In a Johannesburg conference room in September, the 181 countries that make up the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) voted to kill proposals to legalise rhino horn.
To those outside of conservation circles, legalising the sale of rhino horn seems nonsensical. The horn itself has no medicinal value and rhinos are already highly endangered, so why would we wish to create a legal trade where currently there is none? The tragic answer is that there may be no other solution.
Rhino poaching is a problem we all thought had been solved. South Africa, home to 80 percent of the world’s rhino, had a stable population at the start of the 21st century. In 2001, only six rhino were killed, by 2006, this had increased to 36. Last year, though, 1,175 out of a total of 22,000 rhinos in South Africa were slaughtered. If poaching continues to increase at this rate, the species could be extinct by 2025.
The burgeoning middle classes in China and Vietnam are largely to blame. Rhino horn has long been popular in Asian medicine, where it has been falsely endowed with the ability to cure cancer and hangovers, and as the population grows richer, demand for this valuable ingredient has risen exponentially. As a result, the value of a kilo of horn has hit US$65,000; gram for gram, it is now worth more than gold or cocaine.
Poachers in Africa come from poor rural communities, and the money they can make from selling one horn to criminal syndicates is life changing. Which means that no matter how many army officers or drones are put in place to protect the animals, rhino will continue to die while there is a demand in Asia and people in Africa desperate enough to risk their lives.
Should there be a legal trade in rhino horn?
Certain conservationists are arguing that a legal trade is the only solution, as it would incentivise local communities to fight poachers and keep their rhino alive. NGOs bitterly dispute this, saying that even talk of legalisation could set back their educational efforts in Asia by decades. Here John Hanks, South African conservationist and leading figure in the pro-legalisation campaign; and Patrick Bergin, CEO of the African Wildlife Fund, argue out this most incendiary of topics.
— John Hanks
“Anyone who looks at the poaching figures can see that the conservation community’s current stance, which focuses on demand reduction in Asia, is simply not working. Of course, education in China and Vietnam is essential but change takes a generation and if we don’t do something now, wild rhino won’t be around in a generation.
“The government and private individuals in South Africa have stockpiles of horn that could feed demand for at least two or three years. But we also need to create a self-sustaining local industry. Right now, rhino are only alive because Western governments and private individuals are funding our hugely expensive protection efforts, but their attention may turn elsewhere and we can’t keep begging for help. The animals need to pay for themselves. And the wonderful thing is that rhino can. Their horn grows back by a kilo a year, which means anyone who owns a rhino stands to make a lot of money, and the animals become worth more alive than dead.
“Private rhino owners — who are currently going into debt to protect their animals — and rural communities will therefore have a reason fight off poachers. Because the truth is, all the conservationists in the world won’t be able to keep these animals alive while the local Africans are not incentivised to do so.”
— Patrick Bergin
“The only way to stop this crisis is to stop the demand, and a legal trade instantly destroys that approach. If we start openly selling rhino horn, we’re sending mixed messages about whether it is morally wrong to buy horn, and we perpetuate the myth that it has some medicinal value. In the past, we have experimented with selling stockpiles of ivory to Asian countries, and the consequences were terrible. Money did not go to local communities, demand and prices for ivory rose, and an entire ivory industry sprang up in Hong Kong and China. Illegal ivory was sold as legal and nobody could differentiate between the two. The same thing will happen with rhino horn. African governments need to burn their stockpiles and keep their message simple: rhino horn is illegal.
“I also wholeheartedly reject the idea that demand-reduction isn’t working. Sure, we’re racing against the clock to educate people in Asia but serious campaigning has only been underway for a handful of years, and hasn’t been well funded until very recently. We are currently carrying out large-scale advertising campaigns in China and Vietnam using local and international celebrities, and the results have been extremely positive. There is already less demand for horn in parts of Vietnam, but any talk of a legal trade is damaging and needs to stop.”