ATG has learnt that the government is seriously considering withdrawing export licences for much of the old rhinoceros horn sold in the UK.
In an effort to curb the growing auction market for rhino horn trophies, that the authorities believe is fuelling the illegal trade in Far Eastern homeopathic remedies, the department of Animal Health made the recommendation to DEFRA earlier this month.
A decision is expected shortly.
Speaking to ATG last week, Caroline Rigg, office manager at the Wildlife Licensing Unit, who issue export licenses for works of art that include the parts of endangered species, said they see a correlation between an unprecedented increase in poaching and the spectacular prices realised for rhino horn at public auction.
In 2007, South Africa lost 13 rhinos to poachers. However, in 2008 the number rose to 83, and increased again in 2009 to 122. Already this year more than 150 rhinos have been killed for their horns in South Africa.
"We have seen a significant increase in the illegal trade alongside a large increase in the number of requests made for the export of big game trophies. There is a strong suspicion that [old rhinoceros trophies] are fuelling the market for traditional medicines in China." If DEFRA minister Richard Benyon is in agreement, the change in policy could be announced as early as September.
The withdrawal of export licences would not constitute a blanket ban on the sale of rhino horn works of art.
The Wildlife Licensing Unit will continue to consider export licences on a case-by-case basis and the trade in most antique works of art (particularly the 17th and 18th century libation cups that have spiralled in price alongside other Chinese works of art) may well not be adversely affected. It was this aspect of the market that the British Antique Dealers' Association, who canvassed members on this issue, was most keen to protect when it recently held informal discussions with DEFRA.
Nor would new measures amount to a ban on the sale of old rhinoceros horn in this country. Under the proposals, it will still be legal to sell these big game trophies in the UK. However, the decision to stop the trade moving overseas will impact 'open market' prices significantly. Taiwanese, Korean and mainland Chinese are the primary buyers in this field.
Such a change in policy would certainly be felt at Tennants, the North Yorkshire saleroom who, operating strictly within the law, have garnered an excellent reputation for selling natural history specimens. In July they sold eight rhino horn mounts for a collective hammer price of £455,000, including a single specimen mounted by Rowland Ward in 1930 at a record £106,000.
Speaking to ATG, their specialist Adam Schoon took issue with the suggestion that the auctioneering community is opening a back door to the illegal market for Chinese medicine. He has encountered no evidence that rhino horn trophies are being ground down for ingestion (he understands most are now bought as status symbols and financial investments) and believes the spectacular price rises should be seen alongside a burgeoning Chinese art market.
High prices have fuelled supply at auction but so too has recent relaxation of the legal definitions of what can and cannot be legitimately sold (see below). Nonetheless, in pursuit of only old worked examples that require no CITES licences, he says he rejects twice the number of horns he takes in for sale.
On a practical level, Mr Schoon believes new proposals will simply have the effect of pushing the market underground and ending the document trail, recording the details of vendor, auctioneer, sale price and buyer, that exists under the status quo. "There is a need for these items to find a legitimate market."
By Roland Arkell