Rhino horn: The proposal that could save the species

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 government has recently appointed an expert group to sort out the details of a proposal to CITES to permit legal trade in rhino horn. Meanwhile, I’ve been reluctantly convinced that a state-owned monopoly might be what should be in that proposal. How does a free-marketeer fall so far, so fast?

I was recently asked an interesting question: Why do rhino poachers not harvest horn from the animals without killing them?

At first glance, the question seems silly, and the answer obvious. However, it has wider implications. It simply doesn’t pay poachers to trouble with sedating an animal and carefully removing its horn. They hack at it with chainsaws, and since the stuff is worth two and a half times its own weight in gold, they won’t leave even a stump behind. They’re in a hurry, so they use vicious shortcuts to tracking, like snares. Such people are hardly going to go all compassionate on rhinos.

Worst of all, however, is that if poachers end up tracking a dehorned animal again they’ll have lost valuable time and money. This means, argues ranger Rory Young, that they shoot every rhino they can, with or without a horn. Young co-wrote a field manual on anti-poaching protocol and co-founded an anti-poaching training outfit called Chetenga Wildlife.

This implies that dehorning, a once-popular measure against poaching, does not work.

A similar argument can be made for poisoning horns. Besides the moral implications of deliberately endangering end-users – equivalent to law enforcement deliberately spiking heroin or cocaine with poison – there is little to suggest that this would actually stop poachers. They’d just have to screen horns better.

Quora is an excellent website where such questions are asked and answered. I can highly recommend it, and not only because I hang out there every so often. Other people, who are actually experts in their fields (like Young and his partner in Chetenga, Lisa Groeneweg), frequent it too.

Among the questions people have about rhino poaching are whether legalising the sale of rhino horn could save the species, whether criminalising the possession of rhino horn can save the species, and, simply, how the species will be saved.

At least that last one has an optimistic ring to it, by saying “will”, instead of “can”. The contradictory phrasing of the first two, whether it would be better to legalise or to ban rhino horn, highlights an unfortunate feature of the rhino poaching question. It appears to be very polarised between “pro-trade” and “anti-trade” camps. This is not helping anyone, and least of all, rhinos.

Since it is already mostly illegal to possess or trade in rhino horn, and we know that the status quo is failing rhino, there are only a few primary solutions on the table: reduce demand for horn by education campaigns, improve anti-poaching security measures, tighten law enforcement, and/or legalise trade.

The first might work, if you believe surveys in Vietnam, a major consuming country. Rhino horn trade is illegal in Vietnam, and the government together with conservation NGOs launched a public awareness campaign about the issue in 2013. Colour me skeptical, though. I wouldn’t admit to some survey-taker that I still use an illegal substance after the Vietnamese government has warned me against it.

Demand vastly exceeds available supply, as indicated by the price of rhino horn, which by recent estimates runs at $100,000 per kilo. Banking on the success of public relations campaigns to smother this kind of demand, while poaching rates keep growing, seems just as foolish as declaring gold a “barbarous relic” in 1873.

Besides which, re-educating a billion and a half Asians in multiple countries has always struck me as a patronising, neo-colonialist attitude to the problem, no matter how right Western environmentalists think they are. Many people believe in traditional remedies, and it’s hard to shake that faith.

Last year, 1,215 rhinos were killed by poachers in South Africa. This is an alarming number, perilously close to the population replacement rate. However, the growth in poaching numbers has slowed from around 50% per year to 21%. Arrests for poaching have steadily risen, year after year, from less than 200 in 2010 to almost 400 in 2014.

This suggests that direct anti-poaching measures are making some impact. Young recently enjoyed considerable success with a team in Malawi, trained by Chetenga. Others conduct similar projects elsewhere in the rhino’s home range.

Yet still, this represents limited success and these measures remain expensive. Live rhino, for their hunting or eco-tourism value, sell for between R200,000 and R400,000. A two to four kilo horn is worth ten times as much. While the animals are valued so much less than their horns, many game farmers will be tempted to simply get out of the rhino business. On a game farm, it stays if it pays. Because private game farmers control almost three quarters of all South African land under conservation, this calculation matters.

Young, in an answer that demonstrates why I like Quora, says that he used to oppose legalising the sale of rhino horn, but now argues that permitting game farm owners to harvest and sell horn has become necessary. “The time has come to be coldly pragmatic about saving these species,” he writes.

Those who take a hard line against trading have neither time nor the weight of science behind them. I’ve thoroughly debunked some of their cherry-picked research before. Michael Eustace, an investment analyst who has followed this issue for Business Day, has also done a good job countering common anti-trade arguments.

Most importantly, the claim that conservationists and economists who advocate legal trade believe it to be a panacea that will magically stop the poaching, or that they have not considered the complexities of legalising trade, are false.

Multiple measures are needed, in parallel. The decline in the poaching growth rate suggests that anti-poaching training and expanded security operations do work to some extent. They will not be enough, however. A lower growth rate is still growth.

South Africa’s government has appointed a panel of experts to consider the details of a proposal to permit regulated legal trade in rhino horn. Such a proposal, to be presented to Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) during its 2016 conference in South Africa, was approved by Cabinet two years ago.

Since CITES meets every three years, the soonest one can realistically expect any decision is in 2019. At present slaughter rates, a quarter of the white rhino population will have been mowed down by then. A decision in favour of trade is unlikely, and as I pointed out in 2013, even then the bureaucratic delays could take us many more years down the line.

A recent debate between the opposing sides on trade agreed that a decision on trade might come too late to save the rhino. Dawie Roodt, an economist, and Braam Malherbe, a director at the Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa on one side, with tourism operators Colin Bell and Ian Michler opposing trade, concluded that anti-poaching law enforcement, demand reduction campaigns, community buy-in programmes and a centralised, less exploitable hunting permit system, were all needed.

The moderators at the Conservation Action Trust were taken aback that so much common ground could be found between supposedly warring sides, although I could not be less surprised. Hard as it may be for some environmentalists to grasp, market advocates who favour free trade in rhino horn actually do care about the survival of the species.

It seems naïvely hopeful that we can rely only on demand-reduction programmes. Even supposing that they work, they’ll take years to stamp out demand.

It seems equally hopeful to think just throwing more money at security can solve the problem. Sure, it can make a dent in poaching, but this is one of the most heavily invested conservation problems already, with military-scale security resources dedicated to combating poachers, and still, enough poachers get through to kill three rhinos a day.

Law enforcement is also a dubious hope. For all the arrests in 2014, only 12 were couriers or exporters. The rest were cannon fodder.

Legal trade will take years of bureaucratic tape-cutting, and then another few years to establish a stable market. We can’t just sit on our hands until then, either.

We need solutions that can work in tandem. Until a rhino horn trade proposal is accepted by CITES, rhinos need all the security private game owners and volunteers can give them. Trying to stigmatise the product among buyers can’t do much harm either.

My biggest fear about a legal trade in rhino horn has been the danger that it will become a monopolistic trough for corruption. Reportedly, the government’s trade proposal as it stands would establish a De Beers-style central selling organisation.

Michael Eustace, who is usually a strong free-market advocate, has defended this idea. He delivered a paper at the Kwazulu-Natal Symposium on Contemporary Conservation Practice late last year, making a strong argument for why a state-owned monopoly selling to wholesale cartels would be the most effective way to deploy South Africa’s stockpile of 5,000 horns, worth over R2 billion, and its annual harvest from natural deaths and farmed herds.

Frankly, I can’t think of a worse way to supply a market. Besides the general problem that monopoly pricing never benefits anyone other than the monopolist, the chances of corruption or mismanagement in yet another state-owned enterprise fills me with foreboding.

However, Eustace argues convincingly that its great advantage is tight control over illicit trade. Quite simply, everything that doesn’t move via official channels is illegal. He has also done the numbers on how to supply the equivalent of 2013’s poaching haul at going market prices, and how such a legal supply will significantly depress prices for illegal horn.

His killer argument, however, is this: a government-controlled central selling organisation is far more likely to win the approval of the delegates at CITES than an unrestricted free market. As much as I prefer my capitalism unfettered, he’s right. They’re all watermelons there: green on the outside, and red on the inside (to use James Delingpole’s provocative phrase).

The fate of the rhino hangs on whether these people can be persuaded. If that means making a compromise that appeals to socialists, statists and bureaucrats, then it seems a good compromise to me.

I don’t like it, but we can always revisit the status of rhino horn trade in future, once we’ve finished saving the damn things. DM