On January 19, a major kingpin was arrested in Thailand for trafficking a product worth more than gold, diamonds, and even cocaine. The illegal product in question was fourteen African rhino horns. This major bust reflects a growing issue that has regained international coverage following a major ruling in April 2017, after South Africa legalized rhino horn sales domestically.
While many animal lovers saw this as a travesty, unlike ivory from elephants, rhino horns can be removed without harming the animal, and they even grow back fully every three years. Private wildlife parks support South Africa’s ruling, though animal rights groups and governments continue to fight back. This is despite the fact that bans on rhino horns aren't effective in saving these animals. It is high time we try something new, and the answer is — counterintuitively — ending the ban on horn trafficking.
The Demand for Horns
In 1972, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the international rhino horn trade. While this body deals with international trade, countries have also been passing their own domestic restrictions. In the U.S., individual states have begun to create anti-trafficking laws for wildlife products, with one of the most recent being Nevada. It is the seventh state to pass its own wildlife trafficking restrictions to combat the rhino horn trade, with many more states considering passing their own versions. Unfortunately, none of these laws will help save rhinos from extinction, since they do nothing to curtail the demand for horns.
Even captive animals aren't safe.Despite the crackdown on rhino horns, the animals continue to be at risk of poaching by local hunters since horns are used in traditional eastern medicine. Buyers of the horn erroneously believe it can cure cancer, blood disorders, act as an aphrodisiac, and treat hangovers.
More and more subspecies of rhino are going extinct, such as the Javan Rhinos in Vietnam, the last of which was killed in 2010. In Sudan, the last Northern White Rhino has 24/7 armed guards. Poaching has decimated the populations of all five species of rhinos across the world. In 2007, South Africa only had 13 rhinos poached.
After a rumor spread of rhino horn curing an unnamed politician’s cancer, the demand in Vietnam skyrocketed. By 2017, over 1,000 animals had been poached out of the approximately 23,000 rhinos left in the country. Further cementing the fact that the illegality of the trade endangers the animals, rhinos are often found with their faces hacked off since humane removal can be very time-consuming and increases the risk of being caught by authorities.
Even captive animals aren't safe. A white rhino kept in a Paris zoo was killed last year for its horn by poachers who broke in during the night. The stolen horn is valued at close to a million dollars on the black market. And horns keep getting taken from collectors and museums across Europe, with over 30 incidents in 2011 alone. This mentality is not saving our rhinos — and, in many ways, it incentivizes poaching since horn value increases as they become more scarce.
A Different Way
While places like the U.S. continue to push the prohibition of horns, some African countries have a different idea to help save rhinos. In 2017, South Africa ended its domestic ban on rhino horns in a constitutional court decision. The court case was brought up by South Africa's Private Rhino Owners Association. The group owns nearly one-third of South Africa's rhinos, which they keep on private reserves. The members believe a legal trade in horns removed through non-lethal methods could better finance the species’ protection and incentivize owners to increase animal population. Despite this court win, a legal change is not enough. South Africa has no domestic demand for the horns — consumers are located abroad in China and Vietnam, where they still can’t buy the horns legally due to the international ban implemented by CITES.
Many parks already remove rhino horns to protect the animals from poachers. These horns are either destroyed or, in the case of private farmers, stored with the hope that they can be sold in a future legal market. If private game ranches and national parks were allowed to harvest and sell the horns for commercial sale, they could reduce the risk of hunters killing rhinos, and they could even use the funds to increase protection of rhinos globally. The newly-legalized horns would also flood the market, making horn values drop, and therefore reducing incentives to poach rhinos.
Unfortunately, many animal rights and environmental groups continue to boycott and lobby against legalization efforts. The wildlife protection group Born Free has voiced opposition against the lifting of bans. Their president Will Travers has said,
“Legalising trade in rhino horn, at either a domestic or an international level, sends a message to consumers that rhino horn is a legitimate product — and will inevitably lead to increased demand, incentivising further poaching. Trading in horn will not save rhinos — it could hasten their extinction.”
The reality of the current situation is that consumers want rhino horn. To the buyers, it doesn't matter if it's legal or not and, as a result, it is leading the animals to extinction. The best option available is to let rhino owners harvest their horns and to offer a far more humane, sustainable product in order to compete with the black market, much like how American farmers saved the bison.
When we look at the rhino horn trade debate, many people see selfless animal saviors pitted against greedy rhino owners who want to make money off of horns. But the real debate is whether we want to continue failed policies leading to rhino extinction or if we want living rhinos who, every so often, have horns removed to be sold to fund their own conservation and population expansion.