Could legally trading horn save the rhino?

Black rhino mother and calf
The current trade ban is failing to conserve rhinos because it restricts supply of horns in the face of persistent and growing demand. Under a legal trade agreement, demand could be met through the humane and sustainable harvesting of horns from live animals.
Dr Duan Biggs
In a paper published in Science last week, four leading environmental experts have called for the institution of a legal trade in rhino horn. The authors argue that legalisation and regulation of the trade in rhino products by the international community is the only way that black and white rhinoceros will be saved from extinction.

Despite attempts to curb hunting with an international ban under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) treaty, the rate of illegal poaching of wild rhino has continued to climb and the price of rhino horn has soared in recent years. According to the scientists behind this paper, a more radical approach is needed to protect these species from poachers and the increasingly sophisticated means by which they are hunted and killed. 

Lead author Dr Duan Biggs is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Queensland and the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED). Dr Biggs told that the international ban on rhino products has fairly conclusively failed.

"Approximately 100,000 rhino have been poached since the CITES trade ban was instituted in 1977," he pointed out. "That is four times more than are alive in Africa today."

The Western black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis longipes), a subspecies of the black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) was declared extinct by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in November 2011. The estimated 5000 black rhino and 20,000 white rhino (Ceratotherium simum) remaining in the wild largely inhabit South Africa and Namibia. However, poaching in South Africa has more than doubled every year for the past five years to keep up with increased demand, with rhino horn now worth far more than its weight in gold. Along with co-authors Franck Courchamp, Rowan Martin and CEED Director Professor Hugh Possingham, Dr Biggs believes that a lack of enforcement is not at the heart of the problem.

"The trade ban on rhino horn is somewhat like the prohibition of alcohol in the United States from 1919 to 1933 – because of persistent demand it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to enforce," he noted.

Indeed, stricter enforcement of the ban may have exacerbated the problem rather than going any way towards solving it.

"My co-author Rowan Martin tells me that there is strong evidence to suspect that the recent escalation in poaching in South Africa has followed the suspension of an ongoing 'informal trade', linked to the export of rhino trophies from commercial hunts that had been taking place for at least ten years," said Dr Biggs. "In other words, as long as the market was being supplied with horn (albeit illegally) there was minimal poaching."

To explain how creating a legal trade would benefit rhino conservation, Dr Biggs drew a comparison between the situation of the rhinos and the practice of farming crocodiles for their skins, which saved the species from being hunted to extinction.

"The current trade ban is failing to conserve rhinos because it restricts supply of horns in the face of persistent and growing demand," he stated. "Under a legal trade agreement, demand could be met through the humane and sustainable harvesting of horn from live animals and those which die of natural causes.

White rhino head
The white rhino is the largest of the five extant rhinoceros species
"A legal trade can take pressure off wild populations, as successfully demonstrated by the legal trade in crocodile products. It will also deliver broader conservation and socio-economic benefits."

An adult rhino can grow almost a kilogram of horn each year. The best-practice technique for shaving horn humanely presents minimal risks to the animal and is also relatively inexpensive. Among the broader benefits Dr Biggs mentioned are the greater tracts of land which would be devoted to rhino habitat, in turn aiding the conservation of other species, and the potential of generating income for impoverished rural communities across Africa.

The paper contends that a central selling organisation (CSO) should be set up as ‘the only authority that can legally sell horns to registered buyers’, and that the stockpiles of horn – amounting to as much as 15 to 20 tons – held in South Africa could be used initially to draw buyers away from the black market and subsequently to keep prices down if they should escalate. 

Governments would be required to implement strong penalties for any buyers operating outside the legal market, but at the same time valuable information could be gleaned about the market for horn by monitoring and studying the legal trade. If an unexpected upsurge in poaching were to take place, the system could then be restructured or shut down.

Dr Biggs admitted that, despite these proposed safeguards, there is plenty of opposition to the idea. He insisted, though, that the fates of black and white rhino hang in the balance and that their best interests would be served by installing a CSO and a legal trade now that other measures appear to have failed.

"Critics argue that we should ramp up law enforcement and anti-poaching efforts as well as educating the consumers in Asia to dissuade them from buying rhino horn. Critics also argue that a legal trade may make the poaching problem worse.

"However, attempts to increase enforcement and to educate consumers have failed. The scientific evidence shows that a carefully structured and managed legal trade has the potential to reduce poaching pressure on wild rhino populations."

The topic is expected to be raised at the CITES 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP16) which was convened yesterday in Bangkok.

Please click here to view the text-only version of the paper.



I heard on BBC Radio 5 this morning that in one survey, 7 out of 10 Chinese people believe elephant tusks fall off and grow back. Apparently many consumers of ivory, rhino horn, shark fin, etc. are completely unaware of the poaching. Education will help, and much severer sentences for poachers and smugglers will help even more. It's in the interests of the likes of South Africa and Namibia as one day they'll have no animals and therefore no tourist dollars from safaris.

Alex - United Kingdom
This is one reason why responsible caregivers need to be allowed to have these creatures - to stop them from becoming extinct; albeit in captivity only.

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