Independence you can trust
24 July 2014 18:49 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

Newspaper sensationalism doesn't help rhinos

  • Ivo Vegter
Shrill hysteria and confused logic is the hallmark of any environmental media campaign. The noise around rhino poaching is becoming a classic example.

I had been planning to address a rather curious bit of logic from Mary Rice, the executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency in the Mail & Guardian 10 days ago.

But before I do so, a little lesson in arithmetic. On Monday morning, South Africa awoke to the “news” that rhinos “will be wiped out from its wildlife parks by 2015 if poaching continues at its current rate.”

Having written on the subject before, I have an idea how many rhinos there are, and how many get poached, so I immediately suspected this to be an alarmist lie.

You see, there is no conceivable definition of “its current rate” that would succeed in achieving quite such a terrible prophecy of doom.

The story, bylined to Claudine Renaud of Sapa-AFP, quoted a seasoned rhino campaigner named Karen Trendler. None of the newspapers that carried the wire story, which included the Mail & Guardian, News24 and Independent Newspapers, bothered to check Trendler’s claim with any other expert, with elementary arithmetic of their own, or, for that matter, with Karen Trendler herself.

Business Report asked Twitter followers: “SA rhinos are in great danger from poaching – what are you doing about it? Why?”

Getting the real facts first, one would hope. If Trendler had really said that, she’d be an alarmist liar. Problem is, she didn’t.

On her Facebook page, Trendler wrote: “Misquoted on media – said we would have no rhino by 2050 and has been misquoted as 2015. Sadly picked up by other media with [sic] them checking and simply cutting and pasting and reprinting.”

Quite. Her number is also suspect, but it is far from alarmist.

Here are the facts, current as of 19 March 2012.

Totals poached from 2008, when the onslaught began, to 2011, are 83, 122, 333 and 448. So far this year, 134 animals have been poached, which amounts to an annualised total of 621. Although poachers aren’t particularly fussy, the loss statistics for black rhino, of which less than 2,000 remain, are in single digits. Even for the relatively healthy white rhino population, however, these numbers, and their apparent relentless growth are troubling.

If we take 621 to be the “current rate”, the four years from 2012 to 2015 will witness the slaughter of 2,484 animals. Not small fry, for sure, but there are 20,700 rhino in South Africa, so the population would not be “wiped out”. In fact, if that rate remains constant, 2043 is the year of doom.

Another way to measure “current rate” is to take into account the growth rate. In the last two years, the compound annual growth rate in poaching has been about 36%. Since poaching took off in 2008, compound growth has been 65%, entirely due to the fact that it tripled between 2009 and 2010. Of course, a four-year trendline is an unreliable basis for a forecast, but that even the lower of these growth rates will persist is far from a given. A higher base usually means lower growth, as it appears to have done in this case. If the present growth rate of 36% per annum continues, we’ll have lost 5,000 animals by the end of 2015, and the entire population by 2020.

The loss of a quarter of the population by 2015 would clearly be a catastrophe if you’re of the view that rhinos ought to be saved from extinction, but it still does not constitute “wiped out”. It still leaves a large herd from which to repopulate our decimated game farms and wildlife parks, provided that we get a handle on poaching in the intervening years.

My calculations suggest that Trendler’s “2050” estimate could be based on a continuation of last year’s total of 448. That’s optimistic, but would see the extinction of rhino by 2055, assuming zero population growth.

To get to a “wiped out” scenario by 2015, as the Sapa wire story wrote and everyone else uncritically accepted, we’d have to presume that the annual growth in the poaching rate more than quadruples, to 175%, from here on in. This is exactly the opposite of what has really been happening. Any editor without a severe hangover should have been able to spot such a serious claim as a likely error.

That rhino won’t be “wiped out” by 2015 is a matter of elementary arithmetic. That not even one of our editors spotted it is the truly alarming fact here.

This case shows how the need for sensationalist headlines on the part of the media latches onto environmental alarmism, perhaps because many journalists share the eco-hysteria whipped up by less scrupulous environmental groups. No wonder environmental groups can expect coverage for just about any claim they make, if even obvious errors are uncritically accepted.

Having cleared Trendler of lying in pursuit of an agenda, let’s stipulate that rhino poaching is a problem in need of urgent policy action. My proposal was to farm them, and leave it up to game farmers to figure out how to make this work. The logic, in large parts coinciding with the thoughts of environmental economist Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, is that “re-educating” millions of Asians who believe it to have medicinal properties is not very realistic, and is also an offensively neo-colonialist approach that we wouldn’t accept if the roles were reversed. In any case, horn has other uses too, which means demand will never disappear. The cutting off of supply, by means of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species has clearly not worked to prevent a sudden resurgence in poaching, and I’ve also called for its repeal. By contrast, private farming has built up a good record in helping to restore the population of the once-endangered white rhino, as ‘t Sas-Rolfes explains.

An objection raised against this idea by Rice is that “legalised trade is a cover for laundering wildlife”. The reasoning goes that if there is a legal market, it only serves to stimulate demand, and it will be harder to detect poached animals and animal products, and therefore we should just leave all trade in rhino products to be illegal.

Besides repeating the obvious point that such a ban has not worked in the past, there’s a deeper problem with this reasoning. She says that elephant poaching has also risen in recent years, which proves that the limited trade that has been permitted has been an “unmitigated failure”.

This is a false analysis, on four levels. First, once off sales of ivory stockpiles, which is what Rice refers to, do not amount to “legalising trade”. The market quickly prices in such once-off sales, and absent a reliable future supply, it won’t do much beyond putting a short-term dent in black-market prices.

It is unreasonable to expect such a strictly limited policy to have the same effect as the establishment of a fully legal industry in which privately-owned animals can be farmed for their varied commercial value. Conversely, the failure of once-off sales to halt poaching cannot be extrapolated to imply that fully legal trade would be an “unmitigated failure”.

All that can be deduced from these once-off ivory sales is that it makes it harder to maintain a total ban. This states the obvious, of course, since it now requires customers, traders and suppliers to distinguish between legal and illegal ivory.

That brings us to the second point on which Rice’s analysis is flawed. Her reasoning makes about as much sense as an argument that goes: because there is a market in stolen cars, we must ban all cars. It is true that the existence of legal cars makes it harder to spot illegal cars, and if, by contrast, all vehicles are stolen, it would make it easier to spot them and act against the thieves. This is a trivial truism, and it betrays a hopelessly simplistic grasp of economics. It is not very pragmatic as government policy.

Third, assuming that a trade ban – that is, a cut-off of supply – results in a reduction in demand is illogical on the face of it. If you ban cars, that’s not going to reduce demand for them. Unfulfilled demand will be diverted to other modes of transport, but it will return as soon as cars are legalised once more. That it does return is not a case of “stimulating demand”. It’s a case of supplying demand that was always present.

Fourth, and most importantly, the proximate cause of the rise in elephant poaching may have very little to do with the once-off sales. There’s nothing in her analysis, other than the flawed demand stimulus notion, that draws a causal connection. There are a number of factors that could well have contributed – including the pre-existence of rhino poaching syndicates, who’ll have simple business reasons for wanting to make more efficient use of their expensive helicopters, night-vision gear, hunting rifles and distribution networks.

But even if poaching did rise as a direct consequence of the existence of a legal trade, it would not be as much of a problem for a healthy population. It is obviously not desirable, nor should it be legal, but it doesn’t threaten the survival of the species as rhino poaching today threatens the survival of the species despite a zealously enforced ban on rhino horn trade.

Imagine a potential rhino farmer. Instead of being stuck with an animal worth R100,000 on the open market, though it carries a horn worth R2.5-million that has value only to poachers, legal trade in rhino products gives potential farmers an incentive to protect them. The problem of poaching then becomes as much part of ordinary farming as it is today for cattle and sheep. Of course legalising trade doesn’t stop poaching entirely. Legalised trade in wool and meat doesn’t stop sheep rustling, and legalised trade in cars doesn’t stop their theft and use in criminal enterprises.

However, legal trade would change the risk-reward analysis for poachers, reducing the cost of protection for farmers. In the context of a healthy, sustainable population maintained by farmers with the economic incentive to protect their herds, poaching wouldn’t be the existential crisis for the species it is today. DM


  • Ivo Vegter
IvoVegterBW

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He approaches issues from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He grew up in the deep south of Johannesburg, and learnt his politics reading the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad at Wits University during the early years of the country's transition to democracy. He recently left the city for the lower cost of living of Knysna, where he continues to write about everything under the sun. He is always right.

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