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Ban Elephant Ivory, Legalize Rhino Horn?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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White rhino

White rhino in South Africa, where poaching has surged to record levels. Image: Kate Wong

The fate of elephants, rhinoceroses and other imperiled species could be decided in the coming days at a major meeting on wildlife trade regulation in Bangkok. Beginning March 3, delegates from the 178 countries that have signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, dubbed CITES, will gather to consider proposals to increase or decrease protection not only for iconic mammals but also for such organisms as sharks, turtles and timber species.

The summit comes at a time when trade in ivory and other animal parts is exploding, fueled by growing demand from increasingly wealthy Asia, where such products have long been prized for decorative and medicinal uses. Because of this uptick in demand, poaching of some species has reached record highs. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), some 30,000 African elephants a year are being slaughtered for their tusks. Last year 668 rhinos were lost to poachers in South Africa alone—50 percent more than in 2011. And 2013 is set to break the 2012 record, with another 128 rhinos already killed for their horns, which fetch as much as $65,000 per kilogram on the black market–more than diamonds or cocaine. At these poaching rates, Africa’s elephants and rhinos could be gone in a couple decades by some estimates. In 2011 two subspecies, Africa’s western black rhino and the Javan rhinoceros of Vietnam, were declared extinct, mainly due to poaching.

That the CITES meeting is taking place in Thailand is significant. The Asian nation is a major gateway for illicit trade in animals. Every year officials there seize tens of thousands of live animals—from turtles to tigers—from smugglers who stuff them into clothing, suitcases and crates for air transport out of the country. Illegal elephant ivory and rhino horn are routinely seized in large quantities, too.

Thailand also has a burgeoning legal ivory market, thanks to its laws that permit the sale of ivory from domestic elephants. Much of the ivory is sold to foreign tourists in curio shops. Critics charge that criminals exploit the laws that allow this trade to launder illegal ivory from African elephants. Indeed outside pressure on Thailand to ban the ivory trade altogether has been mounting in the days leading up to the CITES meeting. The WWF and wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC recently issued a statement calling for economic sanctions against countries that fail to curb their ivory markets, naming Thailand, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as prime offenders. And on Febuary 27 the WWF presented Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra with a petition to ban the country’s ivory trade altogether. The petition contained more than half a million signatures. The New York Times reports that a statement from Thailand about a shift in its ivory policy is expected at the opening of the CITES gathering.

Meanwhile, South Africa is considering lifting the ban on rhino horn trade and commercially farming the animals in a bid to save the animals. “The reality  of the matter is rhino horn is being poached in South Africa right now,” environment minister Edna Molewatold said in a media briefing, according to AFP. “There’s a moratorium on trade in South Africa but they still get it out of South Africa. So we are saying let’s look at other mechanisms.”

Most of the demand for rhino horn comes from China and Vietnam, where it is used to treat ailments ranging from headaches to cancer. The horn has no real curative powers, however–it is composed of keratin, the same material human fingernails are made of.

Some researchers see promise in legalizing the trade of rhino horn. Writing in the March 1 Science, Duan Biggs of the University of Queensland in Australia and his colleagues argued that “The only remaining option is a carefully regulated legal trade based on the humane and renewable harvesting of horn from live white rhinos.” The team proposes that the current estimated demand for the horn could be met by collecting horn material from the 5,000 white rhinos that are currently kept on private conservation lands in South Africa. Sedating an animal to shave its horn, which will grow back, costs around $20, they note. “A legal trade could simultaneously supply horns, fund rhino protection, and provide an incentive for their sustainable use and long-term survival,” Biggs and his co-authors write, adding that the “trade in crocodile skin is an example of how a legal market has reduced poaching pressure on wild populations.”

But conservation groups have expressed concern over the idea of legalizing the rhino horn trade. “We don’t support the idea of legalised trade at this time because we just don’t think it is enforceable,” wildlife trade policy analyst Colman O’Criodain of the WWF told BBC News. “The markets where the trade would be directed, particularly Vietnam, we aren’t satisfied that they have the enforcement regime in place that would prevent the laundering of wild rhino through this route,” he said, adding, “we don’t think it would stop the poaching crisis, we think the legal trade could make it worse.”

Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, told NBC News that a more effective approach to saving rhinos would be to focus on breaking apart the crime networks that control the elephant ivory trade. “If you do that, you also get the rhino poaching under control because it is the same organized crime groups that are doing this,” he said. Wasser’s work in genetically tracking the origin of seized ivory indicates that the poachers are concentrating their efforts in a few hotspots. If so, focusing law enforcement efforts on these hotspots could be the best way to stop poaching.

Debate around how to tackle illegal wildlife trade will no doubt be intense at the CITES meeting, which runs from March 3 to March 14. I noticed that among the 70 proposals[PDF] up for consideration are 10 that recommend removal of species from CITES protection because they have gone extinct. Let’s hope the elephants and rhinos don’t end up on such proposals at future summits.

Update (03/03/13 at 2:42 p.m.): In her speech at the opening of the CITES meeting, Thailand’s Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, pledged to amend Thai legislation to help end the ivory trade, but did not mention a timeline or an intent to specifically ban domestic trade in ivory. See this BBC report for more details.

Kate Wong About the Author: Kate Wong is an editor and writer at Scientific American covering paleontology, archaeology and life sciences. Follow on Twitter @katewong.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. mirahsan2 3:31 pm 03/2/2013

    This is all so ridiculous. For a real solution, government, economists, everyday people, and common sense need to sit together.

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  2. 2. Andrew Planet 3:37 pm 03/2/2013

    Thanks for this article. If rhino horns were commercially farmed, at the price they fetch on the black market, would this not be enough of an incentive to pay for keeping rhinos in existence as a species?

    The most important factor in animal management is of course to perpetuate the propagation of a species, regrettably, never mind the absolute medicinal uselessness of rhino horn. If we find, by commercially farming rhino horn, that we can fund plenty of people to actually protect the animals themselves from extinction then we have a workable interspecific relationship going.

    Rhino poaching is running riot because it is being economically fed by the false placebo effects it unfortunately gives to enough people to sanction a supply to satisfy demand. At present there are just too many naively uninformed people worldwide willing to purchase rhino horn so as to make it worthwhile to stop poachers feeding their habit. It would more feasible to use the expensive qualities of rhino horn against the poachers themselves, which as you said fetches more than diamonds or cocaine per kilo.

    At that price, it would become worthwhile for potential employees in rhino habitat management to consider an employment market geared on a permanently long term basis, therefore good job prospects, and protected by whatever arms and ammunition they would need in such a hostile intraspecific environment.

    The aims of commercially farmed rhino should always seek to pay for the maintaining of the species in the wild and all the latter plus above also goes for elephants.

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  3. 3. Andrew Planet 4:52 pm 03/2/2013

    Apologies, meant ”would be more feasible.” 3rd paragraph

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  4. 4. ssipek 6:57 pm 03/2/2013

    Within the confines of the western civilization, the current global economic system and the major religions, we probably can not stop the decline of the biosphere into a condition, where many living beings will go extinct probably including homo sapiens. In a world where we can not even talk freely of the effects of exploding human population, or the damage caused by our use of fossil fuel use, how can we hope to find solutions to steady and exponential decline in the life supporting qualities of our planet.
    Like a virus killing the host and being left with nothing to live on, we are on a crash course with all life on earth and unfortunately we are part of this life.
    To save species we should give them undisturbed space to live in (it is useless to keep animals in zoos if their natural range is gone), and put scientists and law enforcement agencies in charge of protecting them, with great powers and good compensation. Politicians are a useless bunch. All they can think of is how they can keep the economy growing (like we need more growing) and get elected again. On top of this they are usually in bed with the economically powerful class of the country, as that is how they get elected. They should not be in charge of policy to protect the endangered species or any endangered ecosystems.

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  5. 5. PierceMichelson 10:54 pm 03/2/2013

    uptil I saw the paycheck of $4428, I didn’t believe …that…my brother was actually receiving money in there spare time from there pretty old laptop.. there dads buddy has been doing this 4 only about seventeen months and by now paid for the dept on there place and got a great new Land Rover Range Rover. this is where I went……

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  6. 6. AnchovyRancher 3:47 pm 03/4/2013

    What’s “ridiculous” is that there are still people in the world that believe that rhino horn (and tiger penis, etc.) is an aphrodisiac and that they WILL have some elephant ivory to decorate their houses, damn the species.

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  7. 7. jerryd 8:08 pm 03/4/2013

    My solution would be to stain them though food bait or paintballs, spray, etc. Then they wouldn’t have value, solving a lot of the problem.

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  8. 8. ripsitntwistsit 3:31 pm 03/6/2013

    Chinese and Asian folk medicines are a real problem, as is the international trade in animals and pieces of their habitat. Much of the demand comes not from disprovable claims of medical efficacy, but the status which possession of such objects confers. I’m talking about everything from iPhones and Mahogany, to gourmet coffee and rhino horns.

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  9. 9. MRC06405 4:28 pm 03/7/2013

    The attempt to ban sales in Ivory and most wild animals is largely futile. It goes against basic economics and human nature.

    - People want these products. Banning them only drives up the prices and draws more people into illegal poaching, smuggling, and sales.
    - Every Elephant or Rhino that was killed by a poacher would eventually die and their ivory become available for sale.
    - Legal sustainable harvesting of wild products is more efficient and less dangerous than poaching and smuggling. Legal trade can easily under price and drive illegal trade out of existence or severely limit it.

    A legal market in ivory and most other animal products (tiger paws, bear gall bladder etc.) would:
    — Drive the profit out of the illegal trade
    — Provide funds for protection and management of wild species
    — Increase the population of wild and captive wild animals which would drive down the prices even further.
    — Provide an income for local people so they can protect animals rather than kill them. They currently earn very little from poaching. Legitimate work protecting and sustainably harvesting wild products would provide them with better pay and self respect.
    — Turn the whole conservation effort into something local people support rather than something that keeps them from feeding their families.
    — Save lives of poachers and law enforcement officials.
    — Eliminate or severely limit costs, corruption and death caused by the whole illegal supply chain.

    It is time the conservation community faced facts and treated demand for wild products as a source of funds for their protection and sustainable harvesting.

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  10. 10. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:57 am 03/8/2013

    Like Rripsitntwistsit, my impression is that rhino horn and other products from unusual wildlife are now mostly status-symbol or luxury items in E Asia.

    So education campaigns will fail, but campaigns aiming to promote other behavior among the rich may work. Maybe contact Chinese media stars and rich bussinessmen to join campaigns protecting rhinos?

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  11. 11. Jerzy v. 3.0. 7:02 am 03/8/2013

    Results of trade ban/allowance can be modelled using supply, demand and possibility to control illegal trade.

    Rhinos breed too slow and illegal trade is too easy, so controlled trade is unlikely to work.

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  12. 12. Jerzy v. 3.0. 7:37 am 03/8/2013

    You put lots of false arguments here, because Western business models will not work in African border conditions.

    Corruption and inefficency are endemic in Africa. Underpaid staff and corrupt officials are inefficent in protecting elephants and rhinos in tourism-oriented national parks. Why the same people should be more effective in harvesting industry?

    Many political decisions in Africa are made for immediate benefit with zero regard of long-term sustainability. How to prevent some populist politician from killing and selling all animals, because in 5 years time he is unlikely to be ruling anymore?

    Local people will see little benefit from ivory and horn trade, because main profit goes to middlemen and end sellers in Asia.

    If elephants and rhinos were legally harvested, it would still pay for poachers to sneak in and steal ivory and horns. It would simply shift the battle to poachers vs. horn harvesters.

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  13. 13. Intellectual Animal 9:33 am 03/8/2013

    What we need is harsh treatment for these scum-greedy poachers and also very harsh treatment for these “people” who pay that are creating the market for horns, tiger-penis, fur, etc.. It all comes down to our greed and our selfish desires. I think also it would be good to have more wild life protection. Poachers should be skinned alive. Purchasers should also be drawn and quartered. Good old fashion justice never fails.

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  14. 14. Jerzy v. 3.0. 10:21 am 03/9/2013

    I had a slightly Machiavellian idea. What if horns from dead rhinos were legally donated to Vietnam and China, under provision that it will be given free to anybody seriously sick and will never enter monetary trade?

    It turns, that rhino horn is still officially recognized as the last-ditch fever medicine in Asia. Normally a few shavings of a horn are given, and the whole demand is total of few horns a year.

    The idea is based on a recent approach to heroin in Switzerland. Any heroin addict who failed several anti-addiction therapies can be given legal and free heroin in government clinic. The purpose is to destroy value of heroin in the illegal market, and to destroy the perception of heroin as a forbidden fruit.

    Maybe similar approach would destroy the black market value of rhino horn?

    Another idea would be to flood Asian markets with fakes and substitutes. Mass produce fake rhino-horn-lookalike or horn substitute products from cow bones, water buffalo horn or similar substances.

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