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393 rhino were poached across South Africa in the first four months of 2015, according to official figures.

Amid mixed responses from conservationists and animal activists, a group of rhino breeders and game reserve owners in South Africa is taking legal action to overturn a domestic ban on the trade of rhino horn.

Arguing that horns are a renewable resource, the group has filed a case in a civil court claiming that selling horn that is legally obtained from living animals kept on game reserves or ranches will help put an end to a poaching crisis that has already claimed over 500 rhinos this year.

"It is in the public interest that the moratorium be lifted and that private rhino owners be able to trade rhino horn in South Africa," said Izak du Toit, a lawyer representing one of the rhino owners. "While the government continues to do study after study after study, we are losing rhinos."

A decision to overturn the domestic ban is not one that will be made unanimously. According to Richard Emslie, of the African Rhino Specialist Group, "there are strong arguments as to why it may be detrimental, and there are strong arguments why it could be good.”

Rhinos can produce about 1-2 pounds (up to a kilogram) of horn each year, providing owners with about ten 'harvestable' horns within an individual’s lifetime. The horns can be safely removed without causing injury to the animal and breeders argue that the process is quick and painless, comparing it to trimming a horse’s hoof.

“While the government continues to do study after study after study, we are losing rhinos.”

The court order argues that harvested horn will make live rhinos more valuable than dead ones, driving down prices and squashing the illegal trade. However, some animal activists claim that an end to the ban will only spell trouble in the future.

"This is supported by greed, not conservation," argues Allison Thomson of Outraged South African Citizens Against Poaching (OSCAP), claimsing that breeders only want to offload their horn stockpiles to further their own financial gain. A legal trade will be riddled with corruption, according to Thomson.

These thoughts are echoed by Jason Bell‚ IFAW director in southern Africa: “This is not a challenge based on the need to conserve and protect rhino; that is a fallacious and disingenuous argument. It is a challenge driven purely by economic incentives and it is the rhino that will pay the ultimate price if the court rules in the favour of the applicants.” 

The civil case to overturn the ban is not the first time that discussions have arisen around the laws governing horn trade. South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) has been exploring the viability of dropping the international ban on horn trade since 2013, and even established a 22-member Committee of Inquiry in February this year to offer advice and recommendations on a legal trade. Trade in rhino horn has been banned internationally since 1977, and domestically in South Africa since 2009, when some hunters were found to be abusing rhino hunting permits in order to export illegally obtained horns. 

A proposal to lift the international ban is expected to be voted on at the 17th Conference of the Parties (CoP17) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), scheduled to take place next year in Johannesburg. Overturning the ruling would require that at least 66 percent of the 181 parties to CITES vote yes to legal trade.

The civil case to drop the domestic ban will resume in September this year. What are your thoughts? Should South Africa legalise the horn trade?