South Africa—home to 83% of Africa's rhinos and 73% of all wild rhinos worldwide—has been suffering a rhino-poaching crisis since 2008. In 2012 668 rhinos were killed; 2013 is expected to be worse. And South Africa is no exception: poaching is surging across the continent, according to Save the Rhino, a conservation group.
The numbers are a reminder that an international ban on trade is often not enough to save a species. In the case of the rhino it may actually make things worse. When demand remains high for a product whose legal trade is banned, the result is a lucrative black market—one that may have financed the Shabaab, the terrorist organisation responsible for the recent assault on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi.
It is difficult to see how one might eradicate this trade. The economist's answer would be to flood the market with legal supply. But rhinos grow so slowly that this will not be possible until someone develops another way of growing horn. Instead, then, conservationists must turn to what is known as "demand reduction". In other words, somehow rhino lovers have to convince buyers that they do not want rhino horn.
The first step in "un-marketing" rhino horn is simple: find out who your buyers are and why they like the product. TRAFFIC, an organisation that monitors the illegal wildlife trade, has just conducted a survey to identify the most important buyers of rhino horn. It turns out that it is a luxury purchase by rich men in Vietnam: professional businessmen, celebrities and government officials. They do not see themselves as contributing to the devastation of rhino herds in South Africa and presumably have no inkling that their purchases may finance terrorism in Kenya.
In Vietnam horn is often bought for the sole purpose of being gifted to family, colleagues or people in authority. Buyers think that it affirms their social status—and that it is good for their health. They believe it possesses properties that detoxify the body and can therefore cure anything from a hangover to serious illness. In business meetings, and other gatherings, rhino horn is sometimes ground to a powder, mixed with water and drunk. Rhino horn is made of keratin, like fingernails. Yummy! More....