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Rhino Economics 101

CATEGORIES // Rhinoprotect-blog


The previous post (What if We Legalized The Trade in Rhino Horn?) merely skimmed the surface of the argument in favour of legalising the rhino horn. If we are to have something to debate well then we need to see the problem from all sides and the legalisation argument certainly needs further investigation.

The most comprehensive argument in favour of legalisation I found is one offered by Michael 't Sas-Rolfes, Environmental Economist, in his paper Saving African Rhinos: A Market Success Story. For the sake of brevity I have condensed his argument here, beginning with a timeline below to illustrate the progress of rhino conservation in South Africa or economics, as Michael understands it.

Michael argues that the reason why South Africa and Namibia can still boast such an impressive cache of protected wild animal, which feeds into our thriving tourism economy, is because incentives are in place that makes wildlife conservation a lucrative business to be in. Are you surprised it's not all about the touchy-feely stuff? I was too, but all sentimentality aside, you can't argue with the numbers. The reason why rhinos have thrived in this country is because it made financial sense to do so. And that hasn't changed. Now, the challenge is to find an economic model that will crush the black market trade in rhino horn and put the power back where it belongs.

Under the current CITES ban, no trade in rhino horn is permitted. The SA government has an estimated 5 000 horns in stock, collected from natural deaths and those confiscated from poachers but which it cannot sell due to the ban. Michael believes that if we were allowed to sell these, it would potentially be enough to meet the current demand for a number of years to come and force the price of rhino horn down, effectively reducing the incentives for poachers and organized crime syndicates. That is certainly a long-term consideration and could only be effective if restrictions are properly enforced and the right checks and balances are in place. History shows us that this has not been nearly as effective as we had hoped.

what of the dignity of the animal?
Michael also advocates harvesting rhino horn as a possible solution. Currently, he says there are game farmers experimenting with breeding and ways to make the horn grow faster. He also mentions that the cost of the process is as little as $20 and safe for the animal. On paper this all looks really good but practically this has serious drawbacks not to mention the moral implications. Firstly, is he saying that we should ignore the fact that rhino horn does not have any scientifically proven medicinal benefits and sell it to people anyway? Secondly, what of the dignity of the animal? Dehorning could impair the animal's ability to mate. And thirdly, it might be inexpensive to us but at what cost to the animal? Just last week a prize rhino bull died while tranquilized in an anti-poaching exercise that went horribly wrong. Is the potential loss off life here negligible under the circumstances?

While Michael's argument is well researched even he could not keep sentimentality out of it. So what is it that he mourns? That the rhino could become extinct or that we don't control the money? Does it come down to which greed is the right greed?




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