By Adam M. Roberts
I can’t believe that this is still up for discussion.
We all know that the rhinoceros is in peril, facing the looming threat of extinction due to aggressive and violent poaching for their horns.
25,000 black and white rhinos remain across all of Africa. Experts warn that wild rhinos could go extinct in just 12 short years. With rhino horn worth more by weight than gold or cocaine at the end markets in Vietnam and China, poachers are poised to send rhino populations into a freefall from which they may not recover. So, for years, governments and conservationists alike have wondered: How can we eliminate poaching to save the rhino?
South Africa is home to almost three quarters (72.5%) of the world’s rhinos, more than 1,000 of whom are being slaughtered annually by poachers. In a desperate and highly dangerous attempt to combat poaching, the South African government continues to make noise about proposals to legalize the trade of rhino horn. South Africa could petition to auction off its stockpile of rhino horn in a one-off sale, authorize its commercial trade, or regulate the trade internationally through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) (when the Parties to CITES meets in 2016… in South Africa).
Trade proponents blithely contend that a legal horn trade would replace existing illegal black markets with legal regulated markets. Legalization is intended to saturate the marketplace, thereby dropping the price of rhino horn, and, in theory, reducing the incentive to poach. But, this is simply not the way it works in the real (natural) world.
Why? Two reasons: money and access.
From a financial standpoint, poaching a rhino in the wild is cheap compared to the cost of running a rhino “farm.” Criminal networks would likely undercut the price of farmed rhino horn, or even poach cheaply in other countries—and poaching would likely remain more profitable for would-be poachers than legal trade could ever be. The profit from killing even a single rhino can change the life of an impoverished poacher. If there’s money to be made, poaching will continue. And, there are professional criminal syndicates poised to make a killing.
From a historical standpoint, we have already found, quite simply, that the legal farming of wild animals does not deter poaching. Governments have attempted the strategy of allowing legal sale of endangered animal products—with disastrous results. China has legalized the sale of tiger skin and tiger bones from captive facilities, but poachers continue to kill wild tigers to the edge of extinction. China “farms” bears for their gallbladders and bile, leading to individual animal suffering for Asiatic black bears and poaching of wild American black bears to supply demand. CITES has allowed two legal sales of stockpiled elephant ivory from four southern African nations to China and Japan, but these sales only increased demand from China and Southeast Asia—spiking the incidence of illegal elephant poaching to its highest known levels, and threatening the very survival of the species.
Philosopher George Santayana famously wrote that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Legalizing the trade in wild animal parts has not quelled poaching in the past. It will not reduce poaching now. And, if history has taught us anything, we have no reason to believe that it will protect wildlife in the future.
And, how would we expect this new, legal trade to be enforced? Authorities barely enforce the existing bans and legislation, and corruption within authorities is often rife. How would authorities differentiate legally obtained rhino horns from those obtained illegally? Current technology is incapable of easily identifying the origin of each horn. That leaves us with a glaring gap that criminal networks can exploit in order to launder illegal product into the legal market.
A major consideration in the discussion of rhino horn trade—indeed, the singular driving force in the trade itself—is demand. Legal trade stimulates demand by legitimizing the product in the eyes of consumers, and by pumping more product into the marketplace. The increasing demand from East Asia (namely China, Vietnam, and Thailand) stems from long-standing cultural beliefs about the medicinal and social benefits of rhino horn, but also includes new uses like supposed cancer-curing properties, use as a hangover remedy, and as a symbol of status and wealth. (All medicinal uses are pointless, of course, as rhino horn is merely composed of keratin: the same substance that comprises human hair and fingernails.) If we can educate Eastern cultures about reducing consumption of rhino horn, we may be able to save the rhino. In fact, the survival of the species may depend on it. But, by legalizing, and therefore legitimizing, rhino horn, we will simply be reinforcing the beliefs that maintain the demand.
We’ve seen that demand reduction can work. Severe poaching spikes from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s sparked international outrage, which led to government response, awareness campaigns, and trade bans in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Yemen—all of which successfully reduced demand, and, therefore, reduced rhino poaching.
So, legalizing the trade in rhino horn could send mixed messages to Eastern cultures and to the public as a whole. In one breath, we implore an end to this vicious trade: reduce demand, stigmatize consumption of the product, educate those who tout its benefits, and conserve the species. However, in the next breath, we work to legalize it: increase supply, mitigate the stigma, undermine the message we send to Asian nations about the uselessness of the product, and willfully consent to government-sanctioned consumption of the species. These concepts are utterly dichotomous. They’re completely opposite, mutually exclusive goals. Calling for demand reduction… while simultaneously increasing the supply? What a confusing, hypocritical message. And, it’s the rhinos who will ultimately suffer the consequences.
Of course, this is a complex issue for which there is no simple solution. We have established that legalizing trade in animal parts is an ineffective means to stop poaching; anti-poaching legislation and trade bans have not ended poaching, either; and, though we know that we must work tirelessly to reduce demand, the task of reframing thousands of years of Asian tradition, and overturning more modern uses of rhino horn, is easier said than done.
But, one thing is for certain. We must move forward, not backward. We mustn’t ignore what we do know. We must use our data to continue to develop strategies that prioritize the protection of existing rhinos; allow their populations to flourish into the next generations; and maintain the ecological utility and integrity of these wild animals by focusing on policies that keep them in the wild.
That is, after all, where wild animals belong.