Rhino horn auction is pointless, animal rights groups say.

If there were a one-off sale of illegal drugs, would it kill the drug trade?

It’s not an entirely pointless question.

That exact reasoning — take something that’s illegal and make it temporarily legal, to satisfy demand and discourage black marketeers — was the excuse/aim/purpose/rationalization/justification, whatever you care to call it, behind a one-off auction of rhino horn last month in South Africa.

This was not a government auction, though the South African government sanctioned it, albeit begrudgingly. At first.

The auction was organized by a private rhino rancher in South Africa, John Hume. He took the government to court — at the time, South Africa was insisting that wildlife laws and international trade agreements be honoured — and won the right to sell 265 rhino horns, weighing about 500 kg. Hume owns and has bred more than 1,100 rhinos, according to published reports.

 ©Mario Moreno/Africa Foundation

©Mario Moreno/Africa Foundation

The absurd price of rhino horn — USD $100,000 per kilogram on the black market, more than the price of platinum — is driven by demand in, guess where, Asia. Ten years ago, rhino poaching had been virtually eliminated. Since 2013, an average of 1,000 rhinos have been poached each and every year, with a dramatic spike in the past 24 months, especially in South Africa, home to the world’s largest surviving population of rhinos, both captive and wild.

With World Rhino Day having passed a week ago and World Animal Day just around the corner (Oct. 4), the issue of rhino poaching is once again part of the public conversation.

It’s too early to judge what effect, if any, the auction had. Rhino poaching was already out of control — it has been for the past two years — and if the sudden accessibility of “legitimate” rhino horn on the market is going to stem the illegal trade, it will take weeks if not months to register.

Conservationists meanwhile argue the sudden availability of rhino horn will only boost the market, not discourage it, as the auction’s promoters insist.

 ©Heidi Venter/Africa Geographic

©Heidi Venter/Africa Geographic

It’s not an isolated, one-off debate. Many governments in southern Africa — Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, Botswana, Malawi, Zambia and South Africa itself — are sitting on stores ofvaluable ivory in the form of elephant tusks. Southern African governments — with the notable exception of Botswana — have called for one-off legal sales of ivory, to fund conservation programs.

In East Africa the issue has divided Kenya, the mosthigh-profile and successful tourist destination of Africa’s wildlife countries, where trophy hunting has been banned across the board, and Tanzania, home to East Africa’s largest population of wild elephants — by far — and a vocal supporter of trophy hunting.

The international trade in both ivory and rhino horn has been banned, thanks to an agreement by the member states of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a kind of United Nations of countries with indigenous wildlife — virtually every country on the planet.

 ©Federico Veronesi/Remembering Rhinos

©Federico Veronesi/Remembering Rhinos

To get technical about it — and while no one likes to be snarled in legal verbiage and technical jargon, it’s good to know — rhinos are listed on Appendix 1 of the CITES index, which means horns cannot be legally taken out of South Africa into any signatory CITES state. The auction, in other words, was only applicable to buyers in South Africa, as the South African court’s jurisdiction only applies to its home country. (Yes, that might seem to be obvious, but the obvious has a way of being obscured whenever large sums of money are involved.

The international ban in trade of ivory and rhino horn has led to a flourishing black market. Until the issue of demand is addressed — do the Chinese really need ivory trinkets and powdered rhino horn? — the black market will always thrive. Law enforcement can only do so much.

And when crazy ideas enter into the equation — the widespread belief, for example, that powdered rhino horn cures cancer and enhances one’s sex life — solving the problem becomes that much more difficult. “I think, therefore I am” becomes “I believe, therefore I’m right.”

 ©Hilary O’Leary/Natural History Museum

©Hilary O’Leary/Natural History Museum

Conservationists argue, however, that legal auctions have the opposite effect: The result of one-off legal sales creates an explosion in demand, as what was once forbidden is now legally available. Those involved in the enforcement of wildlife laws also argue — plausibly, it would seem to me — that it becomes almost impossible to tell the difference between “legal” ivory (or rhino horn) and that which has been illegally poached. Tanzania, which has lobbied hard for the legal sale of its stored elephant tusks — to fund conservation efforts, they say, though detractors argue that cash earmarked for conservation has a funny way of disappearing before it’s used for its stated, intended purposes — etches serial numbers into its elephant tusks, serial numbers that can be modified or scratched off entirely.

Interestingly, in an effort to save a critically endangered species, hundreds of rhinos have been imported to Australia, with its similar climate, though that will not dissuade the international crime syndicates if they’re motivated enough and the population in Africa crashes.

 ©Paula Kahumbu/Wildlife Direct

©Paula Kahumbu/Wildlife Direct

Rhino ranchers argue that, instead of killing wild rhinos, as poachers do, they can harvest the horn from living rhinos, as with livestock. Each rhino’s horn is trimmed, like wool sheared from a sheep, and the pieces are stored, in expectation of a future sale.

The real irony, of course, is that the market for rhino horn in South Africa itself — and other countries — is negligible, if not nonexistent.  As a general rule, Africans do not believe that rhino horn, ground up and sprinkled in a glass of water, cures headaches, hangovers and high blood pressure, let alone cancer.

As Paula Kahumbu, CEO and director of the animal-rights advocacy and conservation group Wildlife Direct wrote last month in an op-ed piece for theGuardian newspaper, you can kill all the rhinos you want, but people will still die from cancer.