Friday, 14 April 2017

Trading Endangered Species – Necessary Evil or Selling our Souls? Part 2

This baby rhino is in danger, as poachers might kill its mother for her horn. How do we stop the rhino poaching scourge, and secure this baby's future? Photo by Rob Thomson.

The policies of South Africa with regards to wildlife conservation have implications for other countries in the region, including Botswana. Although Botswana has very different policies, the close proximity of South Africa, and the many land borders between the two countries mean that their respective policies are likely to influence each other’s conservation efforts.

In Part 1 of this series, we considered the recent South African proposal to export 800 lion skeletons from the captive lion breeding industry. This article delves into the even more complex topic of trading rhino horn, on the back of news that South Africa has allowed domestic trade, even though international trade is still banned. As mentioned in Part 1, there are four main differences between trading lion bones and rhino horn, listed below to refresh your memory.
  1. The lions that are earmarked for trade should all come from captive lion breeding farms, whereas the rhinos are currently kept under mostly natural conditions on large game ranching properties, where they remain part of working ecosystems. 
  2. The groups lobbying for trade in lion bones are almost exclusively the lion breeders themselves, whereas the rhino horn pro-trade group comprises both rhino owners and rhino conservationists. 
  3. In order to trade lion bones, lions must be killed, whereas a rhino’s horn can be removed non-lethally, and it will regrow in time.
  4. The conservation threats to rhinos and lions in the wild are very different, so any idea that purports to help conserve these species should be viewed within that context.
These differences indicate that there is a stronger argument, based solely on conservation efforts, for rhino horn trade than there is for lion bone trade. In particular, the support for legalising horn trade among noted conservationists cannot be ignored. Reading through all of the pro- and anti-trade opinion pieces, one realises that this topic really is a minefield, with many facts portrayed differently depending on who is telling the story. The purpose of this article is less about giving an opinion one way or another, and more about helping you navigate this minefield to form your own opinion on the subject. Consequently, I describe three of the crucial sticking points in the debate, and look at what is perhaps the key to moving forward for rhino conservation, rather than setting forth another one-sided opinion piece. The three issues (these are by no means the only ones) I will focus on are: the historical context of the rhino horn trade and conservation efforts, whether or not a free market trade could work for rhinos, and if reducing demand for horn will save the rhino.

Historical Context
To address the current poaching crisis, some suggest that we consider the historical context of the problem. What do we learn from this history? To answer this question, let’s start with Operation Rhino. The incredible recovery of the white rhino population from a handful of individuals in the 1950s to nearly 20,000 rhinos in South Africa today was started by a far-sighted project called Operation Rhino. A key figure in this Operation, the late Ian Player, attributed much of the success of his work to the notion of private ownership and sustainable use of rhinos in South Africa. This project sparked what today is a thriving wildlife ranching industry, which hosts more wildlife on more land than the protected areas in the country.

The success of Operation Rhino, and the importance of wildlife conservation on private land in South Africa are agreed by the majority of conservationists, irrespective of their stance on trade. Where opinions diverge is over the question: can a similar strategy, based specifically on rhino horn trade, stop the current poaching crisis, or would it fuel still more poaching? Similarly, does banning trade in endangered species achieve its stated goal of reducing poaching, or does it actually serve to increase poaching? To try and answer these questions, groups on both sides of the debate turn to the history books.

Although one would think that studying the history of rhino horn trade, and the banning thereof, might lead to clear conclusions that are either for or against the trade, this is not the case. Historical analyses by those favouring trade suggest that trade bans, particularly the 2009 ban in South Africa, actually precipitated the current rhino poaching crisis. According to their analyses, small quantities of legally obtained rhino horn from South Africa during the 2000’s obviated the need for traders to employ poachers to obtain their supplies. The fact that other African countries had banned hunting of their rhinos was the reason why poachers had decimated those populations long before they targeted South Africa. Poaching is a risky and expensive business, so surely if there were a less expensive way of getting horn (i.e. legally), then profit-oriented traders would choose that route instead.

Among the anti-trade lobby, the same historical data is used to support trade bans and suggest that rhino hunting in South Africa was the real cause for increasing demand in Asian countries. During the 1980’s, rhino poaching in Africa was recognised as a major threat to the species, and CITES successfully lobbied several Asian countries to ban the domestic trade in rhino horn. During the 1990’s, China removed rhino horn from the official list of ingredients used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and encouraged practitioners to use legal substitutes for horn.

Anti-traders suggest that these measures led to the relative lull in poaching during the late 90’s and early 00’s, until Vietnam became a new consumer country. On the back of a rapidly growing economy, some Vietnamese wanted to show off their newly acquired wealth by using expensive products such as rhino horn for a variety of reasons (including treating hangovers). Around the same time that Vietnamese suddenly grew a taste for rhino horn, rather strange legal rhino hunts were happening in South Africa. Instead of the usual hunting customers – American or European males – hunts were being sold to young Vietnamese women, who could not actually hunt. It soon came to light that these women were actually employed by horn traders who would sell the horn from the trophy on the black market once the ‘huntresses’ returned home.

The discovery of Vietnamese ‘pseudo-hunts’ that were used to supply rhino horn on the black market led to the moratorium on all rhino horn trade within South Africa in 2009. The pro-trade lobby suggests that by cutting off the legal channels for obtaining rhino horn under a regulated trophy hunting system the moratorium forced traders to find another way of obtaining the horn – poaching. Anti-traders hold that the pseudo-hunts that were allowed due to South Africa’s hunting industry actually stimulated the demand for rhino horn in Vietnam, without which there would have been no poaching crisis. As you can see, this is a chicken-and-egg argument, with both sides quoting the same basic facts, yet disagreeing on cause and effect. Did rhino hunting delay the poaching crisis or create it?

These white rhinos are moving through the thick bush of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Park, the home of Operation Rhino. Photo by Gail Potgieter.

Trade Bans vs. Market-Driven Sustainable Use
Whether trade bans help or hinder conservation objectives is one of the key issues in this debate. The anti-trade side almost invariably points to CITES briefly lifting elephant ivory bans to allow African countries to sell stockpiles of ivory to consumer countries as Exhibit A for the importance of trade bans. Following the once-off ivory auctions, demand for ivory in the consumer countries spiked, as a once scarce commodity suddenly became available to more people. This drove increased elephant poaching, as traders found that illegally obtained ivory could now be ‘laundered’ and sold as though it came from the previous once-off auctions.

This story holds an important lesson for all conservationists thinking about the trade in endangered species. The question is: what exactly did we learn? For the anti-trade group, the answer is obvious – trading endangered species’ parts is a dangerous business, as it may cause unexpected market reactions, and provide a way for illegally obtained parts to enter the market, further incentivising poaching. For the pro-trade group, the answer is also obvious – once-off sales don’t work, and serve only to drive demand and increase the price of the ‘commodity’. However, they argue that sustainable, long-term supplies could satisfy the market for horn and outcompete illegal poaching.

One key point that must be borne in mind here is that elephants must be killed for their ivory, yet rhinos can be dehorned non-lethally. The pro-traders therefore suggest that trade could be started with current stockpiles of rhino horn and continued sustainably by non-lethally dehorning privately owned rhinos on an annual basis. The idea of commercial ranchers using rhinos as a ‘cash-cow’ by dehorning them regularly is morally repulsive to most of those in the anti-trade group. Rhinos are wild animals that use their horns for many reasons, some of which we may not even understand – how can we reduce this magnificent animal to a semi-domesticated state, deprived of its iconic horn? There are a few counter-arguments from the pro-trade lobby to this ethical issue (barring those that simply dismiss moral arguments as ‘bunny-hugging’):
  1. Only privately owned rhinos will be dehorned, thus allowing rhinos in protected areas to keep their horns, and also be less threatened by poachers. 
  2. What is worse, a living rhino without its horn that is occasionally subjected to stress and sedation, or a dead rhino with its horn hacked off in the most inhumane manner imaginable? 
  3. In the current poaching crisis, many private rhino owners and even governments are already dehorning rhinos, as a means of protecting them against poachers – not much will change with the suggested trade anyway.
To sum up this point, how you view markets and private wildlife owners is key to which side of the trade debate you are likely to choose. For anti-traders, markets are Pandora’s Box – opening them may lead to such rapid species decline that it may be too late before we decide to close them again. Furthermore, people who own rhinos are clearly in it for their own interests, and are not to be trusted with conserving these precious animals. For pro-traders, markets are an integral part of sustainable use, which has been a pillar of wildlife conservation in South Africa for decades; they are useful, not scary. Similarly, rhino owners were a key part of Operation Rhino, which is the reason there are any white rhinos in South Africa today; rhino owners are thus absolutely essential to future conservation efforts.

This black rhino in the remote desert of Namibia is also affected by the poaching crisis - the government recently launched an intensive programme to dehorn all of the rhinos in this region in an effort to deter poachers. Photo by Gail Potgieter.

Reducing Demand
Among those who do not see legal trade as an option, a key strategy to alleviate rhino poaching is to reduce demand for horn amongst consumers. Despite China’s official stance on rhino horn, some Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners still prescribe rhino horn as an essential ingredient for serious illnesses, mainly fevers (not as an aphrodisiac, or a cure for cancer). The Vietnamese market is rather different, as rhino horn is seen as a status symbol by the nouveau riche, and their use for it has no basis in traditional medicine. Some of these end users have no idea that rhinos are highly threatened, or that their demand for horn fuels a veritable war in Africa that has cost many lives, both human and rhino.

Reducing demand requires an array of strategies including education, awareness building, and on-going engagement with potential user communities. If we could convince Chinese traditional healers to use horn from domestic water buffalo in Asia as a substitute for rhino horn (they have been shown to exhibit similar properties), then they would stop buying expensive horn from illegal dealers. If we convince people who use traditional medicines in Asia that rhino horn is made of keratin, and is actually just like human fingernails, then maybe they won’t place their trust in horn to cure fevers. Finally, if the nouveau riche of Vietnam realised the destruction their luxury tastes actually cause, perhaps using rhino horn would become a social taboo, much like campaigns against fur worked in Western countries.

Such demand reduction strategies take time, money, and sustained effort, not to mention government willpower amongst countries that are notorious for turning a blind eye to animal abuse. Pro-traders that do not have a financial stake in rhino horn trade agree that eliminating demand for horn would be the gold medal for rhino conservation. However, they ask: how long is it going to take to realise this lofty goal? Can demand be reduced quickly enough to save the rhino from extinction? The traditional medicine market has used horn for millennia, and people who use it have long-held, deeply ingrained beliefs. Is it realistic to expect these beliefs to evaporate following media campaigns led by Western NGOs that tell them that their medicine is as effective as chewing your fingernails?

To these searching questions, anti-trade conservation groups reply with some good counter-arguments: 1) If demand elimination truly is the gold medal for rhino conservation, then that is where we should focus our limited resources, rather than fighting each other over legalising trade. 2) Yes, reducing demand does take time and effort, which we are willing to spend, but legalising the trade in the meantime will send out mixed-messages to consumers and undo all our hard work. 3) We believe that demand can be reduced (if not eliminated) to the extent that rhino poaching at least declines, provided that we use the right strategies to target the right consumer groups. Further research and funding is urgently needed to properly address the demand problem, rather than committing to the relatively unknown route of trade legalisation.

The Way Forward – Addressing Mistrust
I am sure that some pro-traders reading this article would have snorted in disgust at the last sentence of the previous section. “Further research and funding” is a typical call from anti-trade organisations, and the ‘typical’ disgusted pro-trader response to it, exemplifies the key problem with this debate. The goal for both sides of the debate is the same – to conserve rhinos. You would think that this provides enough common ground for the two parties to engage with each other in meaningful ways that would lead to an eventual resolution of the debate. The truth is, it is far more complicated than that. Conservationists who back either side of this debate are generally very different kinds of people with very different life experiences and perspectives. Consequently, they harbour deep feelings of mistrust for one another, and more often than not portray the other group with well-worn stereotypes.

Just like this beautiful black rhino, we need to keep moving forwards for conservation. Photo by Gail Potgieter.

Pro-traders are frequently those who have experienced the plus side of sustainable use first-hand. Wildlife ranchers and game wardens that are involved with live wildlife auctions extol the value of the wildlife ranching industry and quote the success this has had in terms of boosting wildlife numbers. They have many years of field experience, and have lived ‘in the bush’ for much of their lives; they are outdoorsman and many enjoy activities such as fishing and hunting for meat. They are also frequently on the frontlines of the poaching crisis: they have seen mutilated rhinos first-hand, tracked poachers through the bush for kilometres, perhaps even watched their friends and employees die at the hands of poachers. They are hardened bush people who have an intimate understanding of the environment, even if they lack university qualifications.

Anti-traders usually come from an entirely different background. Many work for or have established conservation NGOs that emphasise such lofty goals as evidence-based conservation, and saving species through education and community outreach. A good number of them are not from Africa, but have fallen in love with the continent. By and large, they have degrees in biology-related fields and have studied various aspects of conservation in depth. They love wildlife and working in the field, but are more often than not stuck behind a computer writing funding proposals or analysing the data from their latest research. The best of the NGOs strive to use academic research to drive on-the-ground conservation efforts and closely monitor their results. They have a real passion for their work, even though they have never had poachers’ bullets whiz past their ears, or watched a friend die for protecting wildlife.

This is not to say that the kinds of people who match the description in the first group are always pro-trade, or those in the latter group are always anti, but these are the stereotypes. As I have described them, one can see virtue in both groups, and I would argue that the conservation world needs them equally. Without boots-on-the-ground, dedicated people at the frontline of the poaching war, we would have lost all our rhinos already. However, without NGOs that continue to do research and outreach activities, conservation efforts will be rudderless and go largely unnoticed by the rest of the world.

Sadly, there is a deep level of mistrust between the most passionate and outspoken of those in each group. This is manifest when pro-traders dismiss all anti-trade arguments as ‘sentimentalist’ or ‘animal rightist’, implying that these supposed keyboard warriors cannot possibly understand the urgency for a radically new way of approaching conservation (i.e. legalising trade). It is also manifest by anti-traders, who cast the pro-trade argument as ‘uncaring’ or even ‘self-serving’, implying that pro-traders view individual wild animals merely as a means to an end, without considering their welfare.

The snide comments are particularly jarring when it comes to how the two sides fund their conservation efforts. Anti-traders cast wildlife ranchers as wealthy farmers who care only about the financial bottom line, and view their animals as inanimate assets. Pro-traders cast conservation NGOs as money-grabbing organisations who actually want to keep species endangered to ensure that they have a sustainable source of income from their gullible international donors. It seems that it is not enough to merely disagree about how to solve the current poaching crisis, but we must destroy each other’s reputations and denigrate each other’s contributions to conservation at the same time.

The two sides nonetheless agree on a few essentials: we are in a crisis, and something must be done about it; we are facing highly organised criminal syndicates; the current situation is leading to the extinction of the rhino – it simply cannot carry on as it is now. Yet how are we ever going to fix this problem if the very best of the conservation world – bush warriors on the frontlines, and charismatic NGO leaders with international support – cannot even sit around the same table and discuss these things without resorting to personal attacks? Although I have cast the two groups as polar opposites for the sake of revealing stereotypes, I believe that there are many in each group that are closer to the middle ground, and do not resort to attacking those who do not agree with them. Those towards the middle need to talk to others in their ‘group’ that are on the extreme edges, and create a true middle ground where conservationists from across the spectrum can come to a real agreement on the way forward. Perhaps the ‘keyboard warriors’ need to experience the frontline of the poaching war themselves, and the ‘bush warriors’ need to take a step back and listen to those who have researched the issue on an international scale.

To counter our highly organised, ruthless, common enemy, we need a unified strategy that everyone agrees on and works towards. If we achieve such a goal, then we can present a united front to the rest of the world and a strong proposal to CITES and local governments (in either direction) that shows that we have a concrete plan to combat the scourge of rhino poaching. The current situation where domestic trade is allowed in South Africa, with enough loopholes to stimulate uncontrolled illegal international trade, is a direct result of the conflict between the two groups, and is highly unlikely to improve the rhino’s plight. Can we set aside our differences, for the rhino’s sake?

By Gail C. Potgieter


  1. Great blog about a very important and timely subject. The two main different points of view are highlighted from an impartial position.

    1. Thank you for the comment. There are so many articles out there that back either one side or the other, that we felt that this one needed to be a little different. That, and both sides make good points, although the debate needs to become more constructive if we are to get anywhere.