By Kevin Heath
A new study published in the current edition of Conservation Biology estimates that a legal rhino horn trade could generate over US$1 billion a year in profits. It is a strong motivator for South Africa as it tries to tackle a rampant rhino poaching crisis.
The study authors believe that as much as $190 million a year will need to be spent on rhino protection and they feel it is unlikely that any one country – or even the international community – will be prepared to pay out this much year on year when there are other demands on the economy. As such the authors believe that provided money is set aside to pay for conservation then a legal rhino trade can provide this amount of money and provide healthy profits for rhino ranchers.
Without additional resources being put into rhino conservation then the authors believe the rhino will be extinct in the wild, including in private game conservancies, by 2023 – or as little as 8 years with current poaching trends.
The research team consisted of researchers from:
- Finnish Centre of Excellence in Metapopulation Biology, Department of Biosciences, P.O. Box 65, FI-00014, University of Helsinki,Finland
- School of Life Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, 4041, South Africa
- Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, Downing Place, Cambridge, CB2 3EN, United Kingdom and
- Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife, P.O. Box 13053, Cascades 3202, South Africa
The looked at past trends in poaching, rhino horn value and cost of rhino protection among many aspects of the issue and came up with 8 possible scenarios as to what may happen between 2015 and 2023. In 3 of those scenarios the wild rhino population would be extinct by 2023.
The 8 potential scenarios were:
1. Business as usual. If nothing changed and the current situation remained then protecting the rhino would cost the South African economy $128 million a year. If a legal rhino horn trade was introduced then this could cover the cost and produce an average profit of $353 million a year. Sadly all the rhinos under this scenario were extinct by 2023.
2. Increase fines for poaching. This would cost the South African economy $123 million a year in current conservation measures and if a legal rhino trade existed then this cost would be covered and produce a profit of $334 million a year. However all the rhino are predicted to be extinct by 2023.
3. Small increase in ranger numbers. This would add an extra cost to the South African economy and could cost South Africa $136 million a year. With a legal trade this cost would be covered and produce an average profit of $456 million a year before all the rhino went extinct.
4. Small increase in ranger numbers and small increase in fines. This is the first scenario that envisages at least some rhinos remaining by 2023 even though in greatly diminished numbers. The cost to the South African economy would be $132 million a year but with a legal rhino horn trade this cost would be covered and an average profit of $583 million could be realised. But by 2023 just 3,332 rhinos will be left in the wild.
5. Medium increase in ranger numbers. This scenario seems to roughly maintain population numbers in 2023 compared to the population today. Adding a medium boost to ranger numbers would cost the South African government $149 million a year. With a legal trade this cost would be covered and produce an average annual profit of $629 million a year. In 2023 South Africa would still have 18,886 rhino left – which is roughly about the number they currently have.
6. Medium increase in rangers and medium increase in fines. This seems to be the scenario favoured by the researchers as being the most cost effective and generating the most in profit. The cost to the South African economy of medium increase in rangers and medium increase in fines would be $147 million a year. If a legal trade was established then this cost would be covered and an average yearly profit of £717 million would be attained. The researchers point out that in this scenario the annual profit from 2023 from rhino horn trade would be in excess of $1 billion a year. By 2023 there would be 25,690 rhino in the wild – a slight increase on current numbers.
7. Big increase in ranger numbers. This is the first of the scenarios which see rhino numbers start to increase. The cost to South Africa of a large increase in ranger numbers would be $190 million a year. With a legal rhino horn trade this cost would be covered and produce an average profit of $698 million a year. In 2023 the researchers estimate that population numbers would increase and there would be 34,356 rhinos in the wild.
8. Big increase in ranger numbers and big increase in fines. This scenario would cost the South African economy $189 million a year. Introducing a legal rhino horn trade would cover this cost and produce an average profit of $709 million a year. Under this scenario the rhino population in 2023 would reach 34,920.
There are a couple of things to note from the study and that is the scale of funds needed to tackle the rhino poaching crisis. It is at a level that can not be supported by one country alone and especially as the rhino is a globally iconic species. All countries must be prepared to shoulder some of the burden. South Africa is still a developing nation and has many more important priorities for its fund and not just in the conservation arena.
The international community has to decide that if globally important species such as rhinos, elephants and tiger are to be saved then every country has a role to play in providing funding to protect the animals. When you look at the scale of the costs of protecting the rhino then you can not blame the South African government for considering a legal trade but there must be a better way.
That way has to come through the United Nations. It does not necessarily mean putting troops on the ground but finance can be provided to employ, train and equip more rangers. That will also tackle one of the biggest causes of poaching – poverty. Providing funds to employ rangers who can earn money to provide homes and food for their families means they don’t have to go out and kill the rhino to put food on the table.
The second thing to notice about the study is that the researchers claim that it will take many years for the cultural use of rhino horn to be countered and demand reduced. This is not necessarily true. When you look at the crash in demand for shark-fin especially in Hong Kong among the young it demonstrates that demand can very quickly be curbed and reduced.
By providing a legal source of rhino horn you effectively counter and campaign that seeks to reduce demand. With a legal rhino horn trade set to be delivering $1 billion a year in profits by 2023 there are going to be a lot of vested interest very keen on ensuring that demand reduction campaigns fail.