How to save the rhino?

Conservationists are divided on whether legalising a trade in harvested rhino horn can prevent the animal’s extinction, writes Emily Franklin
<p>(Image by WWF)</p>

(Image by WWF)

Saving endangered species will be the main focus of a major conference in Johannesburg next month, when countries will discuss ways that trade in rhino horns and other animal parts can be curbed, particularly in China and Vietnam.  

South Africa is a grimly appropriate host for the 17th conference of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) as the “poaching epidemic” has claimed nearly 2,400 out of perhaps 18,000 rhinos in just two years.

The slaughter of rhinos for their horns, which are used mainly for traditional medicine in China and Vietnam, risks making the animal extinct in most of Africa in just a decade from now – unless drastic action is taken, conservationists warn.  Demand for the products in Asia is booming, making rhino horn more valuable in economic terms than gold, according to some estimates. Poachers have become increasingly brazen, aggressive and numerous in killing the rhino, one of Africa’s most iconic large animals.    

After CITES meets in September,  third Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference will be held in Hanoi this November, a summit focused on bringing together global leaders to reach political commitments dealing with the illegal wildlife trade.

Platitudes on the need to save rhinos, elephants and other endangered species from poaching have been rehearsed many times over at previous conferences, so the upcoming meets will also discuss potential solutions, but there is no easy panacea for one of the world’s biggest environmental crises (among many).  

International NGOs, such as WWF, Greenpeace and TRAFFIC, will focus on how to make a 1977 ban on rhino horn more effective, such as through stronger measures to close down markets in consumer countries and how to raise the huge extra resources needed to combat poaching (such as arming rangers) in African countries.

An alternative solution has stirred up much controversy, as it proposes a legal trade aimed at satisfying some of the demand for rhino horn that would lessen the incentives for poaching.

Mike Knight, chair of the respected International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s African rhino specialist group, said this proposal would be much more effective in conserving the rhino than the “enforcement” approach.

They point to the market in crocodile skins, where a legal trade had saved helped raise numbers of species from the brink of extinction. Proponents say that if rhinos were to be “farmed” legally, then more land would be set aside for them and would in turn help conserve other endangered wildlife. In such reserves or farms, some of the rhino’s horn can be sliced or “harvested” if the animal has been sedated with tranquillisers, and the scaly material grows back over time.

They add that when the rhino population is on the brink of extinction, conservationists may need to use another approach in order to salvage the populations in the short-term.

Harvesting rhino horn sustainably from live animals (and dead animals that die of natural causes) could make monitoring of the trade more effective, and the proceeds can be put back into conservation, proponents say. By increasing supply of newly-harvested rhino horn, and legalising the release of existing stockpiles, supply could be increased and the price would drop, limiting the economic incentives for poachers.

At the same time, countries such as Vietnam and China could work on eradicating demand, such as new laws and public campaigns (along the lines of moves to dispel the catchet of shark fin soup in China). But these are highly unlikely to take shape or deliver results in the near term, and time that is in short supply given the rapid upsurge in poaching in the past decade.

China and Vietnam are crucial not just because they account for most of the demand for rhino horn. Merchandisers of the illegal products in these countries have used social media and the internet to make increasingly outlandish claims about the supposed medicinal benefits such as a cure for cancer, said Sabri Zain, director of advocacy for TRAFFIC.  

And these same merchandisers, and poachers, are unlikely to take part in a licensed regime and the supply of “legal material” will be far too low to lower prices or meet demand, critics point out. It could even make the problem even worse, they say.