A worldwide ban on the trade in rhino horns has been ineffective and a regulated market should be set up as part of a last-ditch attempt to save the endangered animals from extinction, four leading environmental scientists say.
"Rhino horn is now worth more than gold," the scientists wrote in the journal Science on Thursday, mainly because of soaring demand in Asia for an ingredient that is used in Chinese medicines.
The Western Black Rhinoceros was declared extinct in 2011, and there are only 5,000 Black Rhinos and 20,000 White Rhinos left, the vast majority of which are in South Africa and Namibia, the researchers said.
Illegal killing of rhinos in South Africa has more than doubled annually over the last five years, driven by the rising retail price of rhino horn from around $4,700 per kilogram ($2,132 per pound) in 1993 to around $65,000 per kilogram ($29,485 per pound) now, the scientists said.
"If poaching continues to accelerate, Africa's remaining rhino populations may become extinct in the wild within 20 years," they said.
World trade in rhino horn has been banned since 1977 under CITES - the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species - but this has only restricted supplies, generating huge rewards for illegal high-tech poaching operations.
Attempts to educate Asian consumers about the impact of using rhino horn on the survival of the species have failed to curb demand, according to the scientists.
"Current strategies have clearly failed to conserve these magnificent animals and the time has come for a highly regulated legal trade in horn," lead author Duan Biggs of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions and University of Queensland said in a statement.
At least 745 rhinos were poached last year, and more than two a day have been shot by poachers in 2013, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported on Tuesday.
"Well-organized and well-funded crime syndicates are feeding the growing black market for rhino horn," Mike Knight, who leads a team of experts within the IUCN Species Survival Commission, said in a statement.
World demand for rhino horn could be met legally by humanely shaving the horns of live rhinos and from animals that die of natural causes, instead of illegally taking horns in ways that kill or maim the animal, the researchers said.
They point to the legal trade in crocodile skins as a model of an industry where legalization saved a species that had been hunted to near-extinction, and said that if rhinos were farmed legally, more land would be set aside for them. That would in turn help conserve other endangered savannah animals.
A central selling organization could supervise the legal harvest and sale of rhino horn, attracting buyers because its products would be legal and less expensive than those available on the black market, the scientists said. Horn sold this way could be DNA-fingerprinted and traceable worldwide.
They urged discussions on this topic at a CITES conference starting on Sunday in Bangkok. (Reporting By Deborah Zabarenko; Editing by Ros Krasny and Paul Simao)