Opinionista Ivo Vegter 1 September 2015

The recalcitrance of rhino activists

Let us suppose that we all share the wish to ensure the survival of the rhinoceros. A single-minded, partisan approach will fail to secure that wish. The most recent poaching statistics contain some interesting features, but don’t think facts will budge the anti-hunting, anti-trade activists, or that they’ll even give you the facts.

Hot on the heels of the latest rhino poaching statistics, we were treated to an op-ed by two activists, Peter Knights and Adam Welz, both representing WildAid. This lobby group is explicitly dedicated to “a world where people no longer buy wildlife products such as shark fin, elephant ivory and rhino horn”. Guess what their article concluded? Why, yes! We should “look beyond guns and trade”, and focus on demand reduction programmes if we are to save the rhino.

Presumably, they believe in the illusory truth effect (also known as “proof by nagging”): that if you repeat something often enough, it becomes accepted as true.

Ironically, it is they who are unable to look beyond a simplistic mantra, of “ban the stuff and teach the ignorant foreigners civilisation”. They make up facts to suit their argument, to boot.

Demand reduction programmes are, of course, a perfectly reasonable idea. They sometimes appear to have limited success, in which case they might ease poaching pressures on a species. An example is the Yemeni market for jambiya, or ceremonial daggers worn with traditional clothing. It is arguable whether the ready substitution of cheaper horn alternatives such as water buffalo, imports of plastic from China, or an increase in western dress were not bigger factors than a public awareness campaign some 15 years ago to discourage the purchase of rhino horn, but demand clearly did decline.

Another example is the decline in demand for shark fin soup, although again, amid economic malaise, government austerity, and sharply declining shark population numbers, it is unclear how much influence activist marketing campaigns have really had. (Also, take the story with a pinch of salt, since it is based on a report by the self-same WildAid which our pair of activists represent, and as you’ll see, they can’t necessarily be trusted.)

Demand reduction campaigns or bans can also increase the exclusivity and anti-establishment appeal of a product, by the forbidden fruit theory. This could counteract any positive impact. Many years of campaigning against the trade and buying of ivory appears to have done very little to stem the tide of poaching in Africa. On the contrary, while elephant poaching declined in the 1990s, it started increasing again a decade ago.

Notably, this is not the case in South Africa, where elephant numbers have soared, hunting is permitted, and culling was a necessary population management tool for many years. The government has been asking the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) to delist the local elephant population and permit limited trade in its products. Without any sense of irony, activists have cheered ivory burnings at which vast value was simply destroyed, while proposing to put elephants on birth control.

In the case of elephant ivory, as with Yemeni dagger handles, there is a good alternative which could relieve pressure on the real thing. The remains of millions of mammoths, fossilised or preserved in the arctic tundra, offer a huge store of ivory on which the carving trade can rely. Both the price of mammoth ivory and the tonnage traded have risen sharply in the last 15 years. Not everyone thinks this is a brilliant alternative to elephant ivory, however. An expert in paleontology who appears to have a strong emotional attachment to mammoth tusks recently demanded that we classify the extinct woolly mammoth as a protected species, on the grounds that not digging up their tusks in the arctic tundra will somehow help curb elephant poaching in Africa. Douglas MacMillan, professor of conservation and applied resource economics at Kent University, thoroughly debunked that idea in an article published in a respected science magazine last week.

But back to our two intrepid activists. Why do I say they make up the facts to suit their argument? Here’s why. The authors concede that “massive outlays on harsh security measures by individual reserves can sometimes reduce rhino deaths locally, but the total rhino body-count for the country rises at an ever-greater pace”.

Let’s start with the problem that they’re just using scary words, regardless of the facts. The total count is not rising “at an ever-greater pace”. In fact, it has been rising at a rapidly declining rate.

In 2012 and 2013, the poaching rate increased by about 50% a year. That was alarming, if you care about rhinos, as I do, and both our activists presumably do too. In 2014, the number only increased by 21%, to 1215 animals. That was better news, but far from reassuring.

The year-to-date poaching number stands at 749, as at 27 August. This is slightly higher than last year’s 716 on the same date, but that represents a growth rate of only 6%. If the rest of the year goes just like the year to date, only 1,144 animals will have died, which would be a 6% contraction on last year.

This is still too much, of course, but the numbers appear to be stabilising. The claim that poaching “rises at an ever-greater pace” is, quite simply, false. Why should we take advice on rhino management from activists who do not know (or lie about) the basic facts?

They also say that the Vietnamese sell rhino horn for a variety of purposes, including as an “erectile dysfunction cure“. According to veteran rhino researcher Michael t’Sas-Rolfes, this is nothing more than a media myth. Rhino horn may once have been considered an aphrodisiac by the Gujarati people of India, but if so, this hasn’t been the case for decades, and not all foreigners are the same. It defies comprehension that in this day and age, a bunch of neo-colonialists who presume to lecture foreigners on how to behave have such a shallow grasp of what they actually believe. Why should anyone take their word for the claim that such education programmes will actually work?

More importantly, they gloss over the main point of their observation. Why did security measures sometimes reduce rhino deaths, while the total continues to increase? Shouldn’t this point to factors of success and failure, rather than introducing a weak proposal about demand reduction that amounts to business as usual?

According to Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa, rhino poaching has decreased everywhere in the country, except in the Kruger National Park. So our activist pair just breeze past the fact that game farms – which constitute two thirds of the land under conservation in South Africa – have apparently had success at fighting poaching, unlike the country’s largest game reserve.

There are, of course, multiple reasons. A major reason is that the Kruger Park is on the front line, and a porous fence with Mozambique makes the anti-poaching efforts of the government unusually difficult. They’re now escalating to “night airborne reaction with well-equipped anti-poaching rapid response forces”.

If this sounds expensive, it is. Yet “harsh security measures” have been successful, by the authors’ own admission. And they can only be funded if the animals themselves are assets with a high enough economic value. In fact, some wildlife conservancies rely entirely on hunting revenue to fund anti-poaching security.

So, we have established that some of the authors’ claims are outright false. A number of others are unsubstantiated, however.

Without providing any evidence for their claim, they say: “Officials aren’t motivated to put time and money into cases against horn traffickers if the horn trade may soon become legal.”

Trade in cattle products is legal, and yet a dedicated police stock theft unit is busily nabbing suspects and recovering stolen animals. Besides argument by assertion, our two activists make the rookie mistake of conflating legal trade and poaching. Just because trade in an animal’s products is legal, one does not turn a blind eye to poaching. On the contrary, because their livestock has commercial value, farmers have a vested interest in combating poaching, and police can, and do, act against such crimes. Knights and Welz are just making this stuff up as they go along.

They contradict themselves when they argue that the price of horn would remain high if trade were permitted, “perpetuating the incentive to poach and locking rhino custodians, such as our government, into paying extremely high security costs indefinitely and/or losing their rhinos”. Uhm, guys, hello? You already have the outcome that you bemoan, and the high price – like the high price of cocaine – is a consequence of the fact that rhino horn is illegal.

The price of rhino horn has more than doubled since the imposition of a moratorium on rhino horn trade in 2009, while poaching has spiked to record levels. This is no coincidence. The difference is that under a legal trade scenario, the value of the animals themselves would increase to reflect the value of their horns, which would justify investment in security to keep them alive. Not being aware of the basic facts of recent rhino poaching history does not lend an activist argument credibility.

Knights and Welz compare legal trade in rhino horn with once-off auctions of ivory, as if the two are even remotely comparable. Elephants and rhinos are very different propositions from a game ranching perspective. You cannot harvest ivory from live animals like you can harvest rhino horn. Once-off auctions do not create an ongoing market, in which the price mechanism can regulate supply and demand. Such a comparison is invalid, and merely serves to demonstrate the authors’ weak grasp of both conservation and economics.

They say: “(Cites delegates) will ask how South Africa could conceivably control trade if it clearly can’t control poaching.“ But that is nonsensical. South Africa is perfectly able to control poaching of numerous other game and livestock species, the trade in which is legal. Preventing poaching is not at all like regulating trade. In fact, large-scale poaching exists because there is no legal alternative. The reason criminal syndicates focus on illegal substances to raise money is because there is no risk of being undercut by a legal market.

They complain that parks are “no-go zones, not assets that communities can be proud of”. It is hard to see how this will change if a continuing ban on rhino horn trade has to be imposed by force of arms. Moreover, it contrasts nicely with the direct and indirect jobs created by game farms, which turns wildlife from valueless commodities (or dangerous threats) into valuable assets.

A self-contradictory claim is that “consumer demand is currently highly suppressed because horn sales are illegal and stigmatised”. If that were so, why would further stigmatising sales, as our activists propose, make any difference?

And where is the evidence that demand really is suppressed? Banning something can create a forbidden fruit effect. It is hard to estimate exact numbers when black marketeers don’t report their revenue to the taxman, but alcohol prohibition in the US appears to have increased the demand for booze. It certainly didn’t work, and being able to serve decent liquor was a point of pride. The loss of most of Kenya’s wildlife happened to coincide with a hunting ban imposed in the late 1970s, and the experience of other countries where hunting was banned is similar. In fact, there is very little evidence that banning something actually reduces demand.

This lack of evidence leads our friends to simply make up a number: “If, by legalisation … consumer interest increased to, for example, a mere 1% of these countries (sic) population (about 16-million people) and the members of that 1% each bought only 10 grams of rhino horn per year, 150 metric tons of rhino horn would be needed annually.”

Yeah, sure. And if it didn’t, recalcitrant activists wouldn’t write 150 metric tons of made-up manure.

There’s nothing wrong with awareness campaigns or demand reduction programmes, and nothing that prevents them from being conducted. If they work, they will complement other efforts well. But on the available evidence, it is highly unlikely that such measures alone will reduce rhino poaching. If they do, they’ll no doubt reduce the attractiveness of ranching rhino for their horn too, killing two birds with one stone for the anti-trade activists. But if they don’t, we may well lose the rhino. I know which option I’d prefer.

That activists like Knights and Welz get the facts so wrong so often, and resort to so many unsubstantiated claims and vague nostrums, should be reason enough to ignore their proposals. The status quo, of banning trade while we educate the natives, has failed. It is high time for less patronising, more enlightened alternatives. DM


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