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In practice this means that, while it is still legal to sell rhino horn works of art in the UK, they will no longer be granted licences to be sent overseas.

The new emergency guidance, issued to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) management authorities by the European Commission, came into effect on March 12. It will apply until at least the end of 2012, at which time the controls (that constitute an expression of best practice rather than a change in the law) will be reviewed. 

In its latest and strongest attempt to stem the illegal medicine trade in China, the Commission now advises that: "No export or re-export permits are delivered for worked items of rhino horn, except in cases where it is amply clear that the permit will be used for legitimate purposes, such as cases where: the item is part of a genuine exchange of cultural or artistic goods between reputable institutions (i.e. museums); the item has not been sold and is an heirloom moving as part of a family relocation or as part of a bequest; or the item is part of a bona fide research project."

In each case the UK's Wildlife Licensing and Registration Service (WLRS) say they will now require all applications to be supported by detailed information, with the burden of proof for demonstrating the legitimacy of a transaction resting wholly with the applicant.

Importantly the WLRS say that, regardless of merit, they will now refuse any application to export rhino horn objects to mainland China*.

New Guidelines

It will still be legal to sell a Ming or Qing dynasty rhino horn libation cup (or an Edwardian big game trophy or a tribal club) within the UK, providing the authorities agree prior to sale that an item has been 'worked'. But the intention is now to exclude buyers from the increasingly affluent market where such things are most highly prized. It remains to be seen by how much this will impact prices.

The Commission are keen to close a number of loopholes with the new guidelines. Since the UK and Germany adopted a strict reading of Union legislation on trade in rhino horn in September/October 2010 and February 2011, the authorities have seen the problem move to other, less assiduous, parts of the Union.

They now stress the need for a common approach to be followed by all member states and have recommended maximum scrutiny in handling applications for intra-EU certificates.

The Commission justifies suspending exports for worked rhino horn under the "precautionary principle" it is permitted to advise in regards to wildlife policy and the need to combat organised crime. In parallel to a surge in poaching (448 rhinoceros were illegally killed in South Africa in 2011) there have been more than 50 rhino horn-related thefts across 13 EU member states and instances of money laundering, corruption of officials and smuggling across international borders.

There are indications that one crime group in particular may be responsible for the majority of illegal transactions designed to feed the market for powdered rhino horn in China and Vietnam, where it is used as a remedy for fever-related illnesses and is purported to have curative properties against cancer.

The consensus within CITES is that increased supply stimulates demand and imperils further the remaining rhinoceros populations.


*On paper, at least, domestic legislation within the People's Republic prohibits the import of and internal trade in rhino horns. This measure, implemented by Chinese authorities in support of initiatives taken by other countries to minimize illegal trade, includes pre-Convention and artistic items but does not apply to hunting trophies.

This legislation applies in relation to mainland China, but not to Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan, whose legislation authorises trade in rhino horns in compliance with CITES rules.