Testing free market environmentalism for rhino horns

South Africa’s high court has upheld a decision to legalize domestic sales of rhinoceros horn, a controversial plan that some hope will reduce poaching by creating a legal source of supply, but limited to South Africa, for the endangered animal’s parts.

…John Hume, a rancher in South Africa with more than 1,100 rhinos, made the application with another farmer to overturn the ban. He said he can only afford to keep his farm going if the local horn trade is legalized.

Here is the WSJ story, and here is another useful source.  Note this:

Right now, there are only 29,000 rhinos left on the planet, most of which are in South Africa. It’s an incredible drop from the 500,000 that roamed Earth at the start of the 1900s, and sadly, the majority have been killed as a result of poaching, which increased 9,000 percent (yes, you read that right) between 2007 and 2014.

That means more than 1,000 rhinos are now killed illegally each year for their horns. Most of these end up in Asia, where they can reach up to US$100,000 per kilogram on the black market. Those prices are driven by the fact that many countries see rhino horn as a status symbol, and in Vietnam it’s believed (with no evidence whatsoever) to cure cancer.

Farmers claim they can harvest rhino horn without killing the animals, critics claim that rhinos will be in danger as long as the Asian demand continues, and in essence legalization cannot make supply sufficiently elastic, sufficiently quickly, to solve the problem.


clearly environmentalists should flood the market with imitation horns laced with strychnine.

They tried hard sanctions already, with shoot-to-kill orders against the poachers, which did not seem to work. I can't figure out why vendors don't adulterate rhino horn. Who's checking to see the horn is real? Maybe however rhino horn is sold intact, not ground up, and as I type this I bet that's the case. So injecting hard rhino horn with strychnine, which is a liquid that evaporates, is probably hard to do I bet. Perhaps polonium is better? Any Russian chemists here?

I have wondered this too. The dvds can be bootleg copies but the ground up animal parts have to be real? Stupid people are suddenly smart/suspicious?

what makes them stupid?

I just happened to read something about Lincoln's mother - she died, they say, of snakeweed poisoning from cow's milk. A couple of links later I learned that a 19th century prairie "doctor" or midwife established the connection between the particular plant and what was then a fairly common death. And it was suggested to her by a Shawnee woman.

Trial and error.

Across the world, though, a fairly sizeable population believes that ingesting rhino horn - or about nine other rare things - makes them more virile.
It does not.
Why haven't they noticed this? Why isn't this an issue at the international negotiating table?

Oh yeah, up with people.

You should try reading about the placebo effect. It's a little more modern.

Kinda the point: a placebo-of-a-placebo effect should more than suffice!

Why use uneffective rhino horns to become "more virile" when are effective, safe, tried and tested drugs widely avalable? By the way, being "virile" involves more than having an erection...

Indeed. Paraceratherium: there was a rhino. No horns and no placebo required.


Poisoning rhino horns:

Poisoning the horns of wild rhinos, AND encouraging the farming of domestic rhinos, seems like a way of eliminating the poached-rhino market.

Biotech startup making rhino horns;

It is a reasonable theory that a legal market encourages poaching by giving it cover. But it is an empirical question about whether that theory is right in any given case. The bit about a 9000% increase during seven years when there was no legal market is quite a data-point.

"It is a reasonable theory that a legal market encourages poaching by giving it cover."

Reasonable? On what grounds? Since there's currently no legal market, it's just idle speculation. It seems logical to just let the ranchers start selling rhino horn. It's quite likely that doing so will reduce prices and that will discourage poaching. It seems ridiculous that's it's illegal in any case. I just can't see why it's legal to raise and butcher numerous other large mammals, but not rhinos. At least elephants are demonstrably smart animals. Is there any evidence that rhinos are smarter than horses?

Given the scale of the markets (All of China and much of the rest of East Asia), and the speed of horn growth, I can't imagine a legal market making that much of a difference in price.

However, since rhinos with no horns are less likely to be killed by poachers, cutting off the supply of poachable animals by removing their horns, and then selling the horns and using the proceeds to support the farm, is likely to reduce poaching in other ways.

JWatts, I think the grounds for this are based on the growth of 'tiger farms' in China and situations such as this - http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/01/160121-tiger-temple-thailand-trafficking-laos0/

The exotic pet trade, especially for reptiles and amphibians, has also been linked to this, as there's often no verification that an animal is captive-bred or wild caught and then laundered through 'breeders'/distributors.

It's an important difference that rhino horn can be removed without killing an animal (this is what the SA ranchers suggest), so maybe the continued production and the revenue to support anti-poaching patrols makes this a different scenario, as JB points out.

"I can’t imagine a legal market making that much of a difference in price."

According to the article a single rancher has 1,200 rhinos, out of a total world population of 29,000, and there are other rhino ranchers. It seems like they have a large enough percentage of the population to make a difference.

Further, according to a random result from a Google search, a rhino horn fully grows back in 3 years. If true, a farmed population of somewhat over 3,000 should be enough to supply 1,000 horns per year, which is similar to the amount currently being supplied by poachers killing animals.

Incidentally, the 9,000% rise in poaching roughly corresponds with the period since South Africa previously banned the domestic horn trade (2009). This may or may not be related to the ban, but it at least ought to be considered.

Demand is so high and inelastic, apparently, that if supply doubled, or halved, it still wouldn't exceed demand at current prices.

However, since there are only ~29k rhinos, ranchers could cut off a substantial portion of the poachers' supply, which, combined with existing shoot-to-kill anti-poacher policies, make it less rewarding to be a poacher anyway.

@JWatts: I idle speculation can be perfectly reasonable. Maxwell's equations worked out quite well after all.

But I think I addressed the bit about empirical evidence.

Currently, there is 100% probability that any sale is illegal.

If there are legal sales, then poachers just need to drum up some BS paperwork to show it's legit. No idle speculation is necessary. It will happen with 100% probability.

The question is this: will the overall level of poaching be higher or lower?

... would American black-market activity in illegal drugs be higher or lower if such drugs were legalized?

The phrase was: "that a legal market encourages poaching by giving it cover.”

Not that any poacher ever wouldn't try to use cover.

The hope would be that poachers' access to product would be reduced, since there are so few rhinos and their horns would be diverted to legal sale.

Yes, this would be the death knell for any rhino with a horn and no 24/7 bodyguard.

Need a social media campaign to say:

Rhino horn causes impotence.

Likely not to work. The people buying this stuff is ignorant old men, not young men who know about counterfeit Viagra.

OT, I hope people don't think less of me for owning a pet monkey here in the Philippines. It's some sort of native species (I thought it was rhesus, but the more I look at him the less I think so, he's too cute to be rhesus), and technically he's illegal to own. I want to breed him to make babies and build a bigger cage but my hot 20-something gf won't let me. I hope he doesn't die...the neighborhood kids feed him junk food, against my orders. He's just like a little boy, very funny.

OK, let's do a taste test.

Have one group of old men take rhino horn, and another group take Viagra. Report the results: Viagra wins over rhino horn which does no better than a placebo (let's make the placebo pasteurized cow dung). Then, let's have a media campaign, dispensing free Viagra or cents off Viagra, with advertising supported by Viagra extolling its superiority to rhino horn and powdered cow dung.

Superstition is a marketing problem which can be overcome with a Viagra marketing program sponsored by Viagra and environmental groups.

People that are concerned about the demise of the rhinos should buy the Viagra and give to the consumers of rhino horn.

Incidentally, an important market for rhino horn is for jambiya handles in Yemen.

Won't work because that is false.

Whereas it is true that it has benefits in traditional medicine. Whether that traditional belief is true or not is aside the point since they hold it to be true.

Your statement implies that traditional medicine never changes,

Which means

Bring on the Leaches.

Ranching in the American West. Until the Holocene rhino thrived in North America.

Take large areas of public lands in the US West, say Nevada, or the sparse range land along the western edge of the great plains, and introduce Indian rhino, elephant, etc. Mustangs could be allowed and it would allow a safe range for wild Bison and pronghorn. You can give local stake holders, ranchers and those living in the area 70 year privileges to harvest surplus males, which would be extendable if certain quotas are met. Over time you could spread the program to areas like Eastern Washington and Oregon with similar privileges for local ranchers. Eventually native predators such as wolves and mountain lions would learn to take down such large game, but until then profitable hunting run by local ranchers would take care of the balance.

Cold tolerance and adaptation to local conditions would allow range to spreadquickly, while local ownership in a relatively rich educated country would control poaching.

One of the problems with captive breeding is that Rhino are territorial and zoos are too small. The most successful breeding projects have all been private ranching operations such as the King Ranch in Texas.

Of course this only works if you are trying to preserve rhinos as a species. If you are about stopping the hunting of rhinos as many NGOs are then you are our of luck.

I wonder how the new species would affect the established ecosystems?

BWHAHA. Yeah, that's a useful question.

Do you mean the ecosystem established by the pre-human animals, including the rhino? Or do you mean the ecostystem established by the Indians when they killed the rhino and all kinds of other things? Or do you mean the ecosystem established by the ranchers when they killed the Indians and all kinds of other things? Or do you mean some other ecosystem that might be established in future?

Where I am talking about, on the plains and down in the basins of the intermountain, there is no ecosystem more than a century old, and what we have is only in equilibrium if it is very well managed as range land, ie it has cows on it run by a smart, extremely capable, well educated ranch manager.

Outside of the mountains and driest deserts we don't even really know what the native ecology was like in the weird interval when the indians abandoned agriculture on the plains after the massive Columbian plagues and the return of the horse in the 17th and 18th centuries and the coming the NRCS soil survey in the 1910s through early 40s.

We don't even really know exactly what the vegetation was like in 1890, almost everything you read is either from travelers' accounts or from studying what is growing in pioneer cemeteries which were usually placed on virgin ground. What we know from Pollen studies says it was really really different.

That would be AWESOME.

I am so in favor of this for reasons having nothing to do with rhino conservation (and also for reasons that do).

Of course, doing this would radicalize the latent anti-immigrant buffalo vote, so it's a political nonstarter.

+1 to Roy LC. I agree with JB that converting the American Midwest to allow roaming of large mega-fauna is awesome. It also reminds me of the proposal (that I like) by Rutgers university professors to turn the Midwest back to grazing for the American buffalo, with HUGE (state wide) parks and tunnels/bridges for cars, to reintroduce migrating buffalo. I would also propose we clone the passenger pigeon and reintroduce it (moon shot but worth it).

However, to do this the USA needs to be much richer than it is. Posting from Hong Kong, I see decline for the West (unless this place collapses first). America is old, tired, no culture, and The Donald (or his successor) coming...g'night, I woke to take a leak and now back to bed for me...

"America is old, tired, no culture,"

Living in America, it doesn't feel particularly old and tired, and it certainly doesn't feel like there's "no" culture. Granted a lot of people don't like American culture. Their free to ignore it.

I'm not sure how you call a culture that is at the cutting edge of nearly every technological area "old and tired".

@JWatts - "Their free to ignore it." - should read "They're free to ignore it". Ignoramus, you're on IGNORE from now on, lol.

I have always loved this idea, but I can't help but wonder if the rhinos will survive in the wild. It snows with at least some regularity in most of the West, where I imagine that snow in South Africa is quite rare.

I say that knowing little about the South African climate, fwiw.

It is a shame that Asian governments, namely Chinese and Vietnamese authorities, are not willing to regularly debunk the BS health claims.

Rhino horn is biologically equivalent to finger nail clippings, but they pay ridiculous sum for the useless stuff.

and those crackers and wine aren't really made out of a god's body, but yet here we are.

Just as well they aren't, the population of God is even more threatened than that of rhinos. Observers can't agree on whether there are 3, 1, or 0 left, but they're certainly below the level of reproductive viability.

The spiecies is doing well in India where the population is large and increasing at a steady clip.

How many rhinos does India have?

The issue isn't so much people believing nonsense. Educated westerners are heavily invested in false narratives as well.

It's that China, for now, sees little value in conserving animals and habitat outside of serving their own interests. It has no inherent value.

This and things like caring for pets rather than buying them as status symbols are further along the development path. You see it really taking hold in Singapore today for example.

"It’s that China, for now, sees little value in conserving animals and habitat outside of serving their own interests. It has no inherent value."

China is right about this.

Remember that nonhuman animals are incapable of making rational choices, so their lives and suffering are not voluntary. This is true even for humans, but more so for other animals.

We should therefore reduce their numbers, or total brain mass, as a proxy for their involuntary suffering and existence. They are probably not happy anyway, and the only life worth living is a voluntary life of a self-aware intelligent being.

Ecosystems are complicated and interconnected, you never know the unintended consequences of eliminating a species, rhinos are cool to look at...all that weighed against a dick placebo.

Inherent value or no, I think the scale tilts heavily against the dick placebo.

I agree. Eliminating the rhino as a species is not a reasonable ethical goal, neither is supplying more of the dick placebo.

My comment was more about the general point.

Since it is not harmful either, why? No harm done to their own citizens, right?

Of course, central banks can control the number of rhinos, in the same way they control assets prices. Set a high enough price for horns harvested from rhinos that survive and, presto. I know, rhinos don't rise to the level of importance as the owners of financial assets, so central banks will continue to set a high enough level on the price of financial assets to protect the owners those assets and those who own them.

De-horning was a method used by some nations to try and reduce incentives to poaching. It can't be said to have worked.
Sale for the RSA domestic market will just end up in Asia anyway, somehow. The poached horns gets there already without any difficulty. Diplomats get in on this act too.
It is doubtful this increase of supply through a legal market will reduce the end price in Asia. But if it did then it would just increase demand by bringing poorer folk, at the moment unable to afford it, into the market for it.
Rhino horn is also in demand as the handle of ornamental daggers in Yemen.

Why don't the Chinese just harvest their nail clippings instead?

I think that legalizing the Rhino horn won't help much because the black market still won't go away, people will always look for ways to get the Rhino horn at no cost to them remember they want to make money if this means making less than what they originally made is not good enough them the fight will not stop! I think that even though it is now public knowledge that the poisoning of the Rhino horn does not spread through the whole horn making this one a ruled out plan but the fact is it can still save the Rhino
! It will start scaring the consumers in Asia and they wouldn't want to put their lives at risk especially those that use the Rhino horn for medicinal purposes. word of mouth I believe is the best way to get this across to Asians the new method of poisoning the Rhino horn.
John Hume must be part of the black market already if he wants the Rhino horn to be legalized so badly! if he says that it keep his farm going then he must also be a poacher who sells on the black market i mean what if the Rhino horn trade is not legalized? I think legalizing it would really just make matters worse!

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