in the personal transport of rhino trophies shot and harvested by registered hunters for personal use—selling a legally-hunted horn is illegal. Those permits are rare: the AFP notes that only 41 permits were granted in KwaZulu-Natal province, which is home to many of South Africa's rhinos, from 2009 to 2011.
The AFP also noted that of those 41 hunters, 13 hailed from Vietnam, where regulation is lax and rhino horn is in very high demand, and that the majority of hunters hailed from Asia, where rhino horn consumption is highest.
Now, the distinction between hunting a rhino for a wall mount and hunting to semi-legally acquire its horn to sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars is fairly small, and I've said before that no rhino hunting should be legal, whatever the monetary payoff for conservation. But hunters using legal hunts as a way to supply horn is more sinister, as it helps fuel the horn trade at large, which is the cause of the poaching crisis in the first place.
The real quandary is in the semi-legal status of horn. Allowing hunters to take their approved kills home is one thing; wildlife managers and ecologists may decide that getting a six-figure influx of cash into their budget is worth the life of one rhino. But it's the horns that matter, and by making some horns legal—even if just for personal use—hunting makes for real enforcement difficulty.
To circle back to the Thai prostitutes, they'd been hired as essentially clean names for improper hunting permits. After poachers shot rhinos, the women claimed they shot them on their own, which would have allowed them to take them out of the country on their own—and then sell the horns on the black market back in their home country.
That fake permit scenario has played out an untold number of times, and thus legal hunting is a conduit for illegal horn laundering. Rhino horn trafficking is dominated by organized crime just as much as any drug, but for as difficult as it is to stop, say, the flow of cocaine, rhino horn enforcement is made even more difficult because not every horn is illegal.
So here Vietnam and South Africa have pledged to some day create a database to ensure that the people who say they're permitted to shoot a rhino are actually allowed to do so. (Vietnam has ducked rhino protection pacts before.) But that's missing the point: the obfuscation of the law created by legal hunting is make the trade even harder to stop than any organized smuggling already is.