Taming the rhino: is farming the future of conservation?

A rhino’s horn is its worst enemy, with poaching levels rising uncontrollably to supply the lucrative international black market. On International Day for Biological Diversity 2014, Sean Mowbray examines whether legalising the hunt could save Africa’s endangered rhinoceros species from extinction.


Three men walk through the undergrowth, two carrying high-powered rifles. In the distance the rhino is spotted. The first shooter calmly takes aim and fires. The rhino’s high-pitched squeal is heart-wrenching as it struggles to escape and further shots pound into its body. The gigantic animal crashes to the ground, another victim of the rampant poaching epidemic afflicting Southern Africa.

Rhino horn in packaging

Two rhino horns wrapped in cling film and hidden within a fake sculpture, confiscated by the UK Home Office. © UK Home Office/Creative Commons license

The trade in rhino species and their parts has been prohibited internationally since 1977. However, poaching rates in South Africa have hit record levels for the past six consecutive years (1004 individuals in 2013), a trend that – if it continues – would see the species become extinct in the wild by 2020. Driven by high demand in Asia, particularly in China and Vietnam, supply is maintained by sophisticated organised crime syndicates. One kilo of horn can reportedly fetch prices of up to $65,000, higher than the equivalent weight of gold and heroin.

In the face of this escalating problem, the South African government is currently deliberating submitting a proposal to legalise the trade at the next Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) meeting in 2016. The exact details of the planned proposal are vague but broadly envisage the creation of rhino ‘farms’, where the horns can be removed humanely from captive rhinos and then sold through registered traders.

The topic of legalisation polarises opinion amongst politicians and conservationists alike. Supporters have suggested that increasing the international supply of rhino horn would dramatically reduce its market price, simultaneously removing the incentive for crime syndicates to engage in poaching and allowing consumers the opportunity to purchase more ‘ethical’ horn.

Arguing in favour of retaining the trade ban are notable organisations such as WWF, TRAFFIC and EIA. The latter has suggested that legalisation would legitimise trade in the eyes of consumers, potentially leading to increased demand and even greater levels of poaching in the future. The debate will only intensify as the poaching crisis worsens.

White Rhino

A white rhino in its natural habitat. © Jay Aremac/Creative Commons license

From a development point of view, legalising the trade of any endangered species is a difficult issue to come to terms with. On the positive side, a portion of the profits from the legal rhino horn trade could be reinvested into national development programmes, thereby alleviating some of the core issues, such as poverty, that drive some to engage in poaching. Another portion could be used to fund conservation of the remaining wild rhino population.

Another point in favour of the farm model is that rhino horn is effectively a ‘renewable’ resource. Unlike the tusk of an elephant, the horn of the rhino – composed of keratin, the same substance that our own fingernails are made from – will grow back over time without harming the animal. A double revenue could be realised by maintaining live captive populations, through the dehorning process and the promotion of wildlife tourism.

However, critics have stated that the only ones who stand to gain from allowing a legal trade are the private ranchers who own the rhinos. In South Africa it is estimated that 25 per cent of the 18,600-strong white rhino population belongs to such individuals. So the prospects of any trickledown economics emerging from legalisation are debatable.

Furthermore, by allowing the trade in rhino parts the animal’s intrinsic value is reduced to that of a commodity. Those in favour of legalisation argue that to ensure the survival of endangered species in the wild there is a need to apply an ‘if it pays, it stays’ logic. Endangered species of tiger and bear have already been subjected to this fate, although there is little evidence to suggest that farming has a positive impact on reducing poaching levels in the wild.

Until significant progress is made in reducing consumer demand for endangered species, the economic value of the rhino, and that of other endangered species, must be maintained at a level where animals are worth more alive than dead. Legalisation of the trade is certainly not the panacea that it is so often made out to be. As front-line states see their populations decline further, however, it may allow greater protection for rhino species whose valuable horns make them extremely vulnerable to poaching. The farming of endangered species may be morally abhorrent to many, but it might become necessary in order to satisfy the needs of developing countries that are constantly striving to find a balance between conservation commitments and the demand for economic progress.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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