Privatise the rhino

2013-11-20 21:46

It’s hard to believe that rhino horn, which is made of the same substance which forms human hair and finger nails is a symbol of status and has any medicinal benefit. Rhinos are now not only a national treasure, but they’ve become a rare commodity. So rare that rhino horns are now worth more than gold and cocaine.

Our rhinos are getting slaughtered. At a new high: 800-plus rhinos this year alone. The South African Government had implicitly accepted the rhino as a commodity, accepting rhino horn as an unproven cure for cancer when it requested permission (and pending) from the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) for a once off sale of its 18 ton-plus stockpile of confiscated rhino horns, and submitted a proposal for a regulated international trade in rhino horn. And instead of selling rhino awareness bracelets, Rhinose car horns and plush toys to raise funding for anti-poaching activities, at a market value of R10 billion (about $65 000/kg) it would go a long way for conservation efforts.

With the Kruger National Park almost the size of Israel, public ownership simply does not create strong incentives to invest in additional rhino protection over and above conservation, especially not to the people on the ground, the gamekeepers and breeders who ultimately decide the rhinos’ fate. Private ownership would give farmers and breeders the direct incentive to protect and manage their rhino responsibly. But one cannot ignore the fact that its economic value has made a rhino worth more dead than alive. You can purchase a live rhino at an auction for R500 000 and fetch anything up to R1.5 million for its horn on the black market. So what’s the point of investing in a rhino when the value of the species declines as the perceived value of its horn accelerates?

But the attractiveness of rhino farming hinges on the ban on rhino horn trade: what’s the point of breeding rhino if one cannot trade its horn to pay, for example, for conservation, security, breeding, feeding or dehorning costs? Instead, to prevent the poaching and killing of rhino, one has to unnecessarily dehorn the rhino and store its horn in a safety deposit box. John Hume, the largest rhino breeder in the world owns over 900 rhinos and probably knows how it feels.

As much as the CITES ban on rhino horn trade has done absolutely nothing to curb poaching in 35 years, who’s to say that a legal rhino horn market won’t make things any worse. Surely if the Government were to sell its stockpile of rhino horns for R10 billion that would be sufficient for conservation and protection as well to drive down the price of rhino horn.

Although unbanning the rhino horn trade effectively reduces the rhino to a commodity, legalizing the trade and flooding the market remains contested. Because the trade is illegal, like many illegal markets, the laws of supply and demand still exist, people are irrational and greedy, and the incentives are not so easy to determine. Two problems exist. We don’t know how big the Asian demand is. Rhino horn not only has perceived medicinal benefits but is also a symbol of status, inherent in possibly millions of Vietnamese and Chinese peoples’ lives. Legalizing the trade will simply not serve to drive down the price if buyers are either price insensitive or stockpiling the horn. Secondly, a big risk when flooding the market with a valuable and storable commodity like rhino horn is that international syndicates may end up buying it all because of its perceived future value, just like the diamond cartel in South Africa successfully restricted the supply of diamonds and raised the price way above what it would have been under market conditions.

I’m all for rhino and rhino horn farming, breeding, dehorning and private ownership to sustain the species, any solution that makes the rhino worth more alive than dead. But the thought of a legal rhino horn market is outlandish. I’d like to think that it’s reasonable to inflict pain in order to ensure better protection, but how can we expect the rhinos to pay for themselves?

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