Rhino horn. Picture:  AFP PHOTO / ROBERTO SCHMIDT
Rhino horn. Picture: AFP PHOTO / ROBERTO SCHMIDT

THE Department of Environmental Affairs said on Tuesday it would study and respond later to a court ruling last week which dismissed its bid to uphold a seven-year ban on the domestic trade in rhino horn.

The High Court in Pretoria lifted the domestic ban on the trade in rhino horn in November 2015 and upheld that decision in January after South African game breeders John Hume and Johan Kruger argued that it was their constitutional right to sell rhino horn, a renewable resource.

The judgment has been suspended pending the Department’s appeal, which was dismissed by the Supreme Court of Appeal on Friday.

The decision has no bearing on a ban on international trade in rhino horn.

Potential domestic buyers could include those who see rhino horn as a store of wealth that could appreciate in value and those who want it as a decoration.

"The Minister of Environmental Affairs (Edna Molewa) is considering the implications of the judgment and will brief the public in due course," the department said in a statement.

Possibilities open to the department include changing legislation or making the issuing of permits — required to buy, sell or possess rhino horn — so onerous that the domestic trade is effectively stifled, officials have said off the record.

It was not clear if the department would lodge a final appeal with the Constitutional Court.

According to the latest figures from SA’s Private Rhino Owners’ Association, about 6,200 rhinos are in private hands, about a third of the national population. Rhino horn can be harvested as it grows back and it can be removed from a tranquilised animal.

Supporters of rhino horn trade say the money earned could be used for conservation and to pay for security. Opponents counter that a legal trade could tempt poachers who kill rhinos to launder their "blood" horns with clean supplies.