This article was originally published in The Guardian.

South Africa has just launched the first ever legal rhino horn auction. If you are based in South Africa and would like to buy some rhino horn you can place your bid here.

This is not a government auction, although it is sanctioned by the South African government. It has been organised by private rhino rancher, John Hume, who took the government to court and won the right to sell 265 rhino horns weighing about 500 kg. Trade in rhino horn is illegal in most countries, but the black market value of one kilogram is said to be USD 100,000—more than the price of platinum.

The astronomical price of rhino horn is driven by demand in Asia that has fuelled the current epidemic of rhino poaching in South Africa. Rhino deaths from poaching have risen from almost zero ten years ago to more than 1,000 per year since 2013.

Rhinos are listed on Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means that horns cannot be legally taken out of South Africa into any other CITES member state. So this auction is targeting buyers in South Africa … even though there is no market there for rhino horn. What is going on?

Although the horn can only be sold within South Africa, where the business language is English, the rhino horn auction website is in English, Vietnamese and Chinese. It seems very likely that most of rhino horn will end up in Asia via South Africa based purchasers with links to the international crime cartels that control the illegal trade in rhino horn.

Why is John Hume going ahead with this auction, given the obvious risk that it will end up generating funds for crime cartels that are known also to be involved in drug smuggling, people smuggling and other nefarious activities? Here is what the auction website says:

As the demand for rhino horn has increased globally, a trend led by Asia, we have seen the growth of rhino being poached in South Africa escalate at alarming levels to match that demand. We are at a crossroad where we, as a nation, need to view alternative approaches to conserve our species … We firmly believe that legal rhino horn trading is the best way to save the rhino…

The argument is that by meeting the demand from legal rhino horn stocks from managed rhino ranches, the price will fall, thereby reducing the incentive for poachers to kill wild rhinos. This market-based solution appeals to capitalists and of course particularly to commercial rhino farmers. John Hume owns and breeds more than 1,500 rhinos.

However reality rarely follows economists’ simplistic supply and demand models. I predict that, on the contrary, the impact of this sale will be an explosion in demand, driven by the opening up of new markets in Asia for ‘sustainably sourced’ rhino horn. Rising demand and the expectation of a corresponding rise in price of horn will lead to a massive explosion of rhino poaching, extinguishing populations in most countries.

Native range states like Kenya, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa who hold the bulk of Africa’s rhinos will be targeted, along with Botswana and Australia, where hundreds rhinos have been imported in a last ditch effort to save the species. Even rhinos in zoos, sanctuaries and baby rhinos with tiny horns will be at risk.

If this happens, in just a few years’ time, rhinos on ranches like the one owned by John Hume may become the only reliable source of horn. These rhinos will also be at risk from poachers. But even if poachers swoop in and decimate John Hume’s 1,500 animals, he will still be able to make a profit.

He has more than 6 tons of rhino horn in a secure holding and is putting less than 10% of this up for auction. The rest can be drip fed into the markets in a way that maximizes the price increase as wild rhino horn becomes increasingly scarce.

Rhino breeders may talk about conservation but their business model is literally banking on extinction.

Unlike poachers who kill rhinos, rhino breeders harvest horns from living rhinos—just as you harvest fruit, or milk a cow. These rhinos are treated as livestock. Each rhino’s horn is regularly trimmed and the pieces are stored.

Ranchers say this is to prevent poachers from harming them, but this not true. Poachers will go after rhinos with trimmed horns, which is why rhino ranches have such massive security budgets. On the auction site, Hume claims security costs him USD 170,000 per month. 

What could possibly justify this expense? Clearly you don’t need 1,500 rhinos to attract tourists and rhinos don’t make good house pets. Rhinos have no other value that their horn, so it is safe to assume that ranchers are breeding them and collecting the trimmed pieces of horn in expectation of a future sale.

 De-horned rhinos roam on the field at John Hume’s Rhino Ranch in Klerksdorp, in the North Western Province of South Africa, on February 3, 2016. Photograph: Mujahid Safodien/AFP/Getty Images

Hume claims the auction is “raising money to further fund the breeding and protection of rhinos”—but most likely he means his own rhinos. If this is not the case, and a significant proportion of the proceeds are used for the protection of wild rhino populations, he should show us the evidence. 

The flaw in the rhino breeders’ business model is that the market for rhino horn in South Africa is negligible. African’s do not value or use rhino horn. Demand comes mainly from Vietnam and China, where it has traditionally been ground up and consumed in a glass of water as a cure for headaches, hangovers and high blood pressure.

But most Chinese and Vietnamese people can now get modern and much more effective medicines for these purposes. So the traders have given them an additional reason to buy the horn at any price: they claim rhino horn can cure cancer.

To further broaden its appeal they promise that a few grains of rhino horn sprinkled on your rice every day will prevent you from getting cancer in the first place. I have even heard it said that a bead of rhino horn worn on a bracelet of necklace will draw out poisons and impurities from the blood.

These are not ancient beliefs, they are modern myths intentionally created and propagated by gangsters as a marketing ploy to sell rhino horn to Asia’s new rich.

China and Vietnam are home to some of the world’s worst criminal cartels. They are countries where it is impossible to effectively combat wildlife crime, and where the ego of the newly rich is driven by the thrill of consuming products from animals on the brink of extinction. Why has John Hume gone to such pains to make his auction website accessible to speakers of Vietnamese and Chinese?

We cannot predict the future, but what follows is more than simply a dystopian fantasy: It may well happen. By 2020, South African rhinos on private properties will be all but wiped out. Wild rhinos in Kenya, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe will be plundered to negligible levels. South African rhino ranchers will sell their remaining animals at a fantastic price, and will all become billionaires.

A gullible greedy buyer (probably an Asian with a South African passport) will purchase the remaining South African rhinos on the expectation that they will continue to breed and create more profit. They will all be poached. Values of remaining rhino horn stocks will hit the roof. People will continue to die from cancer.


What can be done?

Monitor and respond to any trafficking: It is essential that the South African government and CITES obtain samples of all the horns sold and DNA profiles of the rhinos they come from. CITES should further demand DNA testing of all horn seizures. This will allow illegal rhino horn to be traced back to John Hume’s stock and for appropriate legal action to be taken, including against the buyer and seller in South Africa.

Legal action: Proactively, attempts should be made to stop the sale and any future sales should through legal means. Lawyers should examine the legality of selling a product in the knowledge that will almost certainly enter illegal supply chains and benefit organised crime.

Kill demand: A massive campaign is needed to convince people in China and Vietnam that rhino horn has no significant medicinal value and to stigmatise the purchase of rhino horn. The messengers must include the leaders of South Africa, Vietnam, and China. The fact that none of them have so far spoken out to denounce misinformation about the medicinal value of rhino horn speaks volumes.

International pressure on governments: Governments of all rhino range states and consumer countries, as well as international agencies like the African Union, United Nations, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and China in Africa Forum must be persuaded to make and implement commitments to save rhinos. Measures could include outreach, education, awareness raising, law enforcement and legislation.

Slavery, child marriage, FGM and many other cultural practices were once the accepted norm but are now considered socially unacceptable due to the negative impact on people, and have become illegal around the world. Similarly we can no longer tolerate killing long-lived slow-breeding endangered species to produce luxury goods just because there is a market for them.

It is time for a new global convention to be adopted in which a red line is drawn firmly around certain species, including whales, elephants, great apes and rhinos, among others. ‘Sustainable use’ of these species is an illusion and the risk of losing them is too great to accept. The world will simply be too poor without them.