The efficacy of trading rhino horn debunked
Andreas Wilson-Späth
May 21, 2015

A group of local and international experts converged in Cape Town on Tuesday to discuss the legal and illegal trade in endangered wildlife.

Jo Shaw, the manager of WWF-SA’s Rhino Programme, sketched an overview of the dire situation the species faces in South Africa, being slaughtered at a rate of about three animals per day. As a member of the committee tasked by government with investigating the feasibility of a trade in rhino horn, she could not comment publicly on the matter, but indicated that the committee has not formalised a decision yet.

Other participants were less circumspect with regards to their position: “When South Africa proposes to sell its rhino horns on the international market, it puts rhinos across the entire continent at risk,” says Dr Paula Kahumba, a Kenyan ecologist and the CEO of an NGO called WildlifeDirect.

“Most of Africa, Europe and America is horrified by South Africa’s support for a trade in rhino horn,” Kahumba said.

Kahumba believes that any legal trade will fuel its illegal counterpart by reducing the stigma associated with outlawed wildlife products and creating channels for illegally sourced contraband to be laundered into legal markets.

And it’s not just rhino that are at risk. Will Travers, the president of the Born Free Foundation notes that South Africa’s new draft regulations with regards to the captive lion industry and the trade in lion body parts will have detrimental effects: “The lion bone trade into Southeast Asia is potentially going to be the ruin of wild lion populations in other parts of Africa – it’s an absolutely crazy strategy!”

International trade ban

Travers prescribes to the precautionary principle: “To put it simply, we consistently recommend that the benefit of the doubt goes to the species; not the trade”.

Proponents of trade in endangered wildlife frequently suggest that trade bans cause demand to rise and encourage poaching, but in the case of African elephants, Kahumba argues that an international ban in the trade of ivory instituted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1989 resulted in a collapse in ivory prices, a decrease in illegal killings and a steady recovery of populations that had been decimated during the 1970s and 80s.

Both she and Travers suggest that two subsequent CITES approved sales of stockpiled ivory from southern African countries to Asia reversed this trend, stimulated international demand and caused an increase in elephant poaching, although CITES suggests that there is no evidence for a direct causal link.

Kahumba and Travers believe that if South African authorities table a proposal for a legal trade in rhino horns at next year’s CITES conference in Cape Town, they will be defeated in the face of widespread opposition. “It will damage South Africa’s international reputation hugely,” explains Kahumba.

John Sellar, an independent anti-smuggling, fraud and organised crime consultant and a former chief of enforcement for CITES points out that a proposed trade in ivory horn would not provide a quick fix for the ongoing rhino poaching crisis. He thinks that even if CITES agreed to such a proposal, it would take at least 18 months before any trade would actually take place. “So you are going to have to keep dealing with this poaching for some time to come”.

Adequate protection for wildlife

The pro-trade position was presented by zoologist, author and independent environmental consultant John Hanks. He points out that conservation areas, including national parks in South Africa and throughout the continent, are chronically underfunded and therefore unable to provide adequate protection for wildlife. He also emphasises the important role played by private landowners, who host some 25% of South Africa’s rhino population with no financial support from government.

Hanks proposes that a strictly controlled legal trade in rhino horns (supplied from natural mortality, existing stockpiles and non-lethal harvesting) offers a realistic and sustainable mechanism for raising the funds necessary to finance conservation efforts while creating job opportunities and encouraging more private landowners to keep rhinos. As a supposed fallback option in the event of failure, Hanks suggests that “if opening up the legal trade led to an increase in poaching, the trade could either be closed down or restructured” after three or four years.

He believes that South Africa should present a strong case for the legalisation of trade at the 2016 CITES conference and initiate an advocacy campaign to garner the required support from other member states.

If Hank’s proposal was devoid of any economic analysis, that perspective was provided by Dr Alejandro Nadal, a distinguished Mexican economist who has conducted an extensive review of the literature on wildlife trade. He contends that the arguments used by proponents of legalised trade in rhino horn and similar products are based on overly simplistic, outdated and discredited economic theories and models, resulting in misleading and dangerous conclusions.

The basic pro-trade narrative claims that trade bans create scarcity, drive up prices and result in the establishment of black markets to satisfy demand. By contrast, legal markets would supposedly offer stable supplies, lower prices, eliminate the incentive for poaching and out-compete illegal traders.

Nadal charges that this is “pseudo-economic reasoning” which involves a number of simplistic and erroneous assumptions that are unlikely to pertain in the real world, including that the trade involves no economies of scale or traders who deal in more than a single product, and that markets function via perfect competition without dominant actors able to manipulate prices through ‘strategic behaviour’.

Dynamics of illegal wildlife market

He highlights the fact that we don’t even have “an approximation of an idea” as to the structure and dynamics of the illegal wildlife market and the criminal organisations involved in it because no detailed studies have been conducted. In the absence of this information it is impossible to accurately assess, let alone predict, the impact legal trade will have.

Nadal argues that there is no guarantee that a legal trade in rhino horn would necessarily result in a decline in rhino poaching, and warns that a more sophisticated analysis of market conditions may actually predict the opposite. He has stated that “in the final analysis, trade-based policy […] is pure folly” and believes that wildlife deserves better than to be “transformed into commodities in a pointless profit-seeking venture”.

Some pro-traders contend that attitudes about products like ivory and rhino horn among consumers in Asia are so deeply entrenched that demand will always remain high, driving illegal trafficking even if trade bans are maintained. Nadal points out, however, that demand patterns for such products have been shown to be prone to dramatic change over very short periods of time.

Travers agrees that consumer behaviour can be changed, for example by organisations like WildAidthat use Asian celebrities to encourage a change of thinking, and even more so when the necessary political will is displayed by governments. Since the Chinese government instituted a ban on shark fin soup at all of its events, for instance, demand for this traditional delicacy has declined by some 70%.

“Now what we need is for the government in China to also say that they are not going to have a legal ivory trade because of the risk it represents to elephants through the illegal trade,” says Travers, “and that they are not going to even contemplate having a relationship with South Africa, should that country pursue its current stated objective of opening up a trade in rhino horn”.

Both Kahumba and Travers raise a weighty moral issue: what are the ethical (and perhaps legal) implication for organisations and governments who actively promote the international trade in a product – rhino horn – that they know has no proven medicinal benefits whatsoever, but which is sold to desperate people suffering from critical deceases such as cancer who have been led to believe that it will save their lives?