By Jon Herskovitz
PRETORIA (Reuters) - South Africa is seeking permission for a one-off sale of some of its $1 billion stockpile of rhino horn to finance conservation and potentially flood a thriving black market, its environment minister said on Wednesday.
However, conservation groups fear the plan could end up increasing demand in major markets such as Vietnam, where the horn is sought after for use in traditional medicine, as well as enriching black marketeers.
Environment Minister Edna Molewa told reporters that South Africa, home to 73 percent of the world's rhinos, would seek permission for the sale at the next major meeting of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, in 2016.
"South Africa cannot continue to be held hostage by syndicates who are slaughtering our rhinos," she said.
South Africa is home to more than 20,000 rhinos but is set this year to lose nearly 800 of them to poachers.
Poaching is increasing at such a rate that by the time of the meeting, the number of rhinos being killed or dying each year will exceed the number being born.
South Africa plans to enlist other countries in the region in the sales scheme but did not mention who it expects to act as the buyer.
The biggest market for illegal rhino horn in recent years has been Vietnam, where the product is sold in pharmacies and over the Internet at about $65,000 a kg, making it more expensive than gold. At this price, South Africa's stockpile of 16,400 kg would be worth just over $1 billion.
"We don't believe that Vietnam satisfies any of the conditions that would be necessary to participate in legal trade of rhino horn," said Tom Milliken, head of the rhino and elephant project for the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic.
Rhino horn has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine, where it was ground into powder to treat a range of maladies including rheumatism, gout and even possession by devils.
Up until about 2010, only a handful were poached, but the number shot up when a rumor spread that rhino horn had cured a Vietnamese minister's relative of cancer.
"Recent research on consumer behavior suggests that there is a latent demand for rhino horn in Vietnam and it is unclear whether a sustainable legal supply would be able to satisfy it," said Alona Rivord of the conservation group WWE International.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Kevin Liffey)