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If they want rhino horn, let’s sell them some

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

The profit motive might be anathema to environmentalists, but they've had their chance. Decades of banning rhino horn trade has cost us 97% of the black rhino population, a thousand-fold increase in the price of rhino horn, and poaching on a military scale. It's time for tried and tested capitalist remedies. Farm the beastly things already.

Why are sheep not endangered? There they stand in the countryside in all their fluffy glory, perfectly docile and defenceless, guarded by little more than four-wire fence and sagging farm gates.

Millions of people are driven by greed and perfidy to eat them. Some retro-hipster types even pay good money for their wool, in the belief that it keeps them warmer than the stuff they club baby polyesters for.

Yet driving through the countryside, I’m always startled by the absence of illegal knitting clubs roaming the byways armed to the teeth with RPGs, terrorising sheep farmers and murdering innocent sheep to feed their insatiable appetite for wool.

Where are the ecomentalist TV spots featuring a defenceless young sheeplet crying a single tear Photoshopped to look like Gaia? Where are the gruesome front page photos of bloodied sheep corpses? Where are the PETA activists… oh wait, they’re the only ones who actually do think sheep are endangered.

Of course, they aren’t. Endangered, that is. There are quite a lot of sheep. In some countries they outnumber the human population by margins that surely aren’t proper.

Sheep aren’t endangered, because farmers farm them. They have a vested interest in making sure that they breed and stay healthy. The profit motive ensures that sheep are either kept alive (in the case of the woolly kind) or get killed less frequently than they get born (in the case of the eating kind).

Contrast this with rhinos. In the last few years, we’ve witnessed an alarming rise in poaching:

This, despite the fact that not only is killing rhinos highly regulated, but selling their horns is a definite no-no. Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), signatory countries (which include the main consumers of rhino horn in the Far East) are required to consider both buyers and sellers of rhino products as vicious criminals.

That fact, of course, has turned those buyers and sellers into vicious criminals. They now obtain their horn by hunting as heavily-armed commando units.

Because they can’t get horn any other way, the price has soared. In 1975, when CITES came into effect, the price of rhino horn was $32/kg. Today, it is over $32,000/kg (see sources at the end of this column), and the trade in rhino horn is at a 15 year high.

During the same time, the population of black rhinos has collapsed. Today’s population of less than 2,000 is only 3% of the estimated population during the 1960s. In fact, argues environmental economist Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, if it wasn’t for South Africa’s game farms and relatively liberal market in wildlife, the black rhino would probably be extinct today. By contrast to black rhino, white rhino, thanks to being hunted for sport since 1968, have thrived. In 1900, before private property rights to African land was well-established there were 20 left in the wild. Since the 1960s, the population has recovered from less than 1,000 to almost 20,000.

Until now, that is. In the last few years, the government has cracked down on the horn trade that originated with traders who posed as trophy hunters. As a consequence, poaching has skyrocketed, and the white rhino population fell in 2011 for the first time in years.

Conservation experts like Dr. Richard Emslie of the IUCN’s African Rhino Specialist Group, has argued that hunting, by giving threatened species economic value, has benefited them. Earlier this year he presented the converse argument to a ministerial summit on rhinos, showing data that shows a direct correlation between poaching and a clampdown on permits issued to hunters. Worse, unlike hunters, poachers aren’t particularly fussy, and see little difference between pregnant cows or calves on one hand, and surplus males on the other.

Many environmentalists and armchair liberals are of the view that “we” merely need to educate the backward Orientals about the lack of medicinal qualities of rhino horn. This is rich coming from a group that routinely advocates the use of unproven herbal remedies. It is also supremely condescending. Imagine the Chinese coming to Africa and telling us to stop using muti, or better yet, instructing wealthy elites about the superstition that homeopathy works. We’d tell them to mind their own business and sod off back to China, and rightly so. Even if the Vietnamese and Chinese are wrong about rhino horn, re-educating half a billion people is as tyrannical as it sounds. And even the communists failed at that.

It’s heartening to read therefore, in yesterday’s Mail & Guardian, that the government is reconsidering the ban on the trade in rhino horn. It has clearly failed. Farming the animals for their horn and other potential uses is far more likely to result in a healthy, growing population.

Undoubtedly they’re harder to breed than sheep, but then, when rhino horn sells for $500,000 a pop, each animal produces an acre of heavy leather, and can earn you photo-op revenue from foreign tourists in the mean time, the motive to try is much greater.

Over time, rhino farming methods will improve, populations will grow, prices will decline, the Chinese and Vietnamese will be able to buy cheap and legal natural remedies for what ails them, South Africa will earn loads of lovely lolly in export revenue, and rhino poaching will be as ordinary a crime as sheep theft.

Who loses? DM

Sources and further reading (PDF):


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