Organized crime will undermine legal rhino horn trade

2014-01-15 19:13


In 2013 Science published an article by Biggs and co-authors that stated in order to conserve rhinos “the only remaining option is a carefully regulated legal trade....” The position was put forward as hard fact, almost a solution in itself, when in reality it is merely a perspective.

Stock-piled horns and antiques could be sold under a legal trade mechanism


The 2013 article presented a well-written economic rationale for legalizing the white rhino horn trade. It argued that should a central selling organization (CSO) provide a tightly managed mechanism to receive and deliver horn in a controlled trade chain, all would be well. If we could expect an equal, predictable and linear response by illicit traders this assertion would likely be correct. However, this is not what we should expect.

The Biggs article and several subsequent articles consider crime dynamics very poorly. Organized crime responses to control initiatives of highly valuable commodities such as the one proposed are invariably not equal or predictable, but are asymmetrical. This lack of understanding of criminal behaviour and in particular organized crime dynamics by the pro-trade lobby is very worrying.

Partly, the reasons for failing to examine the probable asymmetrical crime responses to the trade stem from the use of inappropriate comparisons, such as the sale of crocodile products. Controlled legal trade is all very well for a species whose products buy and sell within clear and predictable consumer demand parameters. From an organized crime perspective there is little to manipulate in this scenario. However, where the species’ products are subject to consistently new, highly unstable and unpredictable consumer choices the notion that the market can be controlled is unrealistic. On the contrary, illicit traders will continue to creatively exploit the insatiable and ever-changing uses for the product far faster than any bureaucratically laden CSO will. The very nature of legal trading is laughable to those in the illicit trade business.

The pro-trade lobby talks of price-regulation. Yet even if the price was regulated within a CSO by participating national agencies or externally by the market, illicit traders will manipulate prices either above (when demand remains high) or below (to undercut) a CSO. Undercutting will remain an option unless the sale price is cheaper than illegally sourcing horn, which is unlikely. The pro-trade lobbyists also (correctly) state that for legal trade to succeed demand must not escalate to dangerously high levels. What exactly those levels are would be a fascinating question for them to answer; Asia is flooded with fake horn trying to meet the huge demand and that demand will not diminish any time soon.

Even where wildlife product uses are relatively stable and the species is farmed, such as tiger, the consumer preference for ‘wild’ products remains. So much so that even as tigers continue to decline due to poaching and trafficking, their products are being replaced with legal and illegal lion parts from Africa. And the legal trade in lion parts in South Africa has not prevented illegal trade out of East Africa. This must not be ignored by the pro-trade lobby.


Organized crime business models have much greater flexibility than conventional models. They have the ability to oversee supply chain nodes and significantly manipulate transaction costs and final sale prices. Even the trade currency may differ, ranging from Bitcoin to barter systems using illicit goods, including humans. At a debate in London on 17th October 2013 proponents of the legal trade claimed that rigorous research supported their position. But the research so far has only brushed on the extensive criminological literature and failed to draw sufficiently on organized crime expertise. Until the role of a key stakeholder, organized crime, is properly accounted for the legal trade debate cannot move forward constructively. Notably, the anti-trade arguments and existing conservation approaches also fail dismally at this same juncture. The anti-trade lobby focuses on conflicts of interest and how much certain individuals will make from a legal horn trade – all very well but hardly the crux of the conservation issue.

But we do know of the extent of some of the challenges. Key rhino range states such as Kenya and Zimbabwe are deeply criminalized at a state level, a result of sophisticated organized criminals. A 2011 report by the International Peace Institute outlines the depth of transnational organized crime in Kenya, the population hub of the eastern black rhino. Transparency International ranks Kenya and Zimbabwe among the most corrupt countries in the world, with Indonesia not far behind. While trade supporters say that only white rhino will be legally traded, the level of corruption a CSO would need to contend with is staggering.

Will eastern black rhinos be saved by a legal trade in white rhino horn?


The conservation community owe it to the rhinos to innovate and intelligently debate the innovations. A legal trade is one approach among a suite of potential innovations. Biggs and his co-authors took a bold step in stating their position in 2013 and debate can only progress if these steps are taken. They should be congratulated for this. But the pro-trade argument must be better considered and integrated with knowledge from the spheres of criminology, law enforcement, economics and sociology. Because of the immaturity of the pro and anti-trade arguments, as it stands right now we are far from an informed decision on legalizing rhino horn trade.


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