South Africa’s Rhino Paradox

Stephen Wiggins Article 4 Comments

Banner image courtesy of Sunday Times SA

Original article at Project Syndicate, 22 September 2017

By Ross Harvey – Senior researcher with SAIIA and a PhD student at the University of Cape Town’s School of Economics.

South Africa’s recent reversal of a ban on trade in rhinoceros horn has invigorated support for commercial farming of the product. But breeders’ argument that a legal market will protect wild populations ignores how the illicit trade in wildlife products actually functions.

JOHANNESBURG – Earlier this year, South Africa’s Constitutional Court overturned a 2009 moratorium on trade in rhinoceros horns. It was a devastating blow for animal conservation groups, which had hailed a measure that aligned South Africa with the global ban on the trade in effect since 1977.

But as the court’s ruling sinks in, commercial breeders and animal rights groups face a crucial question: could the creation of a legal market for farmed horns curb a poaching pandemic that claims some 1,500 wild rhinos annually?

For South Africa’s rhino industry, the court’s decision was a watershed. John Hume, the world’s most successful rhino breeder, hosted the country’s first online horn auction in August. Writing on the auction’s website, he argued that “the demand for rhino horn is high, and open trading of the horn has the potential to satisfy this demand to prevent rhino poaching.”

Opponents of the trade say demand for horns could increase as a result of legalization, reviving dormant interest. This growth could outpace commercial supply, and even fuel more illegal poaching of wild animals. Critics also worry that ending the ban will remove any lingering stigma associated with possessing rhino horn, further boosting demand.

Breeders and traders like Hume concede that demand “is not going to die down anytime soon.” But they argue that because horns are a renewable resource – they grow back when trimmed, albeit slowly – what South Africa actually needs are incentives to encourage responsible breeding and conservation. “If we do not take the steps to meet the demand,” Hume argues, “we won’t save the rhino.“

We still do not know how the court’s decision will affect demand for a resource that is prized throughout Asia for its [unproven] medicinal value. What is clear, however, is that placing too much trust in a commercial conservation approach is risky. Evidence suggests that while farming of rhinos may have niche market possibilities, it will not prevent poaching of wild rhinos.

Similar efforts to protect wild animals through farming have fallen short. For example, a 2010 study in Vietnam found that commercial farming of the Southeast Asian porcupine, a popular meat source, had not dramatically reduced the hunting of wild porcupines. It is the same story for elephant ivory, bear bile, and mule deer musk. Demand for wild products often far exceeds what commercial breeding can realistically offer.

Commercial breeding programs are further disadvantaged because of the perception among some buyers that wild products are more valuable. As University of Johannesburg scientist Laura Tensen has noted, “wild animals are considered superior because of their rarity and high expense.”

That is especially true for rhinos. Poachers often prove the veracity of their illicit product by showing buyers horns that have been removed from the base of the skull, an extraction method that kills the animal. Only the most conscience-stricken consumer would ensure that horns they purchase are sourced from licensed breeders.

Historically, poaching has also been immune to fluctuations in the retail price of rhino horns. For the price mechanism to eradicate poaching, demand would need to bottom out. With demand actually increasing, and without a threshold price to encourage breeding, supply-side interventions are unlikely to be effective in protecting wild rhinos. Currently, rhino horn sells for as much as $60,000 per kilogram in parts of Asia.

Breeders are convinced that with permitting systems and detection technologies, legal horns could be identified, law enforcement could prevent illegal horns from being trafficked, and domestic trading could reduce the stress on wild populations. But these arguments hinge on a number of conditions that are, at the moment, purely aspirational.

For starters, commercial breeding will succeed only if farmed horns are viewed as a substitute for products sourced from wild animals. But as researchers like Tensen report, that is unlikely in the near term, given the higher status associated with non-farmed products.

Law-enforcement efforts would also need to be increased to detect illegal supplies and break up laundering rings. Unfortunately, the illegal syndicates that smuggle wildlife products, often with assistance from government officials, are adept at evading detection.

Finally, the pro-farming argument assumes that commercial breeders will eventually supply horn at lower prices than poachers. But captive breeding is costly. Scientists at the University of California, San Diego, for example, have shown that white rhinos rarely produce fertile offspring in captivity. Furthermore, the horns of young adults grow by only about six centimeters a year, and that rate diminishes with age.

Commercial breeders dispute that their operations amount to ‘captivity,’ and Hume’s model is meant to replicate wild conditions as much as possible. Yet if farmed solutions were ever to be seen as an alternative to wild harvesting, other breeders would need to replicate such conditions. The cost would be significant, and corners would no doubt be cut.

While breeders are eager to defend their trade, economists have debunked the myth that a legal domestic market in rhino horns will conserve wild populations. Even if farmed supplies from South Africa satisfied a portion of the demand globally, it will not alter demand among consumers drawn to wild product, or those who are indifferent about the source. South Africa will most likely soon be home to parallel markets, with extensive laundering of illegal horn. That may be acceptable to breeders, but it defies reason for those trying to conserve wild rhinos.

Comments 4

  1. Gustav Venter

    I think you’re pegging me wrong. I’m not fazed by a barrage of scientific papers. It is also not as if I do not have a raft of “scientific, peer-reviewed” documents to fling back. A quick search of an academic database throws up almost 140 papers on the subject, all of them what you would term “scientific, peer-reviewed” studies. Many of them come out against legalization and many are for it. And yes, I can pepper the discussion with names like Biggs, Courchamp, Martin, Possingham, ‘t Sas-Rolfes, Van der Merwe, Murphree, Swart who are all respected researchers and who are all in favour of lifting the ban.

    The reason why I eschew trotting out these documents is because I believe it is not a proper way of conducting a debate. Surely as proponent of a certain viewpoint it is up to you to read these papers, digest the information and present it in a format which benefits the debate. Otherwise we are pretty much redundant in the debate. Your search engine will extrude scientific papers and my search engine will respond likewise. May the best search engine win.

    You put great stock in your choice of scientific papers, and some of them seem decent enough. Others again…

    Take the recent one you’ve been recommending so highly by young Ross Harvey. If that is the standard of scientific paper you wish to drag into the conversation, I need to ask: Why bother. It is nothing more than a jumped-up opinion piece riddled with rookie mistakes. How about his assertion that “white rhinos rarely produce fertile offspring” (citing a “scientific, peer-reviewed” paper to boot)? Well, John Hume would beg to differ. The Crous brothers would be incredulous. And there opinion carries more weight than that of “scientists at the University of California, San Diego.” They breed these animals and find it not complicated at all.

    Furthermore, the science at hand is most often economics, and economists are the most fallible prognosticators in academia today. If they weren’t, the world’s economy would drifting from one black swan mess to the next.
    So that leaves us to glean information from the darn papers and arrange it with the aid of that one most valuable faculty entrusted to each of us: common sense. If you want me to react to what is in your papers, distil and present the contents. I will make the same effort with the gist of my papers.

    It shouldn’t be up to John Hume and his fellow farmers to prove that lifting the ban will work. It is way more urgent for the proponents of the failed trade ban to explain how what has been a terrible failure for almost a decade, will all of a sudden turn into a wonderful success.

    1. Post
      Stephen Wiggins

      Well, at least you have moved on a bit from your simplistic cattle and sheep theories – and you are now getting more realistic about the complexities and need for careful study of the actual, specific dynamics on rhino horn trade. But now of course you say economists, as well as science can be wrong – yes there are always errors in the human world, but when the balance of multiple sources reach the same conclusions, that gives the majority conclusion much more weight. I am sure an economist in favour of a legal rhino horn trade would be less likely to meet with your disapproval of their professionalism as a body of research and knowledge.

      “It shouldn’t be up to John Hume and his fellow farmers to prove that lifting the ban will work.”

      Of course it is! They are advocating (as are you) for the lifting of an international ban on rhino horn trade that was agreed by an internationally recognised regulatory body (CITES). Advocating for anything, means you need to present the case (and show all the risks that exist in reality have been acknowledged and somehow, mitigated). This is especially true when Hume and his fellow farmers get to potentially profit massively from such trade regardless of the outcome for wild rhino (whose preservation is cited as their key objective). Conflict of interest and an obvious vested interest spring to mind from their advocating for international legal trade, so let them prove the credibility of why they advocate for it – and no, since when has any given man’s ‘common sense’ opinion been acceptable as the single source for adopting a risky action.

      If you want South Africa (and/or others) to present a case to CITES (eg. CoP18) seeking to lift that international ban by consent, you are going to have to present something that has undeniable scientific credibility with wide support from many sources (but then again, CITES is about trade, not conservation in endangered species, so sadly, that burden of science/support does not always seem prerequisite).

      South Africa also needs to show it has a firm grasp (this time around) on rhino horn stockpiles and resources to ensure future compliance on every level (which with widespread corruption, that’s nigh on impossible) – this is not the case at present (as announced by the DEA in August 2017 with ongoing audits of private stockpiles and the 2016 CITES review).

      If lifting the international ban on the rhino horn trade is such a cast-iron opportunity (for conservation of the wild species) as you claim, then why aren’t those in international law enforcement and study of the criminal networks smuggling rhino horn (and wildlife trafficking in general) advocating international legalisation of trade as ‘the’ solution?

      Why didn’t ENACT (Institute for Security Studies, Interpol, the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime) cite legal trade as a consideration/answer, in current or any previous work by the ENACT panel members? I am sure you can also be dismissive somehow of their knowledge of the subject to justify the absence for their advocating legalisation of trade to positively contribute to enforcement upon illicit trade.

      “It is way more urgent for the proponents of the failed trade ban to explain how what has been a terrible failure for almost a decade, will all of a sudden turn into a wonderful success.”

      How will legalised trade be a wonderful success if the enforcement of illicit activity is not made into a success (or are you unfazed by the illicit market continuing as long as there is legal trade in parallel to profit from)? Introducing legal trade whilst enforcement and resources are inadequate will only undermine enforcement efforts as they try to distinguish between legal, laundered/illicit – as you have said before, efforts to improve enforcement are essential and are to be applauded. In essence, you are in favour of better enforcement (and in parallel, demand reduction is key), which in turn makes the ban more likely to have widespread success. ENACT’s formation shows that there is increasing acknowledgement that wildlife trafficking is linked to criminal networks that fund other illicit human activities (ie. terrorism – ref: and Therefore, increasing resources at an international level to tackle illicit wildlife trafficking enforcement is tangible.

      Sending the message that rhino horn demand is legitimate via hope of legal mechanisms undermines demand reduction efforts (whilst there is access and hopes of improved access, speculation and demand will perpetuate (and with it, poaching)). At the same time, introducing parallel legal markets makes enforcement against illicit activity much harder and less likely to succeed.

      I have distilled the content of the papers cited in this article itself, plus articles below (I am also preparing a redraft of a study for Oxford University, “The barriers to innovation making a material impact on protecting rhino in South Africa” which cites many of these papers):

      Any problems you have with Ross Harvey’s paper, I suggest you take up with him directly.

      Of course, you should have had pre-emptive knowledge of the papers you have now discovered before you formed an opinion and started advocating for a certain course of action.

  2. Pingback: Rhino Horn Trade – The Great Unknowns – International Wildlife Bond

  3. Pingback: Rhino Horn Trade in South Africa – International Wildlife Bond

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