Of all the questions that we are asked, the one most frequently debated is: “Should we legalise trade in rhino horn or not?”
After all, it just seems so simple….rhinos die of natural causes, so instead of stockpiling those horns, we should attempt to satisfy demand for the product by selling them and thus reduce poaching pressure. And, some would argue, we can farm rhino for their horn, we can trim/cut their horns much like we do our finger nails, the horn grows back and we simply keep on harvesting the horn and satisfying demand.
Well, it just isn’t that simple and there are many issues which need to be considered in attempting to arrive at an answer. Let us consider just a few of those - to do so entirely would require a book.
What is the current demand for a product in which it is illegal to trade? The answer is that we have no idea. All we can try to do is arrive at an answer by using the number of rhino that we “know” have been poached, assume an average weight per horn and guess an answer. So, if we don’t know what the demand is for an illegal product, how can we possibly know what the demand will be if we do legalise trade in the product?
Let us then question what is driving escalation in demand. We at SPOTS and many others, believe that demand is being driven by the burgeoning middle income sector spending power of a number of Asian countries, China and Vietnam in particular. Would anyone wish to guess, estimate, assume what the growth in these economies will be over the coming years and by how much demand will increase? Much of the demand for the product exists in Traditional Chinese Medicine, but evidence suggests that demand for the product as a “luxury” item is increasing. People are consuming it in nightclubs and bars, at affluent parties and events as “the thing” to do if one wishes to flaunt your wealth and status.
Well, if it isn’t bad enough that we don’t know what the demand is for rhino horn, we don’t know how much we have either. We believe that accurate census data on rhino, particularly Southern White Rhino, is not available. The census methods which have been used historically are known to be inaccurate at best, and nothing more than a guestimate at worst. Within the various bodies, conservation groups and government departments, the figure varies widely.
It must surely be relatively easy to determine how much rhino horn is in stockpile, as it is a legal requirement to microchip and record DNA etc. of all horn, but there again graft and corruption has raised its head before. Notwithstanding this, a reasonably accurate number could be arrived at.
The point though is, that if we do not know exactly how many rhino we have in the wild in South Africa, how can we guess whether we can satisfy demand through natural attrition?
Past attempts at reducing demand for illegal animal parts by legalising trade have failed. Just two good examples of this are ivory and bear-bile. In 2006, elephant poaching stood at 6% of the African population, in 2007 South Africa and Zimbabwe dumped 107 tonnes of ivory (with the blessing of CITES) into China. In 2008, the poaching rate stood at 8% of the African population and has grown staggeringly over the following years. Legalised bear farming stands as a travesty and has done nothing to stem the demand for wild bear bile.
It should also be noted, that the Saiga antelope moved from “prolific” to the CITES red list in some 10 years…why ? – it was believed to be a viable substitute for rhino horn in TCM.
The conservation paths of many species are littered with the spirits and echos of those who believed that they could apply pure economic principles to conservation problems.
The syndicates that drive rhino poaching, who grow demand for the product and who profit hugely as a result, will not simply turn their backs on these ill-gotten gains. What did they do with the bear-bile industry? They presented that farmed bear-bile was an inferior product and that what the consumer really needed was the wild, poached product.
They are already doing the same thing with rhino horn. Court testimonies in South Africa have revealed that poachers/middlemen, are paid a higher price for “wet horn” as opposed to “dry”. The syndicates have already motivated that the “real” benefit in rhino horn lies at the base of the horn, the knub, and that fresh wild poached horn is far superior to dry cultivated or stockpiled horn. That is why half the animal's face is hacked off…and that is why dehorned rhino, that have only approximately 70mm of horn left, are poached as well.
If the various authorities, provincial government departments and others could not enforce hunting licence legislation without corruption and graft leading to wanton poaching and breaking of the laws, how can it possibly be suggested that they will be able to enforce the laws surrounding something as complex and lucrative as legalised trade in rhino horn?
THE MORAL DILEMMA
Are we prepared to go down in history as the generation who were so useless that we could not defend, protect and conserve an iconic species, but rather we chose to make the problem go away by simply legalising an illegal activity. What message does this send to our youth and to the rest of the world?
The assault, the destruction of wildlife species is not limited to rhino. Many others are being targeted and, in fact, are in an even more threatened position than rhino. So, if we choose to legalise trade in rhino horn, what will we be required/pressurised into legalising next? Lion, Leopard, African Rock Python, Pangolin, Porcupine, Vultures, Abalone, Sharks? The list seems endless.
For the above reasons and a number of others, we at SPOTS believe that legalised trade is not a solution to the current rhino poaching problem. In fact, we believe that legalised trade will lead to ever escalating rhino poaching, it will lead to increased pressure on many other species, it will lead to huge pressure on our range states, and it will ultimately lead to the total demise of the rhino species as well as many others.
And we are all they have got to fight for their survival.
(Photo courtesy of Lydia Campbell) - Rhinos in the wild