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What lemon trees can teach us about rhinos

2017-08-29 12:56

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Robert J. Traydon

It’s outrageous. Killing rhinos for their horns is like chopping down lemon trees for their lemons! - Robert J. Traydon

Although there are obvious differences between lemon trees and rhinos, they share one distinct similarity – demand for their fruit/horn is soaring across East Asia’s rapidly expanding middle class.

If you didn’t already know, the price of lemons has surged recently as a result of East Asia’s insatiable craving for lemon slices in drinks ranging from still or sparkling water to high-end cocktails. Demand has grown so rapidly that local South African farmers are clearing existing, less profitable orchards to make way for the planting of lemon trees.

Rhino horn has experienced a similar spike in demand over the last few years as a result of the seemingly contagious East Asian belief that it constitutes the ultimate homeopathic cancer/hangover-curing, libido-boosting substance on the planet – despite medical tests proving that it provides nothing more than a placebo effect.

But, where demand for lemons is regarded as a fantastic economic opportunity that should be capitalised on, demand for rhino horn is portrayed as a heinous atrocity – committed by a market that is uneducated, misinformed or even malicious – that would be criminal to exploit.

One then has to ask whether the taste enhancement of a lemon slice in a drink is truly deserving of the blistering demand in lemons? Probably not, but no-one in their right mind would question this demand because there are no associated health risks, and it presents a huge economic opportunity. If rhino horn was harvested as successfully as lemons, would we condemn its demand … would we vilify its market? Most likely not, especially since the use of rhino horn has no serious side-effects.

The real atrocity of rhino poaching is that rhinos are killed for their horns – and they don’t need to be. It’s equivalent to cutting down fully-grown lemon trees to steal lemons.

If rhinos were indigenous to the United States

Consider a world where rhinos were always indigenous to North America rather than Africa. Would the United States have denied themselves the huge economic opportunity of selling rhino horn to the East – even if there were only 30 000 rhinos left? I think not…

In fact, rhino horn would likely have become one of the country’s most profitable exports due to sky-rocketing demand across the booming, highly-populated East Asian region. Rhinos would be farmed across the United States in large ‘Fort Knox-style’ conservation areas, with their horns being harvested every two years. The most productive rhinos would yield over 100kg of horn during their 50-year life spans, generating well in excess of $5 million per animal.

The last thing the United States would do is curtail demand by condemning the huge consumer base that has faith in the horn’s supposed natural benefits. The ‘superfluous’ detail that rhino horn contains nothing more than keratin would be conveniently overlooked by industry leaders and marketing departments. They would promote horn powder as the ultimate homeopathic medicine and, in true American fashion, would employ promotional slogans like, ‘put the horn back into horny!’

Secondary industries would boom in tandem, selling all sorts of associated paraphernalia. Since rhino horn is widely inhaled, branded aerosol dispensers and designer inhalers would become standard accessories on the shelves of pharmacies, gift shops and department stores.

Importantly, unlike the long list of illegal drugs, rhino horn is a harmless substance. So, there would be little to stand in the way of its marketing, mass distribution and use. And, conservationists would appreciate the fact that rhino numbers in these heavily funded and protected conservation areas are thriving. Illegal poaching operations, as well as any illegal trade in ‘blood-horn’, would be dealt with decisively and would never be allowed to put the reputation of the rhino horn industry at risk.

There’s little doubt that the US would reinvent rhino horn as one of the most desirable and valuable commodities on the planet, irrespective of medical opinion. And, it would regulate the horn industry like any other precious commodity listed and traded on Wall Street.

South Africa can set a precedent

The sad truth is that Africa as a whole appears incapable of getting its act together to make the above scenario a reality. But, there are pockets of excellence in South Africa which have set a promising precedent. These include the sable antelope, crocodile and ostrich industries which are all thriving, and prove that the farming of wild species can be both sustainable and profitable. Rhinos, and elephants for that matter, should be added to this list – especially if we are serious about saving these species from extinction.

Let’s face it, in a perfect world mankind would not exist and rhinos would roam free across the African and Asian continents in unimaginable numbers. But we do exist and over the last five millennia mankind’s unprecedented proliferation has resulted in the near-comprehensive displacement of all wild mega-fauna (mammals over 40kg). And the situation’s about to get a whole lot worse…

Africa’s human population is set to soar from 1 billion today, to an estimated 4 billion by the year 2100. With the rhino population already under severe pressure, it would be safe to assume that their dwindling numbers in the wild will be poached to extinction by 2030, and they will survive only in captivity from then on.

Where these majestic animals once numbered in their tens of millions, less than 30 000 individuals remain with over 7 000 having been poached in the last five years alone:

Rhino Species/Sub-species       Estimated Population in 2017

Southern White Rhino                   20 170

Northern White Rhino                   3 - Extinct in the wild

West African Black Rhino              Extinct (2007)

Black Rhino (all sub-species)        4 880

Indian Rhino                                 2 850

Sumatran Rhino                           Less than 100

Javan Rhino                                 63

The scourge of poaching has ravaged the African continent since the 1960s and with the recent spike in rhino killings, the future of the species is looking increasingly bleak.

The reality is that rhino populations will suffer steady decline unless we embrace a commercial philosophy – like we did with the gold, diamond, crocodile and ostrich industries. A portion of the profits generated from rhino horn sales should be ploughed back into protecting their numbers in the wild, as well as the hundreds of other ‘commercially unviable’ threatened species that share our national parks with them.

This security investment should include, as a minimum, military-spec patrol drones and highly specialised anti-poaching units that are 100% dedicated to the defence of South Africa’s rhino ‘assets’ – valued at a conservative R50 million each. Surviving poachers would quickly realise that it’s the end of the road and time to consider an alternative career path.

The rhino’s future is in our hands

South Africa is home to over 80% of the world’s rhinos, and with this, comes the heavy burden of its future survival. Thus, South Africa should have the ultimate say in how the rhino is going to be saved.

With proper regulations and enforcement to stop contamination of commercial horn with poached horn, the world should be convinced to lift the 40-year old global moratorium on rhino horn – especially if South Africa can prove that the horn trade will save the species.

We’re also in the extremely fortunate position to have the global monopoly on rhinos, and this niche advantage should be leveraged to boost our ailing economy.

Last week’s rhino horn auction was the first step in a direction that may ultimately allow South Africa, and Africa, to capitalise on the rising East Asian demand for rhino horn. Let us embrace this demand so that our rhinos can follow in the footprint of our lemon trees.

- Robert J. Traydon is a part-time author and BSc graduate of Mechanical Engineering. His writing explores a range of contentious environmental, economic and political themes from a uniquely contrarian perspective.

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