Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Rhino Horn: To Trade or Not to Trade

With no apologies to Shakespeare, my title is indeed the question of the moment when it comes to rhino horn. Over the last several months there has been a lively debate in several online forums on the question of the legalization of a trade in rhino horn. It is an issue clouded by emotion, self-interest, government involvement and some detailed research and common sense. 

In an interesting and relevant article by Samuel Mungadze in BusinessDay tells us that the South African Department of Environmental Affairs is giving serious consideration to the potential for an established trade in rhino horn. He tells us that the “Cabinet has already approved the proposal, which is set to be submitted to the next Conference of the Parties to the CITES, which takes place in South Africa in 2016.”

The article is relevant because of the world’s roughly 21,000 rhino 90% are in South Africa. The report said all traded horn would have to be registered, chipped and DNA-profiled before a registration certificate was issued.

A Pacific Standard article of March 6 2013  by Charles Redman covers most of the pro-trade argument.

The South African Hunters and Game Conservation Association is a group that has come out in support of the trade. They support their government’s decision to ask CITES to lift the ban. Their CEO, Chris Niehaus, is quoted as stating “With another three years until the next meeting of CITES in Cape Town in 2016 when this proposal can even be considered, let alone accepted and implemented, we should brace ourselves for the continued slaughter of rhinos. In the interim, all concerned South Africans will have to maintain and expand their efforts to protect rhinos from extinction.”  

Protagonist of the trade argument have mustered examples of two other species in which trade is known to have succeeded in not only reducing poaching, but even caused a marked rise in wild population numbers. They are and the vicuna, one of the four species of South American camelid  and the crocodilians (crocs, alligators and caimans).
A vicuna near the Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador
There are two links to the vicuna story. From the International Journal of the Commons comes a careful analysis of both successes and problems. The title says a lot, especially the question mark in the middle Vicuña conservation and poverty alleviation? Andean communities and international fibre markets. According to a recent Time Magazine article vicuna numbers have rebounded from an estimated 5000 to over 200,000.

Adult breedoing female crocodile on a farm
Farming the crocodilians has involved the successful hatching and rearing of far more eggs and young than would survive in the wild and the release of a proportion of each batch back into the environment.   Not all species have been dealt with this way, but it I have seen such farms in Uganda, Zimbabwe and South Africa. 

All eyes in the shed on a South African croc farm
Feeding time for young crocs

An example from North America is cited in a Voice of America article titled American Alligators: Conservation Success Story  The alligator was placed on the endangered species list in 1967. It was delisted in 1987. Twenty percent of farmed eggs are placed back in the wild and by any measure  The alligator farming program has brought hunters, farmers and conservationists together, because it has achieved the delicate balance between restoring a population and creating a nuisance.  
South Africa’s John Hume claims to be the largest private rhino famer in the country. He states in an email letter that he owns 762 rhino. He has written a 2332 word letter in which he lays out several reasons for his view that rhino horn should become a commodity. It would seem that he considers the product to be just like milk from a cow, removable (although not as often) rather than beef, for which a steer has to be slaughtered.

This is his summary
*    Rhino horn is a renewable resource.

*    The status quo of the CITES stance on the trade in rhino horn is clearly not working with regards to protecting the rhino.

*    Dehorning is a painless, fast procedure with the only risk to the animal being the use of anaesthetics.

*    With a legal trade in rhino horn, rhino farming will play an instrumental role in alleviating poverty in Southern Africa – one of the biggest threats to rhino populations and to global biodiversity in general.

*    With a legal trade in rhino horn, rhino farming will create more habitats for rhino, as well as many other threatened wildlife species – habitat destruction is the biggest threat to all wildlife on the planet.

*    Studies show that rhino breed very well on private farms so encouraging their farming will undoubtedly alter their threatened status. 

*    Emergent black farmers and rural communities can be assisted and taught to farm rhino, leading to community-based wildlife management and addressing the issue of poverty amongst these communities.

*    Programs can be developed to assist and educate emergent rhino farmers, where, with international funding and guidelines, a holistic approach to rhino farming throughout Africa can be implemented.

*    As the rhino population increases, these emergent farmers can be assisted through donations of rhino from National Parks or private farmers with surplus numbers of rhino.

He does not point out that he stands to make a huge amount of money (not that this is a bad thing) if trade is legalized. Adult male white rhino horn grows about 1kg per year, cows about 600 gm. A hundred rhino (50:50 sex ratio) would generate 4.8 million dollars.  Several owners write that it costs about $5000 a year to keep a rhino. This includes all the husbandry needs as well as the cost of policing. So, that means that an owner with 100 rhino would clear over $4 million (762 rhino = at least $30M). Even if prices dropped by half from the current level of about $65,000 per kilo Hume would do all right. He has invested in rhino. It is an open question as to how much other folks would benefit from his gain. His staff, for sure. The South African tax coffers, presumably. He claims that others, including small farmers, could benefit. I hope he is right.

His campaign manager and personal assistant, Tanya Jacobsen, has written several FB pieces and emails and is a vigorous proponent of the idea that rhino horn should be commercialized. She argues that it is no different than any other agricultural product and can be obtained without harm to the animals. She further points out that the demand for it is not going to go away because we in the west may wish it so or because anti-poaching efforts are going to succeed.

In any and all criminal activities, the “bad guys” are always one step ahead of law and order. A classic current example is the US “war on drugs” which has failed completely. The prohibition era of the 1930s was equally “effective.” Protection of those involved in the rhino horn trade reaches high into government circles, as illustrated by this July 2013 TRAFFIC report.

There is no doubt, as others and I have written before, that policing alone, however vigorous, will simply not work. A YouTube video purporting to show a sort of Rambo-style approach seems over the top in suggesting that six men can solve the problem. 

Recent encouraging stories like this one of Aug 8 are probably no more than blips. 

The comment from Kapama Game Reserve in South Africa received Sept 2 and posted on my last blog about rhino horn and bling tells the scary other side of the story.

Opponent of the trade argument come from at least two different camps. There are those who are opposed to idea of any utilization of wildlife, and of course see the rhino (and the elephant) as charismatic species that should never be commercialized.

On the Care2 petionsite is a piece by Valerie Marcelli titled : Call For The UNITED STATES To Reject The South African Proposal To Trade In Rhino Horn. I wonder if the 2,642 signatories are aware of all the issues or have read the range of literature. I suspect that many of them are acting at the emotional level, which is understandable if not particularly logical.

Another emotional and one-sided article was penned by Chris Mercer on July 23 this year. He titled it The End of The Game: How South Africa Turned Wildlife Into Livestock. I wonder if he knows, or acknowledges, the vicuna and crocodile story, or is aware that the white rhino population is as high as it has been since at least 1910 (when something between ten and fifty, depending upon whom you read, were left). Game farmers in South Africa have been caring for them for years, and it costs money to keep a rhino, even under the best of circumstances.

Then there are those who use rational arguments based upon the outcome of several CITES decisions between 1989 and 2002 to partially lift the ivory trade ban.  These folks look at the current and unsustainable destruction of elephants, purely for their ivory, and link it to those CITES decisions.

An article that puts both sides of the debate  comes from Bloomberg Businessweek. The authors report on news that the South African government is considering not only lifting a domestic ban on trade in rhinoceros horns, but even authorizing commercial farming and trading the horn on the Johannesburg bourse (stock exchange). The authors also quote the World Wildlife Fund’s Jo Shaw who stated that “we remain unconvinced that legal international trade in rhino horn is feasible for rhino conservation.”

On the academic side, in the March issue of Science Duan Biggs and his colleagues wrote that, “Rapid economic growth in east and southeast Asia is assumed to be the primary factor driving the increased demand for horn.” Others have made the same connection. And Karl Amman’s work on the bling and investigative side had shown solid evidence of the same thing.

Dr. Pete Morkel, a leading rhino expert reminded me of the six blind men of John Godfrey Saxe’s poem who see only a part of the elephant and all reach false conclusions.  Perhaps the various parties can be likened to them. The last four lines sum up the situation nicely.
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

One man who sees the whole “elephant,” with its complex and interlocking parts is Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes. On his rhino-focused website he writes, I have been passionate about wildlife conservation and ecology for more than 30 years.  Instead of following the usual career path of a biological sciences degree, I studied business and economics, and I now apply what I learned to conservation issues. I started researching the economics of rhino conservation in 1989.  I would like to share with you what I have learned since then, because I believe the rhino’s future depends on us all being properly informed and understanding the real underlying issues.  Please approach this site with an open heart and an open mind!

In a 17-page pdf article that discusses almost all of the issues around rhino poaching (expect the “bling” thing which is quite new) he concludes:

If we can start to grasp this complex and deeply-rooted Asian cultural affinity towards rhino horn – and move beyond misguided populist Western views of rhino horn being sought as an aphrodisiac or quack medicine based on a cancer-curing myth – we stand a far better chance of finding a sensible lasting solution to the problem of rhino poaching”

“To solve the problem of rhino poaching, all those concerned with saving rhinos should engage in open and honest dialogue. African and Asian rhino owners and custodians, global conservation NGOs and Asian consumers of rhino products should all ultimately share the same objective: to prevent the extinction of wild rhino populations. Are these different groups capable of setting aside their differences and forging a mutually acceptable and sustainable solution?”

I cannot link to his copyrighted article on this blog, but you can either contact him at that website if you want to get a balanced view, or I can send it to you if you so wish.

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