‘Trade it to Save it’: a Dubious Compromise in Rhino Conservation

On 23rd August 2017 took place the first ever legal online auction of rhino horn. Regardless of the CITES ban on international rhino horn trade, South Africa decided to lift its 2009 moratorium on the domestic ban to sell rhino horns. Rhino horn is traditionally used in East Asia for its alleged medicinal purposes – which have never been proven scientifically. This auction sparked debate among conservationists on whether the only viable way to save the mega-herbivore is through creating a legal trade for its horn: the answer, both from a pragmatic and ethical point of view, should be negative. Why? Simply because economic uncertainties are too high. This blog post will draw your attention to the knowledge gaps with regards to the rhino horn trade – what trade proponents cannot calculate or purposely choose to omit – hence demonstrating that no viable trade can be established.

Rhino Horn Powder and Libation Cup
Rhino horn is transformed into powder and libation cup to be used in traditional medicine. Images credit: African Travel Guide and WorthPoint auction

Among the five species of rhinos present worldwide, three are now critically endangered. African rhinos could go totally extinct as soon as 2025 and this is mainly explained by a spike in poaching rates since 2008 (Ayling, 2013). In particular, poaching occurs in South Africa since the country is home to 93% and 40% of the total white and black rhino populations respectively. Sadly, 1,054 rhinos were poached in South Africa in 2016 alone (Taylor et al., 2017). If the logic to save a species through trading some of its body parts is morally highly controversial, we purposely choose to ignore ethical arguments in this article in order to show that, even when adopting a purely pragmatic perspective, the rhino horn trade cannot be defended as a sustainable future for wild rhinos.

Reported numbers of African rhinos poached from 2006 to 2015.  Data from AfRSG, TRAFFIC and CITES Rhino Working Group in collaboration with range States.
Reported numbers of African rhinos poached from 2006 to 2015. Data from AfRSG, TRAFFIC and CITES Rhino Working Group in collaboration with range States. Figure credit: Milliken et al., 2016.

Proponents of the rhino horn trade base their argument on classic economic thinking. Namely, legalising the trade would increase the supply, hence reduce the price of the good and this would have the cascading effect of reducing the incentive for poachers to kill. This is, however, a highly doubtful line of reasoning, as the case-study of ivory offers a contradicting precedent. Indeed, the legal sale of ivory to China and Japan in 2008 demonstrates the price did not go down (Hsiang and Sekar, 2016) and that, on the contrary, poaching rates increased (Ayling, 2013). This illustrates that poached rhino horn could similarly be smuggled onto the legal market more easily.

In the midst of competing economic arguments, there exist surprisingly very few articles in the academic literature estimating figures of the supply and demand for rhino horn. The most recent study on the topic foresees that between 5,319 and 13,356 kilograms of horns can be harvested annually within South Africa (Taylor et al., 2017).

Albeit being ground-breaking in its attempt to put a figure on the amount of harvestable horn, this study remains fundamentally limited. To begin with, primary data is obtained from feedbacks of private rhino owners, who are largely pro-trade and, therefore, may be tempted to inflate the amount of horn they are capable of harvesting. John Hume, South Africa’s largest rhino breeder, was in fact leading the August auction: having collected through his Captive Breeding Operation, his genuine motivation to advocate for the trade can be questioned. Since rhino horn is sold up to $75,000 per kilogram in Vietnam (Ayling, 2013), Hume could make huge profits from his current 1,405 rhinos and 5 tons of horns collected over time.

A dehorning operation in progress. Image credit: Save the Rhino

Secondly, the very physical properties of rhino horns make the authors’ estimate very vague. As horns are taken from live animals, the exact rate of harvesting ranging between one and three years and cannot be calculated. What is more, horns do not grow back at the same rate and their growth rate diminishes as rhinos get older. Dehorning operations remain costly (veterinary costs, labour and possible air support) and risky, especially since the risk of death increases from frequent exposure to sedation. Scientists assessed the cost-effectiveness of dehorning operations and found that dehorning must be done annually if poaching is to be made unprofitable (Milner-Gulland, Beddington and Leader-Williams, 1992). At this rate, dehorning alone is unlikely to effectively prevent poaching due to the risk of mortality associated with the operation.

Dehorned rhino
This blindfolded white rhino, living on John Hume’s rhino farm, has just been dehorned. Image credit: National Geographic

The main drawback of Taylor et al.’s paper is to solely tackle the supply side of the rhino horn trade. This can be generalised to the broader academic literature: there is no study quantifying the demand for rhino horn. If demand is acknowledged to be mainly coming from South Asia (Ayling, 2013), there is no scientific figure on how much horn is actually consumed and, even more worrying, how much horn buyers would get if there was an infinite supply. This is a crucial knowledge gap as estimates merely tackling the supply side of the trade cannot provide sufficient evidence on which to base a legalisation. Legalising the trade could furthermore reduce the stigma commonly associated with a prohibited good, hence encouraging new buyers to acquire this now accessible product (Hsiang and Sekar, 2016). Internet also dangerously facilitates access to wildlife products: the 500 kilograms of horns sold at the August auction were supposedly intended to stay within the South African territory, the auction’s website was ironically translated in Mandarin and Vietnamese, hence clearly aiming to reach out to international buyers.

In short, the rhino horn trade debate is pulled in opposite directions by conservationists, on the one hand advocating for a regulated trade to allegedly generate revenues to local communities and conservation projects, whilst on the other hand being heavily criticised for selling the soul of conservation’s normative principle to protect a species. Yet, it should not be hard to make up your mind on the question. By assessing the consequences of a trade through an economic lens, this blog post proves that, pragmatically, legalising the rhino trade is not viable.

Proponents of the rhino horn trade indeed base their argument on lofty estimates with regards to both the supply and demand for the fingernail-like good (both are made of keratin). The latest estimate of supply made by Taylor et al. is largely limited and there is an evident knowledge gap with regards to accurately project the demand for rhino horn. Thus, the basic economic argument that supply will match demand does not hold true. Without such estimates on demand, we can only turn to lessons from the past with the precedent set by the legalisation of one-off sales of ivory. It then becomes even clearer that legalising the rhino horn is likely to trigger a spike in poaching and a surge in demand for horns, as shown in 2008 sale of ivory.

Let’s face it: the August online auction, slyly directed to international buyers, was a mockery to international CITES law and to any attempt to effectively save rhinos from extinction. Conservationists should rather focus on reducing the ratio of demand over rhino horn supply (Ferreira, Botha and Emmett, 2012), as well as promoting projects based on eco-tourism, following the example of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, which could create incentives for local communities to look after their wildlife.

Further references

  1. Ayling, J. (2013) ‘What Sustains Wildlife Crime? Rhino Horn Trading and the Resilience of Criminal Networks’, Journal of International Wildlife Law & Policy, 16, pp. 57–80. doi: 10.1080/13880292.2013.764776.
  2. Ferreira, S. M., Botha, J. M. and Emmett, M. C. (2012) ‘Anthropogenic Influences on Conservation Values of White Rhinoceros’, Public Library of Science (PLoS) ONE, 7(9), pp. 1–14. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0045989.
  3. Hsiang, S. and Sekar, N. (2016) Does Legalization Reduce Black Market Activity? Evidence from a Global Ivory Experiment and Elephant Poaching Data? Cambridge, MA. Available at: http://www.nber.org/papers/w22314NATIONAL.
  4. Milner-Gulland, E. J., Beddington, J. R. and Leader-Williams, N. (1992) ‘Dehorning African Rhinos: a Model of Optimal Frequency and Profitability’, The Royal Society, 249(1324), pp. 83–87. doi: 10.1098/rspb.1992.0087.
  5. Milliken, T. et al. (2016). ‘Report from the IUCN Species Survival Commission (IUCN SSC) African and Asian Rhino Specialist Groups and TRAFFIC to the CITES Secretariat pursuant to Resolution Conf. 9.14 (Rev. CoP15)’, CoP17 Doc. 68 Annex 5, 1-21. Available at: https://cites.org/sites/default/files/eng/cop/17/WorkingDocs/E-CoP17-68-A5.pdf
  6. Taylor, A. et al. (2017) ‘Sustainable Rhino Horn Production at the Pointy End of the Rhino Horn Trade Debate’, Biological Conservation, 216, pp. 60–68. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2017.10.004.


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