Rhino Horn Trade – The Great Unknowns

Stephen Wiggins Article 3 Comments

In December 2017’s, Biological Conservation (Vol. 216, page 60 – 68), a paper is published entitled “Sustainable rhino horn production at the pointy end of the rhino horn trade debate” authored by  Andrew Taylor, Dave Balfour, Diane Kirsty, Brebner Rynette, Coetzee Harriet Davies-Mostert, Peter A. Lindsey, Jo Shaw and Michael’t Sas-Rolfes.

The paper highlights how little is currently known and understood about the viability of any proposed international trade in rhino horn.

Sustainable rhino horn production at the pointy end of the rhino horn trade debate” is a  paper that suggests the pro-rhino horn trade advocates have a long way to go (scientifically), to prove the theories they espouse so confidently (and with such unsubstantiated guarantees of success).

The paper’s highlights are:

Key Point 1 – What happened to South Africa’s rhinos in the past?

South African populations of black and white rhinos (subspecies C. s. simum), both of which had been nearly extinct in the year 1900 due to uncontrolled hunting, grew in numbers over the last 100 years and were not exposed to the same high levels of poaching seen in countries to the north”

So, the paper confirms uncontrolled hunting led to the rhinos initial demise.

Key Point 2 – “Further research is necessary to assess the likely outcomes of legalising trade”

No one knows (despite propaganda and ‘beliefs’) that the outcomes of any international rhino horn trade can only be positive. Before I get mauled, but there have been plenty of studies (with science encompassed) highlighting the likely negative risks, potential pitfalls and holes in the rhino breeders’ proposed rhino horn trade strategy.

Key Point 3 – “Conventional legal protection and law enforcement are insufficient at currents levels of effort and efficiency”

Agreed, but even a ‘legal’ trade requires efficient “Conventional legal protection and law enforcement ” to combat illicit markets – a ‘legal’ trade will not help conserve wild rhino if illicit behaviour goes unchecked in parallel to any ‘legal’ trade. The theory that a ‘legal’ trade will compete and is somehow guaranteed to decimate illicit activity remains unproven.    

The international organised criminal networks that traffic wildlife to fund terrorism are highly unlikely to yield readily to pricing and market competition. Without increased pressure and enforcement too, if margins are squeezed (ie. prices for rhino horn drop), what is to say such networks will not increase volume (more poaching) to maintain income streams?

The recent clampdown on ivory carving factories in China has significantly lowered the price demanded for ivory, but the pressure applied to the criminal syndicates’ margins has not fully crushed on-going poaching of wild elephants to still profit from demand and speculative stockpiling:

Even with the price coming down, there’s still a heck of a lot of poaching going on,” Douglas-Hamilton (Save the Elephants) said. “It’s important prices have come down but it hasn’t killed the trade, we’re not out of the woods yet” –Story behind China ivory ban, The Guardian, 29 August 2017

Key Point 4 – “Legal trade in rhino horn has been proposed but is controversial”

Yes it is.

Key Point 5 – “African rhinos are facing high rates of poaching that is threatening their survival”

Yes they are – successfully tackling poaching is not guaranteed by any flawed rhino horn trading strategy.

Key Point 6 -“Annual horn production in South Africa is estimated at 5,319 to 13,356 kg  – derived from natural attrition, harvested farmed rhino, trophy hunted rhino and stockpiled private and state rhino horn.

Sure, there is rhino horn ready to go to market, but demand is potentially much, much higher than this estimated annual availability from ‘sustainable sources.’

To illustrate, this upper estimate of 13,356 kg annual availability of rhino horn (at a 50g Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) dose) would provide just 267,120 such doses – satisfying just 0.018% of the total estimated Chinese and Vietnam population of 1.471bn with a 50g TCM dose – Reference “Pointless – A quantitative assessment of supply and demand in rhino horn and a case against trade,” NABU International Foundation for Nature, paper authored by Barbara Mass and “South Africa’s Claimed Need for Wildlife Utilisation,” IWB, 7 July 2017


Michael’t Sas-Rolfes (The University of Pretoria and independent economist) has reportedly said the estimates [“Annual horn production in South Africa is estimated at 5,319 to 13,356 kg”] take into account “uncertainty” surrounding rhino population sizes, mortality rates, horn growth rates and the attitudes of private rhino owners to potential legalisation.

The paper’s co-author, Dr Andrew Taylor, of the wildlife in trade programme at the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) has also highlighted the many unknowns with regard to the demand side’s unpredictability, concluding that:

“….the potential size of the consumer market…..may in fact be considerably bigger if rhino horn were legally available.” ConcludingIt’s therefore not reasonable to assume that the potential supply of rhino horn can meet potential demand.”

Well indeed, but the unknowns with regard to the viability of any proposed international trade in rhino horn are also expanded upon by Taylor:

A major problem is that we don’t know the true size of the market. Although one could infer the current extent of rhino horn demand from the amount of illegal horn (our estimate was 5,346kg or the equivalent of 909 white rhino horn sets), there are a number of factors that complicate the situation.”

These include that “we don’t know much about what the horn is being used for – specifically, what proportions are being used for medicinal purposes, what proportions are used for ornaments, and importantly what proportions are being stockpiled for speculation.

We don’t know what will happen to demand if the stigma of buying horn is reduced once it has been legalised. For example, there may be many potential buyers that are not buying because it is illegal, but will start buying if it becomes legal. We don’t understand the price elasticity of demand for horn – what will happen to the price of horn if there is an increased (legal) supply? These are things we think [we] need to understand before risking legalising trade.

This ‘pricing’ uncertainty and demand side economics has been modelled/studied in the past:

Douglas J. Crooks, James N. Blignaut (Department of Economics, University of Pretoria) in their 2015 paper, “Debunking the myth that a legal trade will solve the rhino horn crisis: A system dynamics model for market demand,” concluded “we find that a legal trade [in rhino horn] will increase profitability, but not the conservation of rhino population.”

Ross Harvey, Senior researcher with SAIIA and a PhD student at the University of Cape Town’s School of Economics, “South Africa’s Rhino Paradox,” September 2017

The evidence simply does not exist yet (and may never exist) to say that science – understanding based upon the best available data and knowledge at any given point in time – supports legal, international rhino horn trade as the best way to conserve wild rhino.

This science also needs to consider animal welfare and impacts on a global basis. To date, South Africa’s breeding of lions and other big cats for ‘canned’/’captive’/’ranched’ (it’s all the same) hunting and supply to the lion bone trade has failed to ensure any credible conservation and universal animal welfare as key considerations, either at a national or international impact level. What is to say any ‘legal’ trade in rhino horn will not promote the same lack of ethical, moral or conservation imperatives (ie. the profit incentive overrides all other considerations) and off-set the threat to less well protected members of the species allegedly all being ‘conserved’ by such ‘legal’ trade?

Anyone at this stage that ‘guarantees’ international rhino horn trading is the only solution to saving wild rhino is biased and/or deluded – the full answers to the many unknowns are currently unknown.

Update – In August 2017, John Hume held a ‘domestic’ on-line auction (available in Mandarin and Vietnamese) for rhino horn. In response to a question (NW7441, dated 13 November 2017) raised by Mr T Z Hadebe to the DEA, only 7 permits to buy rhino horn were issued by the DEA and in the end,  no sales were made of “horns or parts thereof” of the 264 lots on offer.

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