Greed beats logic: why a legal rhino horn trade won’t work

All about the money? Rhino awareness graffiti by street artist Faktor in Port Elizabeth, South Africa

All about the money? Rhino awareness graffiti by street artist Faktor in Port Elizabeth, South Africa

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It’s nearly three full years until the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP17) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) takes place in South Africa.

Yet a propaganda battle – or charm offensive, if you’re feeling expansive – is already under way in a bid to win over hearts and wallets if not minds to secure international approval for a legal trade in rhino horn, overturning a ban which has been in place for more than 30 years.

Edna Molewa, via World Economic Forum

Edna Molewa, via World Economic Forum

Edna Molewa, South Africa’s Water and Environmental Affairs Minister, and her delegation were doing the groundwork for a horn trading mechanism at CITES CoP16 in Bangkok this March.

She was quoted in the press as stating: “We believe it is the right direction as one of the measures [to curb rhino poaching]. The model that we have is based on pure law of supply and demand. Economics 101. Our rhinos are killed every day and the numbers are going up. The reality is that we have done all in our power and doing the same thing every day isn’t working.

“We do think that we need to address this issue of trade in a controlled manner so that we can at least begin to push down this pressure.”

It’s a stretch of the imagination to conceive that Molewa and her colleagues in Government aren’t seriously considering pressing their home advantage when CoP17 rolls into Durban.

And they’re not alone. Private rhino farmers in South Africa comprise a powerful lobby, and have also begun to implement their own strategies to pave the way for legalising a trade in rhino horn, touting the move as the only viable way of saving the rhino from extinction in the face of appalling, and rising, levels of poaching (as of May 30, a total of 367 rhino have been poached – 247 of them in the Kruger National Park).

But, to paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davies, ‘they would, wouldn’t they?

For years, many rhino farmers have been dehorning their animals as an anti-poaching safeguard, but instead of destroying the legally worthless horn they’ve been storing it in bank vaults in anticipation of the day they’ll be able to sell it, leaving some of them sat on stockpiles which could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars if allowed onto the market.

The pro-trade lobby’s arguments are simple enough, albeit freighted with a horrible sense of déjà vu: efforts to curb poaching are failing due to huge demand from Asia, so the best way to preserve rhinos is to flood the market with the huge stockpiles of horn via a well-controlled legal trade, thereby satiating demand it and undermining the black market.

Rhino killed by poachers for its horn (c) EIA

Rhino killed by poachers for its horn (c) EIA

There just one major problem with this scenario – it’s fundamentally flawed and won’t work, as history makes abundantly clear.

Much the same case was advanced in favour of allowing CITES-sanctioned ivory stockpile auctions to go ahead, undermining the 1989 ivory trade ban. And if the evidence of rocketing levels of elephant slaughter in recent years isn’t sufficient indication of the failure of this strategy, the evidence against it mounted even further recently when the Chinese media reported the conviction of a Government-accredited ivory trader in Fujian and his accomplices for their role in an international ivory trafficking scheme that smuggled nearly eight tonnes of ivory out of Kenya, Tanzania, and Nigeria.

This system failure was so colossal that even wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, which officially endorsed China’s legal ivory trade system, had to respond in a press release: “The magnitude of these seizures is a shocking blow to the integrity of China’s legal ivory trade system and demonstrates the need for an independent audit to be carried out.”

The fact is that a legal ivory trade has done nothing to stem poaching but has instead directly helped stimulate demand, confuse consumers, and provide the perfect cover for poached ivory to be laundered onto the market. Furthermore, it provided the Government of China with an opportunity to effectively cash in as it bought Africa’s ivory cheap and sold it on to its own domestic carvers and dealers at a huge mark-up.

The ugly mercantile philosophy of ‘sell it to save it’ has had a spin of the wheel and has been a demonstrable, undeniable failure. Why should a legalised trade in rhino horn be any different?

With a few notable exceptions, it’s fair to say that South Africa has a poor record of enforcing CITES recommendations and protecting its iconic wildlife. Under the guise of legitimate legal hunting, it has recently presided over the farcical and clearly criminal phenomena of ‘pseudo hunting’ in which middlemen arranged permits for Thai bar workers and other individuals to hunt rhino; the resulting ‘trophies’ could then be legally exported, most often to Vietnam.

And Vietnam is, by and large, the main driver for the current slaughter of rhinos.

Accounts vary as to how and why this is, but the story usually goes that sometime in the latter half of the past decade a senior politician or other public figure in Vietnam was dying from cancer and given weeks to live – but after ingesting powdered rhino horn, the condition miraculously went into remission and the patient fully recovered. As with any urban myth, attempts to track the story to its source have been unsuccessful.

It would have to be a miraculous cure indeed, since rhino horn is effectively made of the same stuff as your own fingernails, primarily composed of keratin and without any medical value; in short, it’s a scam of the kind practiced on the gullible by Victorian quack doctors.

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Vietnamese woman preparing rhino horn in grinding bowl (c) Brent Stirton

Vietnamese woman preparing rhino horn in grinding bowl (c) Brent Stirton

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In traditional medicine, rhino horn has been prescribed for just about everything, from curing demonic possession and warding off evil spirits and miasmas to treating hallucinations and bad dreams, boosting the body’s robustness and treating typhoid, headache, feverish colds, carbuncles, boils and fevers. It has also been used to expel fear and anxiety, to calm the liver and clear the vision, as a sedative to the viscera, as a tonic and to combat infantile convulsions, dysentery, vomiting, food poisoning, drugs overdoses, arthritis, melancholia and loss of the voice.

More recently, horn has been found to be sold as a ‘club drug’, a hangover prevention and cure (again, unproven) for the nouveau riche; would the people of South Africa really be happy to see their rhinos going to meet such a utterly shameful use?

But medical chimera or not, the belief in the efficacy of rhino horn in Vietnam is unlikely to go away any time soon. Against a background of considerable environmental pollution – in part from the US military’s widespread dumping of defoliant during the Vietnam War and in part from the country’s own ‘anything goes’ industrialisation in more recent years – Vietnam has one of the world’s highest cancer mortality rates.

It also has only a handful of medical centres treating cancers, with widespread poverty preventing most people from seeking diagnosis, let alone treatment; it’s perhaps not surprising that so many Vietnamese will take a chance on a folk remedy when they’ve no other choice.

So what message would a legal trade in rhino horn send out if South Africa gets its way?

For starters, it would effectively be legitimising a huge transnational crime, rewarding the kingpins and middle men for their persistence in outlasting the forces of law and order.

Perhaps more insidiously, a legal trade would be tantamount to telling the Vietnamese what so many of them want to hear due to a lack of medical options – ‘Yes, you can now legally purchase and take rhino horn for your cancer or other ailment’ – effectively scamming them afresh, but this time with the legitimacy of international approval.

Rhinoceros horn ready for grinding and consumption (c) Thang Nguyen

Rhinoceros horn ready for grinding and consumption (c) Thang Nguyen

Under a legal trade in horn, rhinos will continue to die to meet a demand for a ‘miracle cure’ that will continue to do nothing for those using it except let them continue to die also.

There’s so much more the Government of South Africa can do before it ventures down the road of turning one of the world’s most ancient surviving mammals into a commodity as if it were no more than a head of lettuce.

For starters, it could publicly cremate all rhino horn stockpiles, sending a very public message to the people of Vietnam that it’s worthless.

And it should be working at an international level to pursue and bring down the main players behind the trade with intelligence-driven operations, instead of seeking new ways to hammer the poachers – the most easily replaceable foot soldiers in the illegal trade – not to mention bringing pressure to bear on Vietnam and transit countries to expose official corruption and ensure their borders are more than lines on a map as far as smugglers are concerned.

South Africa is a long way from exhausting all its options in fighting the rhino wars – and throwing in the towel to cash-in on the desperation and ignorance of the Vietnamese should never have been on the table in the first place.

 

Paul Newman, Press OfficerPaul Newman
Press & Communications Officer

  • I absolutely agree with every word Paul. This is the honest truth and yet the South African Government and a few dozen greedy men are determined to carry on with this ridiculous notion of rhino horn trade. I sincerely hope that any proposal to trade horn is soundly rejected at Cop17 and that the Southern White is uplifted to Appendix I. We have to send out a clear message that rhino horn is off the menu FOREVER.
    Rhino SOS SA

  • Superb article. All points covered. Agree with everything. Interesting that the biggest rhino farmer refuses to go down the horn treatment avenue even after losing 3 rhino earlier this month – just goes to show he is interested in his rhino for monetary value, nothing more, nothing less. Coincidentally this recent poaching occurred on the very night a press crew arrived for a filming the following day. This farm has the tightest security and hasn’t had a poaching incident for several years.

  • Samantha Dark

    A wonderful article. It makes me sick that so much ignorance and greed surrounds this issue. With a clear, concise and continuous argument for an outright ban there might be a glimmer of hope for Africa’s precious rhino and elephant. Keep up the good work everyone!

  • This article enforces all the points I bring up when arguing with the ProTrade Lobby. I am glad that I am not the only one that thinks legalising the trade in rhino horn will make the situation worse for the rhino, not better, as some would have you believe. The last sentence of the article says it all. But yeah, the Protrade lobby is blinded by greed, their motivation is money, nothing else.

    • Gerald Thompson

      I really take exception to your final sentence – Rhino conservation has already absorbed a huge amount of money AND resulted in many deaths of both rangers and poachers. The farmers currently get little for their efforts and the rangers who put their bodies on the line are not particularly well remunerated either.

      • lisa gallazzi

        I take exception to your comments – The only reason we have Rhino conservation is because of the greed and bloodlust of the humans who are massacring our Rhino for their horns!!!! The farmers – well lets be realistic are sitting on stock piles of iVORY and if they get their way and the trade goes legal they stand to make millions – if it doesn’t go legal they still can sell on the black market – there is only 1 reason they farm Rhino and we all know for why & what $$$$$$$ …. As for the poachers – who gives a shit about these pieces of scum …… can kill pregnant Rhino leave calves to die and take the faces off elephants for their tusks …. to be shot is not enough punishment for these people and thats the risk they take… The only people suffering here are the RANGERS who put the lives on the line to STAND up for whats right in a WORLD that has gone consumer crazy – The lives of all other species on this planet no longer matters – only what we can take from them and how much we can make from them …….. the end is nigh #savetherhino

      • lisa gallazzi

        The only reason we have Rhino conservation is because of the greed and bloodlust of the humans who are massacring our Rhino for their horns!!!! The farmers – well lets be realistic are sitting on stock piles of iVORY and if they get their way and the trade goes legal they stand to make millions – if it doesn’t go legal they still can sell on the black market – there is only 1 reason they farm Rhino and we all know for why & what $$$$$$$ …. As for the poachers – who gives a shit about these pieces of scum …… can kill pregnant Rhino leave calves to die and take the faces off elephants for their tusks …. to be shot is not enough punishment for these people and thats the risk they take… The only people suffering here are the RANGERS who put the lives on the line to STAND up for whats right in a WORLD that has gone consumer crazy – The lives of all other species on this planet no longer matters – only what we can take from them and how much we can make from them …….. the end is nigh #savetherhino

        • Gerald Thompson

          Gosh – that is quite a tirade. I don’t accept that it is “bloodlust” massacring the Rhino but “greed” certainly has a part to play in it. Farmers are NOT sitting on stocks of Ivory or horn as it has to be lodged with Government organisations. There are successful criminal cases against people who have traded in both (yes you will always have a bad apples, that is why strict penalties must be maintained)

          ALL of the poachers killed have been poor tribesmen who are tempted into poaching by financial temptation so I do have sympathy for them. Would it not be better for tax generation and financial mobility to create employment.

          The crux of the matter is that the Rhino is worth more dead than it is alive – THAT is the situation that needs to be flipped on its head.

  • There is a difference between stopping rhino poaching and preventing rhino from becoming extinct. Perhaps Minister Molewa and her cabinet have forgotten this. Legal trade in rhino horn will not stop poaching or wildlife crime, as you’ve clearly explained, but it could prevent the southern white rhino from becoming extinct. At a terrible cost. Rhino will live in captivity in zoos and on farms, be bred like cows and harvested like sheep. They will not be rhino in anything but name alone. Some private farmers and government officials will make a lot of money, and much of it will be spent on rhino security to prevent poachers from looting their valuable stock. The SA government and private farmers are living in dreamland of they think they can manage and enforce a legal trade free from corruption and abuse. Appendix I, political will, and strict international enforcement are the only hope for rhino. And Minister Molewa’s resignation.

    • Gerald Thompson

      “….political will, and strict international enforcement are the only hope for rhino”

      Get your head out of the clouds, it won’t happen. No – the only hope for the rhino are market forces acting in its favour

  • Gerald Thompson

    You cannot compare legalising Elephant tusk sales with the Rhino Farming as the elephant must be killed for the tusk to be removed so cannot be “farmed” in the sense proposed where the rhino is harvested on a regular basis WITHOUT killing him. It is clear reading between the lines that your readers are of the impression that a Rhino is killed to acquire the horn. The Ivory relaxation WAS flawed because there was not a continious source of material unlike the Rhino which has a perpetual un-lethal source.

    This must be a multiple pronged strategy and education of the current consumer has got to be a major factor in order to reduce or even better eliminate the demand and perhaps that is the direction you should be targeting your vitriol.
    Conservation groups are outlaying a fortune, never mind their lives to keep the rhino alive and it is time the rhino contributed to its own survival. Funds and manpower are being diverted from many other aspects of conservation to protect the rhino and it is time that that the “poor little thing” attitude is put to bed and people see the trees in the wood.

    • eia

      The rhino is in such dire straits because it has been viciously exploited for commerce over the years – now it has to be further exploited just to be allowed to continue to exist?

      Understandably, that’s not an argument to which EIA (or, indeed, any rational conservation body) would subscribe.

      And we sincerely believe the legalised trade in ivory is a valid comparison because it is this very legalisation which drove soaring demand and led to higher rates of poaching to meet it … and you will be aware that poachers do not harvest rhino horn in a non-lethal manner.

      • Gerald Thompson

        Lets look at another example. In the 50’s-60’s there was burgeoning trade in wild crocodile pelts to satisfy the American and European market. Crocodile farming has eliminated this wild killing of the animal and the regulations requires that 4% of progeny be returned to the wild. This has resulted in an increase of the wild population to the extent that this regulation has been suspended. Despite this 1.4 million pelts were marketed last year.

        Although the croc must be killed to obtain the pelt, this should not be compared to legalising ivory as the regeneration rate of crocs is far greater than an elephant. Elephant simply take too long to generate a viable product that “farming” is not an option in the true sense. What occurred with the ivory was the sale of stocks from culling operations, poacher confiscations and natural deaths. There is no continuity of supply so WAS WRONG.

        The farming must only be one part of a multi-pronged program to beat the market however there are recent reports of rhino horn figurines being offered on the Chinese market in competition to the traditional ivory. If that develops then an even bigger problem will rear its ugly head under the current scenario. If the rhino horn could be channelled to that then it may reduce the demand for ivory.

        • Gerald Thompson

          “…and you will be aware that poachers do not harvest rhino horn in a non-lethal manner.”

          You are quite correct – a poacher kills the animal , a farmer will anaesthetise the rhino, remove the horn and he will be up and about, none the wiser in 45 minutes

  • A voice of truth & morals .. very easy to respond to this article..its bang on the “Money” … Cant fault it.. completely agree…

  • Exploitation of crocodiles and alligators to satisfy a market for their pelts doesn’t really equate to the situation for rhinos. Crocodilian pelts never generated the kind of revenue that rhino horn does, i.e. croc pelts don’t generate enough money to motivate poachers continuing to take the risk in the face of a legal market and a viable, sustained source for pelts. Rhino horn, on the other hand, does. If people would have stockpiled rhino horn agreed to sell their stockpiles for 5 US$ a kg, then somewhere within that notion we might be looking at a viable solution. In the face of prices that low, vendors of illegally obtained rhino horn would never be able to justify the kind of price they have been charging, and the “status market” in Vietnam would disappear.

  • it’s also not clear to me why people who suggest that private owners need to generate revenue from the rhinos in their possession seem to think that selling rhino horn is the only way to do that. A number of the private reserves that hold rhinos also host tourists – doesn’t that generate revenue, and doesn’t the presence of rhinos at the reserve add to the appeal to tourists? I’m sure creative minds can come up with additional ways that rhinos can and/or do generate revenue for private holder yet don’t feed a market that puts them at risk.

    • Gerald Thompson

      That is correct but virtually every rhino in that situation has a 24 hour guard because they are solitary animals not in herds. I’d personally prefer to see them in the wild habitat so how do you propose to decrease the attraction posed by that horn? As you say the price of the horn must be reduced to a level that it is uneconomic to poach the animal with the threat of major punishment maintained. The wild population could be further stimulated by requiring a %’ge of progeny be returned to the wild. Fortunately Rhino are very easy to release unlike a carnavore.

      As I said before – it is vital that the live rhino becomes more valuable than a dead rhino. I personally prefer to see a live rhino without a horn than a dead rhino with a bleeding stump.

  • Thanks Paul. It really appears that the only ones to benefit from the sale of rhino horn are the rhino owners.
    Thoughts that support your stand on this hot topic.
    http://www.nikela.org/blog/why-legalizing-the-trade-of-rhino-horn-is-only-good-for-their-owners

    • Gerald Thompson

      I find it incredible that a person can advocate poisoning the rhino horn and releasing it onto the market. He should be considered a mass murderer. Quite obviously not worth responding to.

      • Trevor

        What about the mass murder of Rhino and other wildlife

  • Trevor

    South Africa are we going to allow countries that have the very worst possible human and animal rights continue this consumption of Africa’s precious little left wildlife? What did we fight for, did we not know how China and Vietnam have treated their own kind and wildlife, will we allow them to wave the big stick and prevent the Dali Lama from visiting again in the future.
    We should all be ashamed. Rhino and Elephant have every right to exist for their own sake. Enough is enough.

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