The Economics of Rhino Hunting/Poaching – Do We Legalise The Trade in Rhino Horn? – by Chris Mercer

by Feb 29, 2012Rhinos

2. Enforcement: any scheme to legalise the trade in rhino horns rests upon the assumption that governments can be a) un-corrupt; b) efficient; and c) effective. (efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right thing). The less said about this subject the better, other than to observe that a shakier foundation for a legal trade in rhino horn is hard to imagine.

3. Hunting and poaching: in natural eco-systems, it is the weak and sick who are killed by predators, and this strengthens the genes. The human predator (trophy hunter or poacher, same thing) puts the process of natural selection in reverse, killing the big and strong. Hunting and poaching are therefore equally destructive to wildlife populations. The hunting / poaching of farmed rhino is a closed circuit and should not be considered part of conservation.

4. Delays in legalising the trade in rhino horn are being caused by “donor agencies,” say the proponents, and go on to suggest that these “donor agencies” are lobbying against a legal trade in horn for selfish financial reasons i.e. they are bandwagons who profit from the current plight of rhinos and for that reason do not want to see an end to the ban. This is like arguing that Policement and Judges must love criminals because without them there would be no need for Judges and Policemen. Such a silly claim should be treated with the contempt it deserves.

5. Proponents claim that those who oppose legalising the trade in rhino horn are “costing the country about R2 million a day”, being the difference between the 448 rhino we are losing every year, and the value of the legal sale of horn. This is a dangerous over-statement: first, it assumes that on the day trade is legalised, all poaching of rhino will stop at once. Second, it assumes that only ethically obtained horns will come to the Central Selling Organisation, and that no corruption will siphon off funds in to private or political pockets.

6. Proponents claim that all rhino poaching will be resolved by legalising the trade, because:-

i. A centralised selling organisation (CSO) would sell only ethically obtained rhino horns to only Chinese parastatals.

ii. the traditional medicine market in China would be fully supplied and prices of horn would drop.

iii. Lower horn prices would mean less poaching.

iv. all the proceeds of sale would go ‘into conservation’ and be used exclusively to protect rhino and game parks.

These arguments sound so plausible, yet they are all fatally flawed. Once again, they rest on false assumptions.

1. This assumes that both the CSO and the Chinese parastatals will not be corrupt, and that poachers – especially those with deep pockets and powerful friends in government – will not be able to obtain the documentation needed to pass off poached horns as “ethical” or “legal” horn.

2. The assessment of the size and workings of the Chinese traditional medicine industry are naive, fanciful and speculative. No one knows whether releasing more horn on to the market via (posssibly corrupt Chinese parastatals) will cause prices of horn to nose-dive so far that killing rhino becomes uneconomical. Will speculators buy up horn as an investment once the trade was legalised? Why not, they hoard gold etc? Could a speculative boom cause prices to rise? No one knows.

3. The assumption that lower prices for horn will mean less poaching ignores the African reality: In Africa, if a bullet costs one dollar and the horn will only sell for ten dollars then rhino will still be poached.

4. The assumption that all proceeds of sale of horn would “go in to conservation,” and be “used to protect the game parks of Africa” is the most fanciful of all. This is Africa. To remain in power African governments use patronage. Being unable to innovate and create wealth themselves, African governments have to take whatever they can e.g. nationalising mines, confiscating farms, in order to fund their need to buy patronage. Corruption is therefore endemic: it simply cannot be eradicated without eliminating African governments. As for South africa’s ability to conserve its natural resources, a recent international comparative study of conservation and environmental issues by Yale University and the UNEP placed South Africa 124th out of 132 countries. See

In other words, it’s official – South Africa has one of the worst conservation regimes in the world – and this is the body to be trusted with administering the trade in rhino horn if the proponents have their way.

When all these realities are factored in to the arguments of those who claim that legalising the trade in rhino horn will save the rhino, then those arguments are patently flawed.


It is important to understand that rhino are not being poached because of the ban on the sale of rhino horn: ergo, lifting the ban cannot get to the root of the problem.

Rhino are being poached because African governments have neither the political will nor the competence to manage their game parks effectively.

Therefore, the savage persecution of rhino must inevitably continue, whether or not the sale of rhino horn is legalised.

The only question is whether lifting the ban would mitigate a horrendous situation. The claims of the proponents of lifting the ban are hopelessly optimistic and unrealistic, but we should still remain open minded. The imponderables are such that no one knows.

Will legalising the trade allow poachers to filter into the system poached horn – and pass it off as legal horn? This has happened with the ivory trade: when the ban was lifted, poaching increased exponentially. Should game farmers be allowed to farm with rhino? Well, if their grisly trade provides a funnel into a legal market, and this allows poachers to piggy- back their poached horn on that “legal” trade, then the game farmers’ farming activities will impact adversely upon conservation – even if they themselves are divorced from it.

What is wrong with the economic approach is that it tries to justify animal exploitation by numbers – both animal and dollars. But numbers alone are hopelessly inadequate to understand environmental degradation – or to fight it. In effect, the financial approach tries to shoe-horn all the complexities of social and environmental paradigms in to a profit and loss account and it then wants us to buy the whole company without looking at the whole Balance Sheet. This narrow economic approach could be used by drug and human traffickers as well as car hijackers, to justify their abominable activities.

Like all important social and environmental issues, rhino protection needs a broad multi-disciplinary approach.

So what are my suggestions?

First, the trade ban on rhino horn should not be lifted until we have tried more direct methods.

The rigid protection of game parks has to be stepped up, and African governments have shown that they are not up to this task. Well then, let’s think outside the box. NATO training exercises, using drones and all the latest technology, could well be held in African game parks, with a shoot to kill policy on poachers.

Second, a one-off sale of existing stocks of horns should be permitted, subject to international oversight – and auditing – on the use of the funds.

Next, poisoning of horns should be mandatory. The possession or sale of un-poisoned horn should be criminalised. (Who’d want to buy poisoned horn?)

After all we need to attack the root of the problem, which is human ignorance, vanity and greed. The ignorance of those Orientals who believe devoutly, fanatically, that rhino horn has any medicinal properties; the fatuous vanity of the Occidental trophy hunter who thinks he is a hero for hanging the head of a dead rhino on his wall, and the greed of those ruthless soldiers of fortune who will plunder and exploit our wildlife heritage in order to profit from that ignorance and vanity.

Chris Mercer and Bev Pervan
Campaign Against Canned Hunting, Sec 21 NGO

Co-authors of:

Kalahari Dream
For the love of Wildlife

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