On October 10 the Times of Swaziland ran a feature article arguing in favour of South Africa's proposal to legalise trade in rhinoceros horn. My reply, slightly edited for length, has now appeared in the same newspaper. Here it is:
LEGALISING RHINO HORN TRADE WON’T HELP
By Dr Ronald Orenstein
Mr Reilly’s article “Let’s make rhino farming legal” (October 10), in support of legalised rhino farming, is based on a number of misapprehensions.
He states that a legalised trade in rhino horn would reduce the takings received by illegal traders, by whatever percentage of the market illegal trade was able to capture. This simplistic assumption overlooks the very real possibility that the existence of a legal trade would further stimulate the market and might actually result in greater profits for illegal traders as a result.
One of the major problems in discussing trade in rhinoceros horn is that there are a number of different markets, with consumers seeking it not only as a traditional medicine but (mistakenly) as a cancer cure, as a status symbol, or as an additive to alcoholic drinks; and any marketing scheme that does not cover all of these would leave a substantial buying public that continues to purchase from illegal sources.
The author also repeats the old but mistaken statement that ‘nothing has worked’ to protect rhinoceroses up until now.
As a zoologist and lawyer who has worked in this area for over 25 years, and who has recently published a book on the subject (“Ivory, Horn, and Blood: Behind the Elephant and Rhinoceros Poaching Crisis”, Firefly Books), I can assure Mr Reilly that a combination of strong and effective enforcement on the ground and effective regulation of the market, including demand-reduction programmes, has indeed worked in the past, and worked very well.
During the 1990s, it was believed by many conservationists that rhinoceros conservation was on an upward trend as a result of such efforts in both Africa and Asia.
it is true that the rise in affluence in China and Vietnam has led to a new poaching surge that has cancelled out most of the gains that had been made, to suggest that these methods have never worked, and therefore cannot work again, is inaccurate.
Mr Reilly rightly points out that there is very little time left for us to put conservation methods in place if we are to save rhinoceros populations. Unfortunately, one of the chief problems with resorting to a legal trade regime is that it will unquestionably take a number of years before such a scheme can gain international acceptance.
The next meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) will not take place for three years, and the chances that the parties to that Convention would agree to a legal trade before then are vanishingly small.
Even if trade were to be approved at that meeting, it would undoubtedly, if ivory is any example, be dependent on certain conditions being met, including approval of buyers, followed by further discussion at meetings of the CITES Standing Committee.
This means that it is highly unlikely that even a broadly-supported legal trade would be able to start before 2017 at the earliest. We cannot afford to put off conservation for that long.
Further, as the article suggests, China may already be taking steps to establish its own farms and, if it is successful in doing so, experience with similar situations suggests that it would not be interested in purchasing horns from southern Africa if it can guarantee its own supply. Therefore, any suggestion that legal trade would generate much in the way of revenue for conservation may be ill-based.
The entire argument for legal trade, in addition, ignores the chief threat to rhinoceros populations in southern Africa – namely, continued poaching in the Kruger National Park. Despite private ownership schemes, that is where most of the animals are and it is where most of them are being killed.
Any solution that does not immediately address problems in the Kruger will fail to address the biggest problems facing rhinoceros conservation today.
Rather than supporting legal sale, it would be far better if all rhinoceros range countries, including South Africa and Swaziland, were to get behind rigorous enforcement combined with support for demand reduction campaigns in the market, and I believe that such campaigns can best be supported if it is made clear once and for all that rhinoceros horns will never appear in legal commercial trade.