Can rhinos survive a real-life test of libertarian economic theory?
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA—The South African Constitutional Court on April 5, 2017 opened the way to legal trade in rhino horn––and probably more illegal rhino horn trafficking worldwide––by dismissing an appeal from the South African Department of Environmental Affairs to keep a moratorium on domestic sales of rhino horn which had been in effect since 2009.
The moratorium was overturned in May 2016 by the South African Supreme Court of Appeal, ruling in favor of the Private Rhino Owners Association.
The Private Rhino Owners Association had in November 2015 won a previous favorable ruling from the full bench of the South African High Court in Pretoria.
The moratorium had remained in effect, however, pending the South African Constitutional Court ruling on the Department of Environment Affairs’ appeal.
Preparing for legalization
“Knowing that it might lose,” reported Rachel Bale for National Geographic, “the South African government began preparing for legalization earlier this year by issuing new draft regulations to govern the trade. They say that anyone with a permit will be able to buy and sell rhino horns and that foreigners will be allowed to export a maximum of two horns for ‘personal purposes.’”
“If these regs are promulgated,” predicted Morgan Griffiths of the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, to Bale, “we will see a significant rise in poaching, as poachers use the significant loopholes to cater to the increased demand for horn in the Far East.”
Rhinos everywhere at risk
Intensified rhino poaching is expected to hit not only South African conservation lands and private ranches, but also other African nations that still have rhinos, including Zimbabwe and Kenya. Zimbabwe has long relied on hunting fees to fund conservation law enforcement, while Kenya has prohibited sport hunting since 1977.
Despite their stark differences in conservation philosophy, both Zimbabwe and Kenya have struggled to keep their remnant rhino populations, fighting poachers who have their game wardens out-gunned and out-funded.
“Sure to be challenged”
Explained Bale, “The regulations are still in draft form as the Department of Environmental Affairs considers comments from the public. They are sure to be challenged in court once finalized, said Catherine Warburton, an environmental attorney in Johannesburg.”
The limit of two horns will accommodate most trophy hunters, but the prices reportedly paid in recent years for rhino horn in Vietnam and China were high enough to encourage some Vietnamese entrepreneurs to book bogus “trophy hunts” just to obtain rhino horn.
“Cutting” & banking
Obtaining some rhino horn legally, in a verifiable manner, may have permitted the traffickers to “cut” the horn powder sold in Vietnam with similar substances––even powder made from human fingernails––of the same chemical composition.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, established in 1973 by the United Nations, has prohibited most transborder traffic in rhino horns and other body parts since 1977. The CITES ban remains in effect, and in theory will prohibit traffickers from purchasing rhino horn legally within South Africa for covert export.
Presumably purchasers will only be able to “bank” supplies of rhino horn until such time as rhinos are no longer internationally considered “threatened” or “endangered,” at which time the suddenly available supplies might glut the market.
But hardly anyone involved in rhino conservation––except those involved in raising rhinos to be shot by trophy hunters––seems to believe that South Africa will really be able to keep rhino horns within the country.
The South African Constitutional Court ruling sets up a real-life test of conflicting economic theories about how best to stop poaching of highly vulnerable species which, though ever more scarce in the wild, can be farmed or ranched.
Among these species, along with rhinos, are lions, tigers, and––in theory––elephants, who do not reproduce well in the close confinement of zoos and wildlife parks, but may thrive on ranches including thousands of acres of native elephant habitat.
Grounded in the experience of more than 150 years of market hunting and trophy hunting that stimulated poaching in the U.S., Asia, and parts of Africa, traditional conservation theory holds that the only effective way to stop poachers is to ensure that no one can safely sell the meat, horns, ivory, feathers, or hides of any species killed illegally.
If hunting of any threatened or endangered species is allowed, under any circumstance, traditional conservation theory holds that the body parts of the animal must not be sold, lest the legal sale of remains legally taken furnish a cover for selling poached parts.
Libertarian economists have long argued that, to the contrary, banning the sale of body parts from ranched specimens of threatened and endangered species discourages entrepreneurs from raising these species of much greater abundance, and prevents such entrepreneurs from flooding the market for body parts to the extent that the legal commerce undercuts the poaching and trafficking industries.
The pressure in South Africa to open domestic sales of rhino horn has come chiefly from the Private Rhino Owners Association, which points out that collecting rhino horn need not involve killing the rhinos. Indeed, zoos and rhino conservation projects around the world have already been sedating rhinos and shaving their horns for decades to protect them from poachers. The horns gradually grow back, so in theory are a renewable resource.
Wanting to get rich quick
Poachers kill rhinos to remove their horns chiefly because they are in a hurry to get the horns and get away. Waiting for a rhino to be sedated increases their risk of being caught in the act.
But the history of exemptions granted occasionally to African nations to allow them to sell stockpiles of ivory and rhino horn confiscated from smugglers and traffickers, and/or removed from animals dead of natural causes, strongly suggests the traditional conservationists are right. Each round of exemptions allowing the body parts of some threatened or endangered species to return to the market has sparked an explosion of poaching that has pushed the species involved closer toward extinction.
Yet the cost of effectively protecting rare and endangered species either in the wild or in captivity is prohibitive in much of the developing world, while the prospect of an infusion of money from legal commerce in hunting trophies and body parts is a constant temptation.
Commies for capitalism
Thus libertarian conservation theory has won political support even from China, officially Communist since 1949, which has a substantial tiger farming industry and perennially pushes to open international trade in tiger parts.
“Market logic suggests that supplying the market with horn [blood-free] will reduce poaching and reducing poaching is what we all want,” investment banker Michael Eustace told Amanda Watson of The Citizen in Johannesburg. “So, horn leaking out of the country would be a good thing for rhino, but a bad thing for CITES compliance.”
Shot up an orphanage
Countered the U.S.-based Global March for Elephants & Rhinos, “Since this proposal [the proposed regulations for rhino horn trade] was made public, we have witnessed a violent attack on Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage where rhino orphans were killed by criminals for their tiny horns. In the same violent attack, foreign volunteers were assaulted. In anticipation of a surge of rhino horn on the market, it can be argued that the South African government’s proposal to sell it has also victimized captive rhino abroad,” the Global March statement added, citing the poaching death of a rhino named Vincent, whose horn was stolen, at the Thoiry Zoo in France.
Soon after that incident, zoos in Belgium and the Czech Republic dehorned their rhinos as a preventative measure.
About 29,500 rhinos are believed to exist, worldwide, 70% of them within South Africa, including about 18,000 white rhinos and 2,000 black rhinos.
More than a third of the South African population, about 6,500, are on private ranches, according to Private Rhino Owners Association data.
Until the rumor that rhino horn has cancer-fighting properties caught fire in Vietnam in 2008, rhino poaching on South Africa .appeared to be reasonably well contained. But the numbers of rhinos poached in South Africa zoomed from 13 in 2007 to 1,215 in 2014, before tailing off to 1,175 in 2015 and 1,054 in 2016.
“The moratorium has been a total failure as has been the CITES international trade ban,” alleged Private Rhino Owners Association chair Pelham Jones. “It has not saved the life of a single rhino,” Jones claimed, “and has achieved the unintended consequence of creating a vast transnational illegal trade in rhino horn and stimulated an illegal rhino poaching industry, resulting in the illegal killing of over 6,000 rhino since its introduction and resultant security costs of about 1.2 billion rand [South African currency] a year to protect remaining populations. The value of live rhino has fallen sharply. Over 70 reserves have been sold or had all their animals poached.
“Most importantly,” Jones continued in a written statement, “animal rights organizations [opposed to rhino horn sales] do not actually face the life threatening risks to humans and rhino alike that private rhino owners do, every day for the past seven years. Yet they are very vocal on matters of anti-trade and have little to no conservation history or expertise.”
Responded Allison Thompson, director of Outraged South African Citizans Against Poaching, “Corruption is endemic in the rhino poaching arena, with veterinarians, pilots, rangers, police, members of the Organized Crime Unit, and conservation officers all involved in poaching and poaching syndicates,” many currently “awaiting trial on poaching-related crimes.
“We need to examine the private rhino community and the many role players that support them,” Thompson told Watson. “In 2009, TRAFFIC (the wildlife trade monitoring arm of the World Wildlife Fund) noted that trophy hunts ‘on the same game farms repeatedly’ were used as a front for international trafficking of rhino horn. By 2012, the involvement of South African game farmers and trophy hunt operators in rhino horn trafficking was well-documented in Killing for Profit: Exposing the Illegal Rhino Horn Trade by Julian Rademeyer.”
While the members of the Private Rhino Owners Association hope to cash in on the demand for rhino horn, somehow, the major beneficiary of the South African Constitutional Court ruling may be the South African Department of Environmental Affairs––the very agency that fought to keep the moratorium on rhino horn sales in place.
Government has biggest stock
“The government has not revealed the size of its rhino horn stockpile,” wrote Ed Stoddard of Reuters, “but the Private Rhino Owners Association estimates its members have around six metric tons, and reckons the state has close to 25 metric tons. The combined 31 metric tons could fetch $2 billion by some estimates.”
Added Stoddard, “Even though the government defended the ban in court, South African environment minister Edna Molewa, has indicated that she supports legalizing the trade as a way to support conservation efforts.”
Said Molewa in a prepared statement, “Whilst we are studying the implications of the order handed down by the Constitutional Court, it should be noted that the court’s decision should not be construed to mean that the domestic trade in rhino horn may take place in an unregulated fashion. Buying, selling, transporting, and possessing rhino horn and horn products will require a permit issued by the provincial government.”