Horn harvesting: Is it enough to save the rhino?

Nick Harvey 8 October 2014

In Britain today we are bombarded by constant demands for our attention and money from charities and good causes that we have become desensitized to the phrases and adverts that they  use. When was the last time that you really thought about a slogan like ‘Let’s Beat Cancer Sooner’ or a television advert that shows sick children in Africa? Despite the pangs of guilt it gives me, I know that I rarely give them a second thought.  It’s like when you say a word over and over again until it doesn’t sound like a word anymore, but on a societal scale.

How about the slogan ‘Save the Rhino’? The one that memorably appears every year emblazoned on someone that runs the marathon in that crazy costume. Rhinos are just one of hundreds of species that are in decline, in danger of extinction and in desperate need of conservation efforts. So why should ‘Save the Rhino’ be a slogan that we pay attention to? Most modern conservation issues are so difficult to resolve due to conflicts between endangered species and people that are, more often than not, poor farmers in developing countries. This isn’t the case for rhinos; instead rhino poaching is funded by demand for rhino horn in Far East Asia, particularly Vietnam. It is used in traditional Chinese medicine and has been touted as a cure for everything from fever to gout to devil possession. Rhino horn is made of keratin, the same protein that is in your hair and nails. So, unsurprisingly, it has no medical benefit whatsoever. Despite this, its use is still widespread; in fact demand for it has actually increased recently as it is becoming a status symbol. As an expensive commodity, people own it and gift it to show how wealthy and important they are. It is not as if rhinos are killed by poor farmers in a desperate attempt to protect their livelihoods, as is found with elephants. Instead, rich people in far off countries fund the brutal killing of these animals to boost their egos, or for false health benefits. Current efforts at stemming the flow of rhino horn from Africa to East Asia, which include a mix of education in East Asia and field conservation in Africa, do not appear to be working. Poaching is rife and in South Africa, the primary custodian of Africa’s rhinos, rhinos are killed at a rate of three every day. Over 1000 rhinos were killed in total in Africa last year. Simple arithmetic will tell you how long we will have these animals for when you consider that there are 25,000 left.

But maybe there is another solution. For the last few years a debate has been raging over whether or not a legal trade in rhino horn should be set up. Thus national parks and reserves could be licensed to dehorn their rhinos and sell the horn overseas. Remarkably, studies have shown that dehorning rhinos brings up few, if any welfare issues. The process doesn’t harm the animals; it is like cutting a nail, albeit a very big one. So, instead of allowing animals to be killed and all the profit going to poachers and criminal rings, why not harvest the horn in a safe way and allow the money to go to African countries which desperately need it. The arguments are strikingly similar to those used for and against legalising drugs.  In theory, a heavily controlled and properly regulated trade could, in a stroke, meet Asian demand, stop poaching and generate desperately needed money for conservation. Flooding the market could drive down prices and reduce incentives for poachers whilst giving rhinos a real monetary value. In a capitalist system, the mantra ‘what pays, stays’ is somewhat depressing but no less true for that. The other benefit is that rhino horns grow throughout the animals’ lives. Therefore, individuals retain a value all their lives so they won’t be euthanized after being dehorned.

Whilst this plan may seem like a silver bullet, many people argue against it. Allowing a legal trade in rhino horn would appear to be an admission that there must be some merit to using it in traditional medicine. This would undermine the concerted effort being undertaken to reduce demand by trying to dispel this belief and potentially boost demand. Most of the other objections revolve around Africa’s rather patchy record when it comes to corruption. If authorities cannot police the current ban, how can they be expected to be able to regulate a legal trade. There is also no guarantee that any profits made or tax revenue generated would go towards conservation rather than lining the pockets of local or national politicians. These same politicians, if given control of the trade, would be able to regulate the amount of horn that enters the market. It would be in their interests to limit the supply, keeping prices high and maximising revenue. This would mean that the incentive for poaching would remain.

The debate over whether a legal rhino horn trade would do more good or harm is unresolved, but it illustrates an important theme in contemporary conservation. Traditional conservationists are often loathe to support any conservation efforts that put a monetary value on a species. They think that all species have their own intrinsic value and that if we begin giving species price tags then only those which can make a profit will be conserved. As admirable as this is, these views are not held by everyone, and modern conservation has to become more pragmatic as it slowly is. The realisation is dawning that probably the only way to conserve a meaningful portion of the  world’s biodiversity is to open the door to capitalism and make economists and business realise they can make or save money by caring for the environment. Money makes the world go round, whether we like it or not and conservation is no exception.