Earlier this year, South Africa’s Constitutional Court overturned a 2009 moratorium on trade in rhinoceros horns. It was a devastating blow for animal conservation groups, which had hailed a measure that aligned South Africa with the global ban on the trade in effect since 1977.
But as the court’s ruling sinks in, commercial breeders and animal rights groups face a crucial question: could the creation of a legal market for farmed horns curb a poaching pandemic that claims some 1,500 wild rhinos annually?
For South Africa’s rhino industry, the court’s decision was a watershed. John Hume, the world’s most successful rhino breeder, hosted the country’s first online horn auction in August. Writing on the auction’s website, he argued that 'the demand for rhino horn is high, and open trading of the horn has the potential to satisfy this demand to prevent rhino poaching.'
Opponents of the trade say demand for horns could increase as a result of legalisation, reviving dormant interest. This growth could outpace commercial supply, and even fuel more illegal poaching of wild animals. Critics also worry that ending the ban will remove any lingering stigma associated with possessing rhino horn, further boosting demand.
Breeders and traders like Hume concede that demand 'is not going to die down anytime soon.' But they argue that because horns are a renewable resource – they grow back when trimmed, albeit slowly – what South Africa actually needs are incentives to encourage responsible breeding and conservation. 'If we do not take the steps to meet the demand,' Hume argues, 'we won’t save the rhino.'
We still do not know how the court’s decision will affect demand for a resource that is prized throughout Asia for its medicinal value. What is clear, however, is that placing too much trust in a commercial conservation approach is risky. Evidence suggests that while farming of rhinos may have niche market possibilities, it will not prevent poaching of wild rhinos.
Similar efforts to protect wild animals through farming have fallen short. For example, a 2010 study in Vietnam found that commercial farming of the Southeast Asian porcupine, a popular meat source, had not dramatically reduced the hunting of wild porcupines. It is the same story for elephant ivory, bear bile, and mule deer musk. Demand for wild products often far exceeds what commercial breeding can realistically offer.
Commercial breeding programs are further disadvantaged because of the perception among some buyers that wild products are more valuable. As University of Johannesburg scientist Laura Tensen has noted, ‘wild animals are considered superior because of their rarity and high expense.’
That is especially true for rhinos. Poachers often prove the veracity of their illicit product by showing buyers horns that have been removed from the base of the skull, an extraction method that kills the animal. Only the most conscience-stricken consumer would ensure that horns they purchase are sourced from licensed breeders.
Historically, poaching has also been immune to fluctuations in the retail price of rhino horns. For the price mechanism to eradicate poaching, demand would need to bottom out. With demand actually increasing, and without a threshold price to encourage breeding, supply-side interventions are unlikely to be effective in protecting wild rhinos. Currently, rhino horn sells for as much as $60,000 per kilogram in parts of Asia.
Breeders are convinced that with permitting systems and detection technologies, legal horns could be identified, law enforcement could prevent illegal horns from being trafficked, and domestic trading could reduce the stress on wild populations. But these arguments hinge on a number of conditions that are, at the moment, purely aspirational.
For starters, commercial breeding will succeed only if farmed horns are viewed as a substitute for products sourced from wild animals. But as researchers like Tensen report, that is unlikely in the near term, given the higher status associated with non-farmed products.
Law-enforcement efforts would also need to be increased to detect illegal supplies and break up laundering rings. Unfortunately, the illegal syndicates that smuggle wildlife products, often with assistance from government officials, are adept at evading detection.
Finally, the pro-farming argument assumes that commercial breeders will eventually supply horn at lower prices than poachers. But captive breeding is costly. Scientists at the University of California, San Diego, for example, have shown that white rhinos rarely produce fertile offspring in captivity. Furthermore, the horns of young adults grow by only about six centimeters a year, and that rate diminishes with age.
Commercial breeders dispute that their operations amount to 'captivity,' and Hume’s model is meant to replicate wild conditions as much as possible. Yet if farmed solutions were ever to be seen as an alternative to wild harvesting, other breeders would need to replicate such conditions. The cost would be significant, and corners would no doubt be cut.
While breeders are eager to defend their trade, economists have debunked the myth that a legal domestic market in rhino horns will conserve wild populations. Even if farmed supplies from South Africa satisfied a portion of the demand globally, it will not alter demand among consumers drawn to wild product, or those who are indifferent about the source. South Africa will most likely soon be home to parallel markets, with extensive laundering of illegal horn. That may be acceptable to breeders, but it defies reason for those trying to conserve wild rhinos.
Ross Harvey is a senior researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs. This article was first published by Project Syndicate.