China’s decision to permit limited import, export and domestic trade in rhino and tiger products, provided they are sourced from legal farming operations and used in scientific research or Chinese traditional medicine, caused uproar among green NGOs and the environmental media.
In these pages, Don Pinnock attacks the South African government over its apparent desire for legal international trade in rhino horn, claiming to have detected a conspiracy between Chinese and South African authorities motivated by the sinister machinations of the invisible hand, rather than a bona fide concern for conservation.
“China’s ‘legal trade’ announcement could sound the death knell for tigers and rhinos,” cried the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). Debbie Banks, its Tiger Campaign Leader, warned: “The huge number of tigers held or bred in captivity in China suggests there will be a major explosion in trade – and this can only lead to more tigers being poached in the wild.”
She states this as fact, but offers no empirical or even theoretical support for this view. That’s because there is none.
In fact, “the huge numbers of tigers held or bred in captivity in China”, which amount to some 6,000 animals, compared to 4,000 wild tigers, actually suggests there is plenty of supply to feed the limited trade China proposes to legalise.
Banks added: “The news today is a staggering display of brazen disregard for global opinion…” as if there is a reason why the opinions of armchair critics and slacktivists should prevail against professional experts in economics and conservation.
The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) was also up in arms: “WWF urgently calls on China to maintain the ban on tiger bone and rhino horn trade which has been so critical in conserving these iconic species.”
Again, this is stated as fact, but the WWF offers no empirical support for the claim that trade bans have in any way helped to conserve the species. That’s because there is none.
Like other outraged environmentalists, Pinnock argues by assertion. He makes broad claims without offering any kind of empirical support for them, presumably in the belief that simply repeating the green anti-trade mantras will make people think they’re true.
“There are more than a billion people in Asia,” writes Pinnock. “Not all of them buy rhino horn, of course, but even a small increase in the percentage wishing to do so would be disastrous. Selling legal horn will signal that it’s ethically okay to buy it, boosting sales. The stocks of the few rhino farmers and sale of state stockpiles would soon be overwhelmed and poaching of wild rhinos – already shockingly high – would rise.”
There is no evidence for this claim. None, whatsoever. This has never happened. On the contrary: trade prohibitions did not prevent the relentless rise in poaching, and arguably caused them.
Almost all of the rhinos that have ever been poached in South Africa were poached after the introduction of the moratorium on trade in 2008. In 2007, 13 rhinos were poached in South Africa. By 2014, poaching reached a peak of 1,215 animals. A hugely expensive, military-scale effort to combat poaching has had some impact, but even so, over 1,000 animals are being poached every year since the peak.
In Japan, rhino horn has been illegal since 1980. In China and Vietnam, since 1993 and 1994 respectively. Yet none of these bans prevented the steep rise in poaching in South Africa over the last decade.
“What’s clear is that the department is angling to increase the sale of rhino horn while cracking down on poaching – eliminate illegal trade but at the same time stimulate a parallel legal market. In simple terms, stop the bad guys and so the good guys can make a profit,” writes Pinnock. “This has never worked…”
Arrant nonsense. It works for every game animal that isn’t subject to a CITES trade ban. It works for large game animals such as roan, sable antelope and bontebok, which once were rare in South Africa’s national game reserves, but now are abundant on private game ranches and hunting farms.
It worked for vicuña, which were saved from poaching by permitting private ownership and trade in their fleece.
Pinnock seems to reserve a special distaste for commerce.
“Why is the department prepared to brook international criticism, particularly at CITES, for what is blatantly market-driven and not conservation – fanned, it seems, by a few wealthy rhino farmers?”
Well, Don, perhaps because markets and conservation are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary. The government is probably well aware that market-driven conservation worked for crocodilia. They were saved from widespread poaching by permitting captive breeding, ranching and legal trade in their leather. The illegal trade in crocodilia products has largely been eliminated as a result.
“The survival of these two species was assured when CITES turned their wool and skins, respectively, into valuable and sustainably managed commodities of benefit to local communities,” said former CITES secretary-general Willem Wijnstekers in 2005.
In fact, the IUCN is on record (as is academic research), directly contradicting Pinnock’s unfounded opinion that a legal market has never displaced an illegal market: “Despite predictions that legal trade would encourage illegal trade, an outstanding result of market-driven conservation of crocodilians is that illegal trade has all but been eradicated in the face of well-regulated legal trade.”
That should be the end of the discussion. But it never is, is it?
Pinnocks commits another common sleight-of-hand by conflating concerns about conservation with concerns about animal welfare. Cruel farming practices are independent from the question of whether farming animals for trade ought to be legal.
Cruel farming practices involving pigs, chickens or cattle are legitimate targets for public awareness campaigns and legal prosecutions under animal anti-cruelty laws. However, they do not imply anything about whether farming them ought to be legal. It is arguable that a legal, regulated market visible to the public eye results in a lot less animal cruelty than an underground black market that is hidden from view. It’s no different for game, including farming of large, charismatic species.
“The only sensible approach would be to reduce demand in every way possible,” writes Pinnock, again without offering any empirical support.
“Without detailing how it intends to do so, the department told Parliament it would instead attempt to manipulate Asian consumer behaviour to choose legal horn over poached horn. Plans for this mammoth PR task were not in evidence…”
Demand reduction has been the mantra of anti-trade activists for years. They hold up Japan and Yemen as examples of markets where demand for rhino horn was successfully minimised by such campaigns.
I suspect that the eye-watering rise in the price of rhino horn from hundreds of dollars per kilo to something like $80,000/kg may have had a great deal to do with it, especially in Yemen’s case. You can’t get all that many ceremonial dagger handles out of a kilo of rhino horn, which would make them insanely expensive in a country that had an all-time high GDP per capita of $1,309 in 2010, before its catastrophic collapse to $432 by 2016.
Yet demand reduction campaigns were the way to go, anti-trade groups said. But according to Pinnock, convincing people to buy legal products instead of illegal products is somehow a harder public relations task than convincing them not to buy the products at all. Now, the task is suddenly too big. This would apply equally to any other demand-reduction campaign, but Pinnock seems blithely unaware of the self-contradiction.
As a final example of why China’s decision is not alarming, and may very well benefit tigers and rhinos, consider South Africa’s lions.
From 2008 to 2015, there was an unrestricted trade in lion bones in South Africa. Initially, they were largely by-products of trophy-hunting. However, the US decision to outlaw the import of hunting trophies in 2015 forced many captive lion operations – when they didn’t simply euthanise their lions – to pivot to skeletons produced for export. As it turns out, lion skeletons are much more valuable with the head attached.
In 2015, a report was published by researchers from Witwatersrand University, Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, and specialist wildlife trade NGO, Traffic, led by Vivienne Williams. Called Bones of Contention: An assessment of the South African trade in African Lion bones and other body parts, the report found that the lion bone trade had no discernible negative impact on wild lions in South Africa.
“In South Africa, the trade in Lion bones currently has a negligible impact on wild Lion populations,” it found.
“The trade in bones appears to be a sustainable by-product of the sizeable trophy hunting industry in South Africa, and lions that are hunted are almost exclusively captive-bred. There are few records of wild-hunting and poaching in the country, especially at a level that could supply the sizeable bone trade.”
Quotas introduced since 2016 suggest that the supply of lion bones continues to rise, yet two follow-up papers by Williams et al. in 2017 reconfirmed that few wild lions are hunted or poached in South Africa’s protected areas, and the legal trade is supplied almost exclusively by the captive-bred lion industry. This is not the case in African range states with no farmed lions, where poaching places wild lions at risk.
Empirical evidence contradicts the theory that a legal trade in animal products will stimulate poaching and the illegal trade. Instead, it suggests that a legal trade, supplied by captive breeders and game ranchers, acts as a buffer, protecting wild populations from poaching.
The answers to emotive questions about trade in vulnerable, threatened or endangered species are never simple. Introducing legal trade where there was none before is not a panacea, and will not happen without difficulties that need to be resolved.
Maintaining trade bans hasn’t worked. On the contrary, they appear to have stimulated poaching by suppressing the legal market, posing an existential threat to some of the species “protected” in this manner.
By contrast, the problems with legal trade do not pose an existential threat to animal species. On the contrary, legal trade appears to protect wild populations, and unlike with the anti-trade environmentalists’ mantras, there is empirical evidence for this.
Instead of lecturing African or Asian governments on how to conserve their wildlife, perhaps the Western elites that run and donate to global environmental NGOs should be a little less strident, patronising and neo-colonialist. Especially when, like Pinnock, they’re dead wrong. DM
"The end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end." ~ Leon Trotsky