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The rhino crisis : Legalising horn trade is not a solution

Almost 950 rhinos have been killed illegally in South Africa since January 2010. It’s an alarming statistic, and it points to a major crisis. At the World Economic Forum at Davos in January, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke about Greece and its huge debt problem, saying ‘There would be no point in promising more and more money without tackling the causes of the crisis.’ She could equally have been talking about the rhino-poaching crisis in southern Africa. Unless we target its root cause there is little hope for the region’s rhino populations. Given any normal set of circumstances, this would be the obvious and most logical approach to solving a serious problem. But not in this instance. Instead, the focus has shifted to legalising the trade in rhino horn. In almost all the discussions and debates on the situation, barely any attention is being directed at its fundamental cause: a belief held principally in China and Vietnam that rhino horn can be used to cure a wide range of illnesses.

© Tim Jackson

How guilty are rhino owners and their associates?

Since these owners have invested heavily in rhinos and their horn, it is clearly not in their interests to promote any solution that may dampen demand for a product they can profit from.

Some within this lobby have simply decided that trade in rhino horn is the only route to take, whereas others have circulated a two-option choice that crudely pits a ‘more-of-the-same’ scenario against legalising trade. The latter, they say, is a ‘radical change’ and will cure all ills. Both approaches are extremely self-serving. In fact, it is totally misleading to group everyone who is opposed to trade into one constituency and insinuate that they are comfortably muddling along without seeking fresh solutions. No-one is advocating ‘more of the same’, no matter where they stand on the trade issue. And turning to markets to solve the crisis because there may be profit spinoffs is not radical thinking; it’s a response that vested interests have resorted to ever since Adam Smith first spoke of the ‘invisible hand’ in 1779. It is also one of the primary reasons why the natural world is now in such dire trouble.

Changing  Eastern mindsets

To legalise the trade in rhino horn is merely one option; there is a whole range of other solutions and strategies that, as a matter of necessity, must remain integral to a multi-faceted approach. Within this range, the primary focus should be on debunking the myths that fuel the use of horn. Failure to address this issue – and there is no sensible justification in avoiding it – simply validates the criminal activities connected with poaching and promotes the same absurd and ignorant thinking that has created the crisis.

While changing the way people think takes time, history shows that enlightenment can triumph over anachronistic and inappropriate attitudes. In the case of China and Vietnam specifically, their incredible economic successes over the past decade point the way. There is a strong correlation between sustained economic growth and the opening up of society in general. Citizens become involved in a process of greater public and global awareness that leads to demands for democracy and other political reforms, as well as social equality and justice. The environment invariably also benefits from a new order.

© Tim Jackson

There are more than 600 million users of the social media in China alone, and most of them are young people. This is where the change in attitude is likely to be most prevalent, and it could happen at a rapid rate. Some who are engaged in the debate over the rhino’s future may harbour doubts, but let’s not forget the ongoing ‘Arab Spring’, a revolution spread so effectively by social media that archaic regimes were toppled within months. In the same vein, the rapid gains in environmental awareness that came with the rise of ‘green’ political parties across Europe in the late 1970s and ’80s changed attitudes and heralded the widespread rehabilitation of rivers and forests on that continent.

Prepared for domestication?

Let’s also not lose sight of the fact that legalising the trade in horn will inevitably result in rhinos being domesticated on commercial farms. This is a route we know has done nothing to relieve the pressure on the wild populations of other species. In fact, research shows the opposite to be true; despite the abalone farms and lion-breeding facilities in South Africa, for example, the wild populations of these species continue to be plundered.

Are we prepared to auction the conservation status of rhinos without any idea of what impact a legal trade will have on the demand for horn? If the buying and selling of rhino horn were to be sanctioned, the number of users could well exceed 500 million – a potentially disastrous scenario for wild rhinos.

Ian Michler

Ian has spent the last 24 years working as a specialist guide, photo-journalist and consultant across Africa, including a stint of 13 years based in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. When not guiding, he writes predominately for Africa Geographic covering topics on conservation, wildlife management, ecotourism, and the environment, and has been writing his popular monthly column since 2001. Ian is also the author and photographer of seven natural history and travel books on Africa, and is a past winner of the bird category in the Agfa Wildlife photographic competition (1997). He has also worked as a researcher and field coordinator on various natural history television documentaries for international broadcasters and as a consultant on ecotourism to various private sector and government agencies. Prior to his life in the wilderness, he spent eight years practicing as a stockbroker in Cape Town and Johannesburg.