By Steve Galster
This week’s public auction of John Hume’s stockpiled rhino horn in South Africa may look like a well-intentioned, smart move to relieve pressure on endangered wild rhinos by flooding the market with horns, while generating funding to protect remaining animals from poachers. But in reality, this week’s controversial sale puts rhinos around the world in even more danger of being poached to extinction. There are two main reasons why:
1. Faulty Assumption: The rhino horn trade is not driven primarily by medicinal demand. The assumption behind Hume’s and other pro-rhino trade advocates rationale for selling horn legally is incorrect. They point to an insatiable demand for rhino horn in the traditional medicine marketplace in China and Vietnam, where horn is sold as an anti-pyretic, as well as a cure-all. They claim that this demand is deeply rooted and should be exploited, rather than dampened. But medicinal sales are not what drives the current trade in rhino horn that in turn drives poaching. According to our investigations into criminal syndicate wildlife trafficking, the main bulk buyers are investing in rhino horn futures. They are stockpiling their horn, not chopping them up for pharmacies or black market medicine sales. Wealthy wholesale buyers are looking at the $65,000/kg horn as a commodity whose price will ultimately rise further because demand will be there, and the product volume is finite. They see numbers of rhinos going down, with poaching on the rise, so they view rhino horn like other finite commodities, such as gold. Grab it now and watch profits rise.
In fact, that viewpoint could in theory support what Hume and others are advocating for. They claim that by flooding the market, they will drive the price of horn down and demonstrate that horn will always be available. But there are two problems with this approach: (a) Hume and others cannot predict what the potential demand is. Demand may suddenly outstrip their supply, which would lead to more poaching; and (b) commodities investors may simply buy up Hume’s stocks while it’s available, and return to the field to poach the rest in good time, so that they get what they really want even faster– a monopoly on a precious commodity.
2. This experiment was tried before and failed. Pro-rhino horn trade advocates claim that legalization plans are based on good research, science and economics. But the experts they rely on are sitting in South Africa and have not taken into account how legal trade gets manipulated for illegal trade on a daily basis in Asia. Over a year ago, I attended a wildlife conference in South Africa and listened to that country’s top wildlife economists present on how they planned to manipulate Asian markets to keep rhino horn demand and supply in balance. I looked around and wondered if I was the only person struck by the fact that there were no Asian conservationists in the room. With tongue in cheek, I stood up and presented myself as a Southeast Asian-based conservationist who could give the Asian perspective, albeit as an American. I reminded the audience that this same legalization-of-an-endangered-species-trade scheme was attempted in China years ago. Farms for tigers and bears were authorized by the state to breed the animals, allowing harvesting and commercial sale of their body parts. The goal was to feed the Chinese demand for tiger bones, skins and bear gallbladders, which would reduce poaching of wild populations, and generate funding for wildlife conservation. The opposite happened. The farms stimulated demand, and traffickers opened up a parallel supply chain by going straight to the source in adjoining countries (Russia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, India) to buy wild tigers and bears from poachers at reduced prices. Tiger and bear populations plummeted everywhere. I asked the South African experts: “If the Chinese were not able to control the balance of supply and demand within and near their own borders, how was South African going to control it from an ocean away?” Crickets.
What I was also struck by at that national wildlife conference was the lack of awareness of how hard Asian conservatonists were working to reduce demand for rhino horn, elephant ivory, bear gallbladder, tiger bones, and other endangered species. And the lack of any discussion about rhino populations in other countries, and how South Africa’s experiment might impact those rhinos too. Kenya, India, Nepal and other countries have reduced rhino poaching through good enforcement, and by making sure their citizens refrain from any purchase or sale of rhino horn. Chinese and Vietnamese campaigners are working diligently to make sure young consumers steer away from endangered species products. A new legal trade will confuse and disrupt these demand reduction efforts, while pouring gasoline on the fire of an already brisk illegal trade.
No doubt, Hume’s auction will go ahead this week. But we should all protest it, and ask South Africa to stop future sales, read the history books, and remember its actions endanger other country’s conservation efforts.
The author is Director of Freeland, a counter-trafficking organization based in Bangkok: www.freeland.org