Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Rhino Poaching

A tide of rhino poaching has swept down through Africa, and has reached South Africa where the largest pool of surviving rhinos are to be found. Rhinos are killed for their horns, which are believed to have medicinal properties by many in South-East Asia. The horns are also used to make ceremonial dagger handles. Armed conflicts have arisen between gangs of poachers seeking rhinos and the rangers whose job it is to protect wildlife. Some poachers have lost their lives in these exchanges. Many people have responded to these developments with great anger, and some have expressed the opinion that the poachers got no more than they deserved. It seems that to them that the lives of rhinos are more important than those of the humans that hunt them. Others have suggested that the South African army should be deployed to protect the rhinos from further poaching.

Before one picks a fight, or accepts an invitation to fight from another, it is prudent to size up the opposition. There are about 2.5 billion people in South-East Asia, while there are only 45 million residents in South Africa. If it comes to outright conflict or even just economic jostling, there is no way that South Africans, or the rhinos, can win this fight. Enlisting the army won't solve the problem either. Rhino horn fetches a higher price than its weight in gold. For that kind of money, the cooperation of an army can be bought, and they come with their own weapons.

After centuries of hunting and poaching, rhinos are quite rare, and they have been accorded the status of being an officially endangered species. It is illegal to trade in rhino products. That has had little effect, other than to drive the price of rhino horn up. Rhinos have become an icon of endangered animals in Africa, a subject of passionate discussion. It has become difficult to engage in rational debate on this subject.

Suppose, just for argument's sake, that it was cattle horn that was so sought after by people in South-East Asia, that for some reason they were unable to raise enough cattle to meet their demand for cattle horn, and that they approached Africa willing to pay high prices for it. How would we respond? Would we build high electrified fences around our cattle and deploy armed guards to protect them? Probably not. It's more likely that a wave of entrepreneurs would buy land and start more cattle farms, steadily raising production until the demand was met. The law of supply and demand tells us that as the production of cattle horn increased, so its price would drop. The incentive for buyers to seek out poachers, or for poachers to engage in the risky business poaching, would be much reduced. As the supply of cattle horn became more plentiful and its price dropped, more and more people would be able to buy it and to test its supposed medicinal properties for themselves. Health researchers would be able to scientifically test its efficacy against various diseases, and to report these results. If it turned out that cattle horn was indeed a cure for a wide range of diseases then large numbers of humans would be able to benefit from this discovery, and cattle production would increase further. If on the other hand it turned out that cattle horn was no better for curing diseases than toe-nail clippings (which it chemically resembles) then demand for cattle horn would diminish, although still continue at a lower level since some folk would remain convinced of its curative powers regardless of what the researchers said.

Let us now return to reality, where it is rhino horn that is in such demand that rhinos are being driven rapidly towards extinction. If we really want to avoid this outcome, and indeed to see an increase in the number of rhinos as time goes by, we should legalise rhino farming and the sale of rhino horn produced on these farms. This would enable a far greater number of people in South-East Asia to enjoy the supposed benefits of rhino horn, and also provide new employment opportunities and prosperity for many in Africa, where rhinos flourish when given the opportunity.

Some readers may respond with horror to the suggestion that rhinos be bred on farms for the production of rhino horn. But we breed cows, pigs, sheep, goats and chickens for food, hide, and many other uses, so why not other species? Rhino meat is perfectly edible, so it's not that the rest of the beast need be discarded. Rhinos are better adapted to the semi-arid areas of Africa than are domesticated animals, and are not susceptible to many of the diseases that afflict cattle. If rhinos are farmed for their horns and meat then those rhinos that remain in game reserves are far less likely to be massacred for their horns. Let us not allow our emotions to cloud our judgment to the point that we inadvertently drive free-range rhinos to extinction, and deny future generations the joy of seeing these wonderful animals roaming free in the wild.