By Gavin Keeton
A recent study in Vietnam, sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), reveals that demand for rhino horn may be much larger than previously thought. It shows that, in addition to consumers of rhino horn, there is a large group of "intenders" — people who intend to buy rhino horn when they can afford it. The study shows that rhino horn is bought not just for traditional medical purposes, but also as a status symbol. Rapid growth in living standards means the number of people who could become consumers of rhino horn is potentially enormous.
These findings cast doubt on the viability of proposals, supported by the South African government, to introduce a legalised, regulated market in rhino horn. Supporters of such an approach believe a regulated market offers a better chance for the survival of the world’s remaining rhinos than a ban on all trade. They argue that a ban on trade has perverse consequences — it raises the price of horn and so increases the incentive for poachers. By contrast, this view suggests that legal sales of stockpiled rhino horns, plus the dehorning of live rhinos to sell their horns, would drive down prices, reducing the incentive to poach.
But this will not happen if future demand is likely to exceed the supply of stockpiled and harvested horns.
The problems associated with a regulated market for rhino horn are addressed in a recent paper by Alan Collins of the University of Portsmouth and Gavin Fraser and Jen Snowball of Rhodes University. They warn that there is no sure way of forecasting demand for rhino horn in a legalised, regulated market. The current price of rhino horn exceeds the price of platinum, cocaine and heroin. This suggests that potential demand for horn is far greater than what is met through illegal poaching at present. This is confirmed by the WWF study. Moreover, there is no way of knowing how much the stigma and fear of being caught buying illegal rhino horn affects demand. Such restraints would disappear by legalising rhino-horn trade, and demand could soar, outstripping all efforts to increase supply.
Collins, Fraser and Snowball warn also that increasing supply may be harder than is sometimes thought. They note that rhino horn grows about 6cm a year and this could potentially be harvested to increase supply under a formal dehorning programme. But increasing the breeding rate of rhinos to be dehorned is complicated by their small genetic pool and the time it will take for numbers to rise. The large areas rhinos require for habitat means protecting these rhinos being bred for their horns from poachers will be enormously costly. The price of live rhinos has been falling because game farms can no longer afford to protect their rhinos. More....