Thursday, June 27, 2013

Rhino Horn: To Ban or Not to Ban the Trade

As readers of this, and other blogs, FB and Twitter posts and the occasional piece of print media are well aware, rhino poaching has continued to escalate, somewhat like a slow tsunami, for the last five or six years. I have posted on this subject thirteen times since 2010.

Most of the increase in annual numbers has taken place in Africa and it is no surprise that the vast Kruger National Park has taken most of the hits. The numbers change from week to week, but it would seem that well over two animals a day are being taken out. The latest figure I have seen, for mid-June, was 428 dead rhino, 267 of them in the Kruger alone. One June 22 a South African National Parks report stated that 25 rhino had been killed in the Limpopo district in one week. 

A Linkedin group flying under the banner of The Wildlife Conservation Society has seen a considerable amount of traffic of late. There has been a lively debate about the pros and cons of lifting the ban of the trade in rhino horn.

There can be no doubt that the policing efforts in many places have not worked, or not worked as well as one might have hoped. These increases have come at substantial cost to governments and park managers. Ranger and military forces have been increased, sometimes by considerable numbers, but the poachers have persisted, and just like in other walks of life the “bad guys” are one step ahead of the forces of law and order. The CITES ban has simply not worked.

The protagonists of an open market and lifting of the ban have quoted scientific article titled A Market Solution For Preserving Biodiversity: The Black Rhino,  prepared in 1999 by Gardner Brown and David Layton.

The article was published in a book titled Protecting Endangered Species in the United States and edited by Jason F. Shogren and John Tschirhart.

The article contains a bunch of mathematical formulas, and maths is definitely not my strong suit. The very opposite. I recall (dimly) something about differential equations, but I have no idea what they do.

Much has changed since that paper was published and some of the assumptions are out of date. The new, and entirely false claim of the horn having cancer-cure properties was a clever marketing tool used by unscrupulous vendors in Vietnam. 

A woman grinding rhino horn in a specially designed bowl
Who could resist such a claim when we know that folks with cancer can be desperate for any sort of solution.  On top of that came the ridiculous claim that the stuff is a cure-all for hangovers, which led it to become a “fashion” tonic for the newly rich and upwardly mobile in Vietnam. Not bad for an overgrown fingernail!

On the price side, the Vietnamese marketing has driven the price to something close to double that of gold. Wow, my fingernails are not worth that much.

While many poachers have been killed and even more arrested, the carnage continues and the rangers are at constant risk. That they are willing to run that risk, the loss of their own lives, speaks volumes for them, and it is even sadder to realize that rangers, senior park and wildlife officials and military forces in some countries have been implicated in the poaching, rather than the efforts to stop it. For me personally, the saddest example of this lies in the country of my birth where, it is reported, that over 30 senior staff of the Kenya Wildlife Service have been suspended over allegations of complicity in poaching.

Thousands of words have been exchanged on the issue. Those who wish to see the ban lifted seem to come from the very considerable number of South African game ranchers who have successfully, and at no trivial cost, successfully bred rhinos on their properties. Nobody has provided actual numbers, but the ranchers obviously see the potential of the sale of horn into the oriental (mainly Vietnamese) market as being no different than the sale of any other commodity derived from a business venture. The only other sources of income for these ranchers are through tourism or livestock auctions. For those who wonder about the latter, they have been an integral part of the South African game ranch industry for at least twenty years. Ranchers have become expert at rounding up and transporting just about any species that one can ranch.

Among the arguments in favour of the legalization of trade one correspondent suggests that poachers could be taught to breed rhinos and harvest the horn every two years or so. The horn of a white rhino (the commonest species) grows at about 0.9 kg per year and at prices in the $60,000 per kg range that would mean a substantial income from just a few animals. The writer makes the point that the communities that engage in this enterprise would guard their assets with their lives.

Those who are against any form of legalization of the rhino horn trade point to the disastrous results of the lifting of the ivory ban by CITES. Nobody (except perhaps those who work within CITES) thinks that the partial lifting of the ban in 1997 has been anything but an utter catastrophe for elephants.  There is a lot of traffic on Internet sites about this mess, and Wikipedia has an interesting look at the long history  of this subject, but I’m trying to focus on the rhino issue here.

There have been some changes in the law and penalties for those who are caught poaching. The Kenya government recently changed their laws so that those found guilty might be fined up to $120,00 and prison terms of up to 15 years. This was quite a change form the previous fine of $480.

Harsh penalties for offenders may help a little, but only a little. The real culprits either live in Vietnam or are middle-men in Africa who make the real profits. They would never risk the actual poaching, which involves killing, hard work blood and so on.  They are the ones who need to be targeted. Of course some of them work inside the various wildlife agencies and park systems, or in the military. They will be much harder to catch, but if not caught the carnage will continue. The actual poacher on the ground may be a man who earns a few dollars a day and is trying to support a family. He may be desperate. If he has killed a few rhino (or elephants) he may have upped his social status a bit, and will therefore be even keener to be involved.

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