On the horn of a dilemma

A few years ago a report by TRAFFIC entitled Rhino Horn Stockpile Management: Minimum standards and best practices from east and southern Africa was a strong contender for the most ridiculous book title that year. The oxymoron seemed obvious. With the South African government now considering legalising the trade in farmed rhino horn that conclusion is rather less clear cut.

“According to a study supporting the South African proposal, existing ‘demand’ could be met by moving 2000 adult rhinoceros – 10% of the wild population – to fenced enclosures covering a total of 400,000 ha. These a poor animals would then have their horns ‘humanely’ removed once every two years over their lifespan of 35 to 50 years.”

That is Paula Kahumbu writing in the Guardian. However she is opposed. She goes on to argue:

“But in reality there is no way that the supply from farmed rhino could come remotely close to meeting the demand, which is growing exponentially as consumers in the principal markets in Southeast Asia become richer.”

This seems something of a non sequitur: yes if demand does continue to rise exponentially and farmed stocks do not increase then clearly this solution will not suffice. But when protected from the threats of living wild and given proper veterinary care then animal populations can also increase exponentially. (Although it should be noted that rhinos breed quite slowly, so that exponential growth might not be of the most impressive sort. But with another 90% of the population still in the wild, early short falls could be met by moving more of the wild population on to farms.) Conversely the potential for market demand to continue increasing exponentially rather depends on how much unmet latent demand there is, and how that might react to a rare ‘status symbol’ luxury good becoming that comparatively common place.

However, instead of focusing on the economics, Paula’s article focuses on the emotional, with distressing tales of the fate of poached rhinos. Her biases are clear in the above description of farmed rhinos as ‘’poor animals”. She should check out Gerald Durrell’s defence of zoos* in relation to the Hobbesian reality to life in the jungle (or savannah). And why is it ok to farm cattle and chickens (and ostriches and kangaroos these days), but not rhinos? (Especially since de-horning is rather less fatal than a trip to the abattoir!) This seems to be drifting dangerously close to much debunked Victorian romantic notions of the noble savage.

Of course, I am with Paula in my abhorrence for poaching and a preference for rhinos to live free. But if the choice is between extinction and managed trade then such principles do not get us very far. There are far better arguments against farming rhino horn in the lessons learned from attempting legal trade in ivory a few years ago (it provided plausible cover for poached ivory and undermined moral arguments against the use of ivory amongst consumers). It is also unclear whether farmed rhino horn would have the same cachet as wild stuff: economic conditions need to be right for farming to work.

I suspect some conservationists do not like to engage with such arguments because they fear that in doing so they concede the point that this is a question of economics, when for them it is a moral issue. However, we are a long way from global consensus at present, and the ‘enlightened’ minority for the most part recognise the limits to which they are prepared to impose their morals on others. And while I can happily agree that maiming rhinos is clearly immoral, such moral arguments have fuzzy enough philosophical edges (especially for meat eaters) that our pleas for a more moral approach may cut little ice with those who see the world differently.

So I think we need this debate. As with the War on Drugs, strictly prohibitionist approaches to poaching and the illegal trade in animal parts seems to be getting us nowhere. Populations continue to decline, and species are ending up extinct. Whether the South African plan could ever work is another question.

* In one of his books. Alas I cannot recall which one, and for once the interwebs have let me down.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by am on May 30, 2014 at 7:30 pm

    I think the figures quoted refer to African Rhino populations. The need for farms is also clear if the Asian Rhino populations are looked at. Some Asian sub-species are now in the 100’s and I wouldn’t think that there is much hope for them without getting them somewhere safer. The attrition by poaching in Africa will also eventually get to the 100’s if large numbers are not put on heavily guarded farms. Keeping them in the wild is just too emotional and does not recognise that they are easier to kill in parks.
    There was a park in Zimbabwe called Chizaria which had massive rhino populations in ideal habit. They were all but wiped out and the few left relocated to heavily guarded parks further away from the border with Zambia which was the major source of the poaching.
    In fact there is an argument for shipping large numbers out of the continent altogether for safe keeping.

    Reply

  2. An alternative market approach:

    What if a number of the horns in the wild is considered contaminated? The contamination is diverse, to make sure detection is difficult, but with grave consequences: playing on superstition or male pride. E.g. sterility, loss of potency, balding.

    As nobody will ever be sure that any rhino-horn is “healthy”, market collapses. Hurray.

    Probably a belief in the contamination of 1 % would suffice if the cases of the victims would get enough social media attention.

    Reply

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