Rhino horns of a trade dilemma: A summary of the anti- & pro-trade arguments

Rhino horns of a trade dilemma: A summary of the anti- & pro-trade arguments

Magnificent rhino. (Photo credit: Fortunate M. Phaka)
Magnificent rhino. (Photo credit: Fortunate M. Phaka)

It is always good to hear both sides of the story and it is also fair to both parties involved. There’s currently a debate raging on about whether or not legalising trade in horn will be a good move in the fight against rhino poaching. The South African government has made no secret of their intentions to legalise rhino horn, much to the disapproval of many environmentalists. With just a couple of days before World Rhino Day and also the Global March For Elephants, Rhinos and Lions it will be good to know what we are for when are fighting the good fight. Here’s a 7-point summary of anti and pro-trade arguments so that we all know what is at stake.

Pro-trade arguments:

  • Bans are ineffective

International trade in rhino horn was banned in the 1970’s and this ban has had the same effect as the prohibition of alcohol did in the US by creating a black market. Banning trade has only contributed to increasing poaching as also evidenced by South Africa’s ban of domestic trade in rhino horn being followed by a spike in poaching.  The use of rhino horn in Traditional Chinese Medicine has been banned by the Chinese government since 1993 yet China continues to be one of the largest consumers of rhino horn. Bans are ineffective and the only logical way to save rhinos is through legalized trade and a heavily regulated market. Despite the international ban rhinos are being killed at alarming rates as trade is driven by criminal syndicates. Legalising trade will take away control of trade from black markets and let regulated markets take over thus crippling criminal syndicates and curbing rhino poaching.

  • It is impossible to change cultures that are centuries old

Education and awareness efforts have not succeeded in changing the cultural perceptions of people that consume rhino horn and believe it has medicinal properties. Eastern cultures that consume rhino horn are centuries old and it almost impossible to change a culture that has stood the test of time. Some of these cultures are also known to have little regard for human life so it is unlikely that they will value the life of an animal and change their perceptions towards rhinos.

  • All other methods have failed, sustainable utilisation is the only option

The ban on international trade of rhino horn and all other interventions, including anti-poaching units and awareness campaigns, have failed to effectively protect rhinos. Sustainable utilisation of rhinos is the only logical option left to save rhinos. Sustainable utilisation requires legalizing trade and has been proven in the past to be effective as seen with animals such as ostriches, crocodiles and others. Sustainable use of South America’s vicugna has resulted in the animal being saved from extinction while contributing to conservation and alleviating poverty, the same can be achieved with rhinos through legalisation of trade.

  • Rhino horn is a renewable resource

For as long as the rhino is alive its horn will never stop growing. For this reason rhino horn can be sustainably utilised by harvesting it regularly through dehorning without killing the animal. When harvesting you get about 30 to 60 kilograms of rhino horn from a single rhino that is kept alive. Through poaching or pseudo hunting you only get about 1-3kg and at times even 6kg from a full grown adult and the rhino is killed. Dehorning also reduces incentive for poachers to kill the animal as it will not have its sought-after horn. Poaching will also be brought down by the possibility of obtaining rhino horn under legal circumstances.  Rhinos will no longer be sold for sport hunting as they would more be valuable alive than dead due to their continuous horn production. Dehorning rhino for the harvest poses little threat, if any, to the rhino’s welfare.

  • No other form of agriculture can be as productive as rhino farming

Rhino farming yields more profit per hectare than any other form of agriculture. Rhino horn is estimated to grow at a rate of 700 grams to 1 kilogram per year. Rhino horn currently costs more than gold per kilogram. South Africa is also estimated to have over 20 tonnes of rhino horn in their stockpiles. This could potentially translate into large revenues should trade in rhino horn be legalised. The money will contribute to poverty alleviation and can be put back into conservation. The revenue generated can also be used to invest in DNA identification technology that would be used to minimise laundering of illegal rhino horn with legal supply.

  • Flooding the market with legal rhino horn will reduce pressure on rhinos

Flooding the market with horn gained through sustainable utilisation of rhinos will reduce the price of the horn. This would simultaneously reduce incentives for poachers to kill rhinos. Rhinos will not have to die for their horn and will generally be worth more as each rhino will be producing more than one horn in its lifetime. Flooding the market would then give rhinos real value and increase incentives to protect them. Consumers will opt for the cheaper, legal rhino as opposed to buying poached rhino horn and risk possible prosecution. This will lead to consumers abandoning illegal markets in favour of legal markets.

  • Animal rights activists are unreasonable

Most animal rights activists are anti-killing and they are also anti-trade in rhino. This makes no sense since legalisation of trade requires no killing but is a form sustainable utilisation while poaching continues to kill many rhinos. Most animal rights activists think with their hearts and not their heads while it is tangible solutions that will save rhinos not emotions.

Anti-trade arguments:

  • Authorities will not be able to handle legal trade

Authorities are struggling to effectively enforce the current international ban on trade in rhino horn or any other legislation that prohibits illegal trade in rhino horn. Allowing trade will put more pressure on already ineffective law enforcement. This would make it difficult to police the legal trade or prevent the trade from laundering illegal horn. It will not be easy to differentiate between legal and illegal rhino horns. Identification methods such as DNA fingerprinting of horns are still mostly developing. Legalizing trade will increase the need to identify individual rhino horns and put the task beyond capabilities of current identification methods. This then gives criminal syndicates a loop-hole through which they can legally sell their horn.

  • Illegal trade will always undercut legal trade

Illegal wildlife traders or criminal syndicates will always undercut legal harvesters of wildlife products as poaching is cheaper than game farming .Illegal traders will also compete for their market share and not just react passively to the introduction of legal trade. Maintaining a game farm or game reserve involves all sorts of costs from rent to vet bills. On the other hand poaching has little running costs and thus more profitable. Legal trade could also reduce the cost of supplying illegal rhino horn by making it easier to get the product into the market.

  • Legal trade will have unpredictable effects

It is impossible to predict how consumers and illegal traders of rhino horn will react to legal trade of the product. Illegal and legal markets could coexist in complex, unpredictable ways. Legal rhino horn trade could potentially stimulate more demand. Legal trade could reduce the stigma attached to consumption of rhino horn and render efforts to dispel the misconceptions around rhino horn useless. The small amount of rhinos left today in contrast to the high population of East Asian countries means that demand will never be able to meet potential supply. Legalising trade would also require down-listing rhinos from their current conservation status which could be dangerous considering their dwindling numbers and they will no longer have the protection the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) regulations affords species in their current conservation status.

  • Pro-traders have unrealistic ambitions

It makes no sense to attempt to reduce demand by trying to change misconceptions of consumer countries while at the same time legalising trade and supplying more of the same product you are trying to stop people from consuming. Simply put, trying to reduce demand while increasing supply is counter-intuitive. The economic worth of current stockpiles is overestimated. According to CITES regulations proof that rhino horn was legally obtained is required before any horn can be sold. The origin of most rhino horns in South Africa’s stockpiles is not known which means they cannot be sold under CITES regulations and this makes the projected value of current stockpiles significantly lower than estimated. If these regulations are waived to allow sale of these stockpiles then criminal syndicates could have a loop-hole for selling their illegally acquired rhino horn.

  • Timing

South Africa’s proposal to legalise trade in rhino horn will most likely be considered by CITES in 2016. Getting through the formalities of setting up legal trade in rhino horn could possibly take up to 6 or even 10 years. By the time measures to legally sell rhino horn are in place there could possibly be no rhino left to harvest horn from. Commitment to effective anti-poaching efforts will be relatively quicker than legalising trade.

  • Equality issues of the pro-trade argument

Most people that advocate for the legalisation of rhino horn trade have vested economic interests and stand to gain the most from the trade. For most pro-trade lobbyists legalizing trade is all about the money to be made with rhino safety and security being a coincidence of legal trade in rhino horn. Rhino farming is big business which is why most private rhino owners are pro-trade and the pro-trade lobby has so much strength behind it. There are no clearly defined paths through which revenue from legal trade will be put back into conservation or help alleviate poverty thus private owners stand to profit the most. South Africa is currently the only country lobbying for legal trade in rhino horn. This could mean they will be the only country allowed to legally trade in rhino horn and profit from it. There is no equality in certain people and countries benefiting from legal trade in rhino horn while others don not.

  • Rhino Farming pitfalls

Dehorning rhinos is not right as rhinos need their horns for things such as defence. If rhinos did not need horns then they would not have them as nature discards what it does not need. Rhino farming makes no sense since rhinos are normally not herd animals like cows are. Overstocking land for rhino farming increases the risk and spread of disease. Rhino farming makes no ecological sense as ecosystems need a diversity of species to remain healthy and overstocking land for rhino farming could compromise ecosystems as diversity will be reduced.

Quote from savetherhino.org:

“The debate over whether or not to legalise the trade in rhino horn tends to polarise opinion. Let’s start with the two central tenets that people in all camps can agree on. Firstly, we all want to see more rhinos in more viable populations in the wild. Secondly, we all accept that there is no silver bullet that will solve the rhino poaching crisis: legal trade on its own will not work; anti-poaching patrols on their own will not work. So the question should really be: what combination of approaches should we adopt to ensure that rhino numbers and rhino population numbers continue to grow?”

– Fortunate M. Phaka

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