JOHANNESBURG — A South African court on Thursday opened the way to allowing local trade in rhino horns, alarming some conservationists who warned the ruling leaves rhinos even more vulnerable to poachers who are slaughtering them in record numbers.
South Africa's environment ministry said it will appeal a judge's decision in Pretoria to rescind a nearly 7-year-old moratorium on the domestic trade in rhino horns, meaning the ban is likely to stay in place pending the outcome of that appeal.
The ruling by Judge Francis Legodi in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria stirred an often acrimonious debate between those who say legalization will spur poaching in South Africa, and rhino breeders and others who believe a regulated trade that allows the sale of horn stockpiles and the harvesting of horns from living rhinos will undercut poaching.
Legodi said the South African government had failed to properly consult the public before imposing the moratorium in 2009 and also questioned its effectiveness, noting that rhino poaching surged to record levels after the ban.
"What disastrous implications would be brought about by the immediate lifting of the moratorium? I cannot think of any," Legodi said in a 39-page ruling. He cited statistics showing the number of rhinos poached in 2008, before the ban, was just below 100, compared to about 1,200 last year.
Also Thursday, the environment ministry reported the arrests of 12 people, including three police officers, for alleged rhino poaching.
South Africa is home to an estimated 22,000 rhinos, more than 80 per cent of the global rhino population.
Poaching syndicates have increasingly targeted rhinos to meet rising demand for their horns in parts of Asia, particularly Vietnam. Consumers believe rhino horn, which is ground into powder, has medicinal benefits, but there is no scientific evidence to support the belief. The horn is made of keratin, a protein also found in human fingernails.
Two South African rhino owners took the South African government to court seeking to overturn a moratorium on the domestic trade in rhino horn imposed in 2009. One of them, John Hume, has four metric tons (4,000 kilograms) of legally obtained rhino horn and his investment in rhinos and their horns is worth tens of millions of dollars, according to court documents.
Pelham Jones of the Private Rhino Owners Association welcomed Thursday's ruling. He said a regulated trade would "take away a lot of the exclusive status of the product" even if it doesn't shut down the illegal market entirely. He added that legal sellers could funnel proceeds back into conservation.
"This is not about making money," Jones said. "This is about trying to save an iconic species."
Allison Thomson, founder of an anti-poaching group in South Africa, said she was bitterly disappointed by the ruling.
"South Africa does not have a market for rhino horn domestically and the opening of trade locally will only lead to the smuggling of rhino horn by criminal syndicates into the black market in Vietnam and China," Thomson wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
Another conservation group, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said the push for a legal trade in South Africa was part of a wider campaign to legalize an international market.
An international ban on the rhino horn trade has been in place since 1977. South Africa has proposed that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which oversees the trade of wild animals and plants, discuss lifting the ban at its next meeting in Johannesburg in September 2016.
South Africa's environment ministry said a government permit would be required for any domestic trade in rhino horn in the event that there is no ban.