Trading in rhino horn is not going to solve our extinction crisis
Ross Harvey
15th October 2019

The continual poaching of rhinos in southern Africa for their horns, in particular in Botswana, has raised the argument yet again of whether it isn’t time to reintroduce an international trade in rhino horn.

Rhino poaching in South Africa may be abating somewhat, if national figures are to be believed, but rhinos in Botswana are being hammered (many of them sent there for refuge from South Africa). Drought-induced accessibility, combined with a disappearance of counterpoaching activity ahead of next week’s national elections, are largely to blame for Botswana’s losses. Either way, this continual decimation in southern Africa has raised the argument, yet again, of whether it isn’t time to reintroduce an international trade in rhino horn. Proponents contend that it would subdue demand, crowd out illegal players and reduce poaching incentives through driving down price. This is fanciful.

Shortly before the most recent (August 2019) Conference of the Parties (CoP18) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), Tiara Walters wrote a useful piece in Daily Maverick examining the arguments. Now that the Post-CoP dust has settled, it’s clear the world made the right decision to avoid any reopening of the international trade in rhino horn. What remains is for South Africa, eSwatini, Namibia and any other country kidding itself that consumptive use is going to solve our extinction crisis, to reject its naivety and get onto the same conservation page.

Closer to home, it seems that the number of rhinos left in the Kruger National Park is far fewer than what the 2017 census suggests. Black rhino numbers were then estimated at between 427 and 586 animals, while white rhinos were estimated at between 4,759 and 5,532 animals.

A policy dilemma is whether to release the latest figures. In response to Daily Maverick’s investigation, Minister for the Environment, Barbara Creecy, said, “We haven’t released the new population figures. Do you think that if poachers knew how much rhino are left in Kruger that this would be a good thing?” This suggests remarkable naivety. It’s hardly as if sophisticated poaching syndicates are waiting for South Africa’s census as intel for optimising their poaching efforts.

The numbers probably show an overestimate. If poaching has declined, it may be more attributable to reduced density than to counterpoaching success per se. Disagreement over numbers is not new; the question is what to do about poaching. And the argument, as retold by Walters, is that we should resort to trading in rhino horn “because nothing else has worked”.

Trade legalisation would likely result in an outward shift of the demand curve, as it would undermine the stigma effect currently associated with purchasing horn. Demand reduction is therefore optimal policy strategy, the efficacy of which depends on clear messaging that supply will no longer be available. Critics, like wildlife vet Pete Rogers, ridicule this. In his eyes, as long as a horned rhino represents $200,000, demand reduction efforts are futile. But the evidence suggests he’s wrong, as average prices for raw rhino horn in Asian markets show a long-term trend decline. One rhino horn of about 4kg is now worth about $60,000 on the black market – a long shot from $200,000.

Nonetheless, Namibia and eSwatini left CoP18 angry that their trade proposals were shot down. They wanted permission to sell existing rhino horn stock to licensed retailers through making “their” rhinos exempt from the CITES Appendix II annotation that currently prohibits trade in derivative parts. Appendix II provides less protection than Appendix I, but rhino (only South Africa and Eswatini) and elephant populations on Appendix II are subject to restrictions. Private breeders in South Africa were also angry but now contend that captive breeding operations are not subject to the same restrictions and that they can simply breed Appendix I animals as if they were Appendix II – essentially free to trade in their horns (see Article VII, paragraph 5). It was assumed by eSwatini that it could sell horn for about $30,000/kg and tried to convince the world that this money would be ploughed back into conservation. But the average black market price for raw ivory had already dropped to roughly $15,000/kg by mid 2018.

Demand reduction efforts do work, provided they’re intelligently constructed and not undermined by mixed messaging. Cultures are dynamic, as are consumer tastes and preferences. A recent report by the Wildlife Justice Commission – showing declining prices – allows inference that consumer tastes may be shifting away from raw rhino horn. Preferences in recent years also appear to have shifted from medicinal to aspirational. In other words, prestige trumps healing. And prestige purchases are more sensitive to changing global sentiments.

This idea that the international ban has not worked is also misleading. After 1993, when the United States threatened Taiwan with an import ban on its electronic products unless it stopped importing rhino horn, rhino numbers started to recover. It was only after 2006 that the poaching crisis erupted in South Africa due to demand shifts in newly industrialising Asian economies (especially Vietnam). In response, the Department of Environmental Affairs imposed a moratorium on domestic trade in 2009. This was repealed in 2017, as the Constitutional Court ruled that it hadn’t followed the correct procedures. The department avoided taking the simple reparatory steps required to reimpose a moratorium.

Perhaps partly because of the proliferation of pseudo-hunting – Asian criminal syndicates exploited a CITES loophole by shooting rhinos and then importing the horn back home – the domestic ban did little to stem the tide. Of course, partial bans are ineffective, and the government’s reluctance to reimpose a moratorium may have had something to do with the allegations that the Minister of State Security was involved in rhino horn smuggling. Or that former MK operatives are involved in abalone, narcotics and rhino horn trafficking.

Trade enthusiasts like Ted Reilly (of eSwatini) naively assume that official stockpile sales will fetch black market prices for governments. John Hume – who owns 1,700 rhinos – has held auctions in South Africa to try to sell horn domestically. The sales data wasn’t released, but from the poor response and his continued cries of poverty, we can assume he received nowhere near black market prices. Similarly, when southern African nations sold off some of their ivory stockpiles in 2008, they received only approximately $180/kg, with Japan and China making the bulk of the profit, releasing ivory into their markets at around $800/kg.

But the biggest problem with the idea of a controlled legal trade is that it would somehow crowd out criminal syndicates. It can’t. Poachers can always supply to market more cheaply than breeders or legal sellers. And once legal channels exist, laundering from illegal sources is easy. Law enforcement officials across transit routes have neither the resources nor the capacity to distinguish legal from illegal supply. Why, for instance, are chimpanzees being exported from South Africa to “zoos” elsewhere in the world? Because breeders can illegally acquire wild chimpanzees, pass them off as captive-bred locally (apparently bypassing CITES regulations) and sell them – for a vast sum of money – for “non-commercial” purposes.

The pro-trade position further assumes that it would be able to fetch a Goldilocks price for rhino horn – just right to disincentivise poaching and to incentivise responsible breeding. But this is hardly the De Beers Central Selling Organisation (CSO). Rhino horns are much easier to source illegally than diamonds. That’s the bottom line – governments are never going to be as effective as the CSO. And the upshot of a legal trade is that if it results in an outward demand curve shift (because there is no longer a stigma effect reducing consumption) the price may balloon, incentivising more poaching.

A naïve assumption also persists that stockpiled rhino horn sales could satiate demand, provided it ran alongside continued demand reduction efforts. But even economist ‘t Sas-Rolfes suggests that harvested horn from current stockpiles (estimated at a total of 49 tonnes) could only supply the market for three to five years. If supply was sustainable – a massive if – ‘t Sas-Rolfes argues that the price would not continue to increase. He admits, though, that “unless we make serious inroads into the demand by way of consumer-behaviour change, prices are never likely to come down sufficiently to eliminate the black market”. This implies that we can have our cake and eat it too.1

Why should consumers refrain from purchasing a product that breeders are explicitly trying to sell at just the right price to incentivise breeding that somehow undercuts poachers but still makes them profits? This is like telling a teenager not to smoke but providing the cigarette. Smoking is a good example in this case for another reason: illicit cigarettes undercut legal prices all over the world. But ‘t Sas-Rolfes’ argues that wildlife like crocodiles can sustainably be farmed to supply a market and crowd out illegal supply. But rhino horns are not crocodile skins – the horn market evolves and proliferates in differentiated products by the day. Many consumers demand to see evidence that rhino horn is wild-caught.

South Africa does indeed need to take bold steps to save its rhinos. We should avoid sending mixed messages to consumers or fiddling with the idea of a CSO to feed the very market whose demand we’re trying to reduce. We need to allocate global resources to frontline conservation – involving local communities to protect rhinos; stop breeding and stockpiling horn that is easily leaked into illicit markets (who benefits?!); reduce global demand for rhino horn and complement these efforts with unequivocal bans. We have to stop making simplistic arguments that “bans fail, therefore we should experiment with trade”. Rather, we should try to actually enforce a total ban and encourage conservationists and range states to land on the same page. DM

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