Newspaper sensationalism doesn't help rhinos
- Ivo Vegter
- 20 Mar 2012 08:08 (South Africa)
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
- How to kill a baby, naturally!
- Miserere mei, the Ebocalypse is here!
- Advanced technology or magic?
- Tourism: Still doing okay? Let’s fix that!
- Green-left messiah desperately seeking spin-doctor
- The gun genie and its bottle
- On energy, environment, and regulatory independence
- South Africa’s schools of witchcraft and wizardry
- Grab shale gas opportunity, but avoid opportunism
- It’s about who you don’t vote for
- Free markets as a moderate position
- Voting: there’s still time to change your mind
- Green tech is cool, but not because it’s green
- How Mmusi Maimane swindled a vote out of me
- The case to elect Malema to Parliament
- The intellectual gnome, Chomsky
- If Malema isn’t Pol Pot, is he still dangerous?
- Do Malema's followers understand ‘agrarian reform’?
- Look ma, I'm defending Shell's record in Nigeria!
- Any weather is evidence for global warming
- U-turn prof finds his fracking fears are avoidable
- Ramphele et al: The world according to angry feminists
- On HIV/Aids and scary-big numbers
- Cherry-picking ‘grey literature’ on rhino horn
- 350,000 reasons to kill a black rhino
- Eight myths about libertarians
- New Year’s resolutions for other people
- All I want for Christmas is a fire pool
- In defence of Donald Trump
- My old South African flag
- Fearful Fukushima fiction fatigue
- Do we tolerate private sector corruption?
- In defence of a lion killer
- Save the rare wine and endangered craft beer
- Forever blowing bubbles: shale gas economics
- Promotion and Protection of Investment Bill: When “certainty” means “wait and see”
- This land is my land: a revolution
- The launch of SA's Libertarian Party: herding cats in time for 2014
- The African case against the ICC
- The fossil fuel subsidy myth
- Think of the little fishies!
- The hilariously misunderstood libertarian
- The sickly history of sweeteners
- Pants on fire, but they’re not mine
- The obstructionism of shale gas activists
- How mind-numbing numbers whip up fear
- Why pick on Khanyi Dhlomo?
- Half-measures will fail the rhino
- Malema’s righteous anger... and naïve confusion
- Lottery licence to go to one lucky winner
- Vaccinations: when the state stabs the people
- Do reusable shopping bags kill people?
- The long walk to serfdom
- The Karoo desperately needs development
- The trials of Samson Shuttleworth
- The girl who kicked the hornet’s nest
- Raping the discourse about rape
- Who is the reasonable man?
- Fracking: Debating a big deal
- Who needs the Queen’s English?
- Electric cars: Taking from the poor to give to the rich
- Business Licensing Bill: An indefensible defence
- Red-tape tourism
- The Big Business Bribery Bill
- On Thatcher and society, Vavi and the market
- Extinction: Let’s make up numbers and panic!
- Feeding the world is getting easier
- Stop talking shit: Build your own toilet
- Climate change is pseudo-science
- Anti-competitive competition law
- The Department of Less Government
- An open letter to President Zuma
- In defence of Kim Kardashian
- The world’s weirdest wildlife sanctuary
- Boycott calls are simple-minded
- In defence of vegans
- The population explosion implodes
- Environmental backpedalling picks up pace
- How Mangaung can help and hinder entrepreneurs
- The elusive libertarian enclave
- The Gathering: Ivo Vegter
- The hidden overemployment crisis
- The case for constructive environmentalism
- Privatise the Western Cape's shacks
- Tenders: Not open to employees or their families
- Hurricanes fuel climate sensationalism
- Next: Gross-out warnings on food
- No new deal: The failure of Zumanomics
- Benoni has a bright idea
- Was I wrong about acid rain?
- Public food gardens: Where dumb ideas thrive
- Rethinking the costly food label madness
- Give hunting a chance
- Fracking gets green light, but here's the risk
- Socialists, bless 'em, visit Cape Town
- Buy a 1Time ticket now
- Give the ANC credit where credit is due
- The myth of the competent apartheid government
- It's a disaster that 'peak oil' is not a disaster
- No Gravy: a label for sustainable business
- This lightbulb's going to blow
- Smokers? Get 'em up against the wall!
- Inflating the obesity scare
- Bring a Shotgun to School Day
- GMOs: Hacking genes to feed the world
- The hidden dangers of charity
- Fracking: the unread paper debated
- Fracking: The “U-turn” paper nobody has read
- Eco-cronyism is as dangerous as any other
- SKA: Be grateful Karoo residents didn't object
- Energy: Get cracking on fracking
- Fair trade, unfair trade-off
- Casual labour is only bad for Vavi's unions
- 'Externalities', the catch-all justification for regulation
- 'Externalities', the catch-all justification for regulation
- How do we fix our dismal education?
- Barter: the rebirth of sound money
- Rights are not entitlements
- Debunking 'limits to growth' inanities
- Tax: Why align with "most other countries"?
- Newspaper sensationalism doesn't help rhinos
- Rolling Stone reprises Gasland's fracking fantasies
- Cosatu's manipulative march move
- Why do 16 million people not constitute an economy?
- The age of smear politics
- Does fracking cause earthquakes?
- The Chinese model is morbidly obese
- Green tech: doubling down on a losing bet
- Rape, pornography, and hell's grannies
- Petrol taxes won't hurt the poor
- Jailtime mooted for bad weather warnings
- Let's ban bans, and start with CITES
- In defence of overpaid sport stars
- On the death of Kim Jong-Il
- COP17: Let's ban fire
- Cancer gets you when nothing else can
- COP17: The 'party on' agenda
- COP17: The Blue Line of Death
- New seven natural inanities
- Occupiers' anger is all that makes sense
- The Luddites and Technocrats live on
- Malema marches for economic slavery
- Profitable purveyors of pudendal prettiness
- Sense? Us?
- If they want rhino horn, let's sell them some
- "Stimulate" economy by ending telco abuses
- Executive pay makes nobody poorer
- Malema's real persecution
- Mogoeng: Lock up your daughters
- Don't mandate insurance, deregulate healthcare
- I sympathise with Malema's persecution complex
- Short selling: panicked pols ban proof of failure
- Don't blame those who saw it coming
- What's obscene about profit?
- In defence of Bombela
- Dear president Zuma, you are not above the law
- The economics of love
- Treasure the Karoo? Ban the SKA!
- Malema is right, you know
- Gautrain's PPP: political patronage profiteering
- Kumi Naidoo is no hero
- LeadSA fails to lead when it matters
- No logo means carte blanche
- The drug war: dopey but dangerous
- A response to fracking critics
- Don't vote. It's your right.
- Welcome Walmart
- If you're happy and you know it clap your hands
- Buy local, support poverty
- Ubuntu, the free-market way
- Karoo fracking scandal exposed!
- I'm ashamed for my profession
- The bill of bunkum
- Being gay: a brand new concept!
- Who's afraid of the nuclear wolf?
- The nationalisation canard
- Ogilvy should grow a spine
- The new robber barons
- A classy revolution: Why we cared
- Bombastic Bombela balks
- Liberty is more than mere democracy
- Gautrain has a law unto itself
- The irony of 'services for all'
- How to hire a hitman in SA
- Arrive alive and neurotic
- The oppression of taxis
- Protection of Information Bill and why WikiLeaks is so dangerous
- Fifa, Russia and Qatar deserve each other
- One day, we'll all hate WikiLeaks
- The cycling mafia strikes again
- What Julius got for Christmas
- Let's return the beads
- Away with fascist seat belt laws
- Tintin Mbeki in the Sudan
- How the ANC can make everyone happy
- Currency: the race to the bottom.
- Hurrah for national healthcare!
- Give Zimbabweans citizenship
- Carte Blanche has no carte blanche
- That finger-licking, lip-smacking taste
- Bomb the barbaric lot already
- Green tax: another raid is coming
- Do strikers deserve anything?
- The media will lose this battle
- Global warmism needs a fisking
- A glass half-full
- Go ahead, have a baby
- Stop the handouts - end xenophobia
- The right to fire
- FIFA's heart of darkness
- Have some self-respect
- I ordered an orange skirt
- Secretly, Match blames South Africa
- The stupendous Gautrain: a rare marvel!
- The Fifa conquistadors are coming!
- What's wrong with everyone?
- Leave poor BP alone
- The destructive power of government
- The bonsai economy
- The darkness of Africa
- Who is ripping off whom?
- Anatomy of a whitewash
- While FIFA takes over, we fight
- The pointless pretence of Earth Hour
- Ten reasons to reject climate alarmism
- Really, boycott the FIFA farce
- The climate dominoes fall
- Lessons in ethics from Dick Cheney
- Screw the consumer
- In defence of bankers
- Break the banking cartel
- Julius Malema, the walking contradiction
- Boycott FIFA
- Climate clarity
- In defence of Boney M
- Pray Copenhagen fails
- Capitalism is not unkind
- Climate fraud kills people
- Pop goes the hot air balloon
- Peace, love and schadenfreude
- The irony of the left
- Too late to cool it?
- Going cold turkey