In a packed out theatre room in the Royal Institute of Great Britain, I attended my first ever formal debate; ‘Should the global trade of rhino horn be legalised?’
As was so rightfully and significantly acknowledged at the end of the evening, the debate was far more than exploring whether or not to commodify an essentially useless (to humans) animal product, but was about our relationship with the natural world.
To contextualise the debate, rhino horn has a similar street value to heroine; it is used largely for traditional Asian medicine, believed to have properties that provide headache relief in China, and increasingly as cancer treatment in Vietnam. In some countries it is also used ornamentally, as a status symbol. In literal terms, it is made of keratin, the same substance that is found in human hair and fingernails, and likewise, it can regrow.
I hesitate to use the term ‘renewable resource’, as expressed in the debate introduction by ecologist Craig Packer, as I’m not sure the tone should have been set by immediately talking in terms of harvests and exploitation, but nonetheless, the idea behind the trade would be that by ‘shaving’ the horns off of living rhino and monetising them without killing the animal, it would allow for regrowth, meaning a continuing supply of horn (and money for the rhino breeders) in attempt to meet demand.
Representing the case for legalising the trade in horn was rhino breeder and ex-property tycoon John Hume, and arguing against legalising the trade; Will Travers, president of the Born Free Foundation.
On first appearances, both of these characters appear to be at complete odds with one another; Will Travers wore a black suit and a tie that featured miniature embroidered rhinos, with shoes shined and a small ribbon pinned on his jacket, which I recognised as part of Born Free’s World Wildlife Day campaign. John Hume addressed the audience in his red checked shirt, and a pair of jeans — a more casual approach, and even the debate chair, Craig Packer, fresh from a flight from America, arrived in cargo trousers and sandals. I would be lying if I said first impressions didn’t matter to me, and I very much felt there was a deliberate tone to each person’s dress.
But despite differing styles, Packer — who himself is known for his research on lions and the impact of trophy hunting on their population numbers — was quick to address in his introduction that both Hume and Travers were there for the sake of the rhino, both having interest in preventing the species from going extinct, and increasing rhino numbers in South Africa.
Though, to me, it seemed that they were very much on different ends of the spectrum (one advocating wild populations, the other advocating protected numbers in captive circumstances — owing to ‘wild’ areas in South Africa being targeted by poachers), their mutual concern about the boom in rhino poaching over the last decade was a welcome one. The figures quoted during the debate were 15,000 white rhino exist in South Africa today, and only 5,000 black rhino. The dire severity of the case was somewhat summarised by Packer’s statement: “Most of the world doesn’t care. We are in the room are the minority — we are the ones who care enough to come here and talk about this.”
“If it seems too good to be true, it probably is”
Opening the debate, Will Travers addressed the importance of this question with regards to this year’s CITES meeting at the end of this month. CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, is an international agreement between governments to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. This debate is particularly topical, as there was rumour this year of South Africa presenting the case that trade in white rhino horn should be downgraded globally from Appendix I* to Appendix II, allowing horn to be exported out of South Africa.
*Currently white rhinos are listed as Appendix II for the population of South Africa and Swaziland and for the exclusive purpose of allowing international trade in live animals to appropriate and acceptable destinations and hunting trophies.
After considering all angles, under the premise that legal trade could mean more funds, and therefore better protection for living rhinos, and that legal profit could equate to US$717,000,000 per year, South Africa chose not to present the case at CITES this year. As Travers thought-provokingly explained, “On first glance it looks like ‘win, win, win’, but if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. [Changing the annotation of the Appendix II listing in Swaziland and South Africa to include the legal sale of horn] gives the message that this animal product is back on the market, and the demand will only increase.”
There were two case studies presented to illustrate this:
i) Trade in wool from the live sheared vicuña (a llama/alpaca-like member of the camel family found in South America) was legalised under certain conditions, but figures show that in 2015, 90% of the export was still illegal (i.e. not meeting these conditions), with more numbers than ever poached for their hair.
ii) Since the opening of bear bile farms, to extract the bile of Asiatic black bear to be used in traditional Chinese medicine, the surplus ‘stock’ of this product has begun to make its way into products such as toothpaste and cleanser — ‘new product developments’, which show that as available stock increases, as does demand!
Added to this, Travers declared that poachers are ‘entrepreneurs’, stating; “if you legally sell [horn] at $30,000 a kilo, they’ll sell at $25,000 — it’s a huge assumption that the legal market will replace illegal trade.”
So, if South Africa have chosen not to present the case at CITES, why is the debate still relevant? Well, whereas South Africa have decided against legalising the trade in horn, Swaziland — with its population of just 73 rhinos — wants to seek CITES approval instead. To do this they will require the support of two-thirds or more of the delegates present and voting.
Swaziland doesn’t have the greatest track record to date, it previously shipped 11 of its 36 wild elephants to zoos in America, due to ‘over-population’. Travers concluded, “There are no simple solutions — legalising it will not make it better, it will only make it worse.”
“I think I have the recipe”
Second to take the floor, John Hume, ‘custodian’ to 1403 rhinos, 940 of which he has bred (making him the most successful rhino breeder in South Africa). Hume bought himself a game reserve after making his money in property, and lost his first rhino to poaching in 2007, 15 years after introducing them to the property. He now trims the horn (or rather, recruits a vet to remove then from the rhinos, under anaesthetic) as a deterrent to poachers; if there is no horn on the rhino, there is no reason to poach them.
The potentially very valuable side effect of this, is that he currently has a stockpile of 5 tons of rhino horn — as much as the collective amount of all the other private rhino owners in South Africa. On top of this, the South African government has 22 tons of horn stockpiled, which John explained is more than what is currently on the market. Thinking of the value of horn per kilo, at US$30,000 dollars, the dual narrative of conservation and business is hard to ignore.
There are currently 6200 privately owned rhinos in South Africa, meaning a further 550 per year could be bred by these private owners. The worry is, however, that they would be kept in captive conditions (so not really wild rhino numbers, after all) and private owners may not all have the same high standards of care (or financial means to provide it) — it would be the ideal scenario to enforce a regulated minimum standard, but as Packer declared ‘If we look at the examples of bear bile farms or the lion trophy hunting industry, we simply don’t regulate the standards of care’.
Hume’s main point in this debate was that making the trade in horn illegal is not stopping it, it’s pushing it underground. “If the law doesn’t help the rhino, it should not be in place. When are we going to save the rhinos instead of the horns?” he added. “Rhinos need your local support to save them — I think I have the recipe.”
I’m currently reading Craig Packer’s book, Lions in the Balance, which examines similar issues relating to lions, and Packer challenges the conservationist to consider the survival of the species over the survival of the individual. I was willing to at least open my mind to different schools of thought over this issue and was waiting for Hume’s recipe to include all the good ingredients of a well considered plan. But it simply didn’t. It was no more complicated and considered than: ‘let’s take the risk, because the current law hasn’t caused the poaching to stop, and this way we can make money legitimately from the trade and put it back into this same system of ‘conservation’, at the standards that we have set.’
The future of African Wildlife…
It genuinely worried me that this was being considered as a legitimate option. If the numbers of rhinos being poached every year continue at the rate they are currently, the entire population could be gone in 15 years. A far more beneficial tactic would be to educate, inform and inspire the people of Africa at large to value this animal in it’s whole, live form, with no bits hacked off, and no consolation prize of captive-only populations. As Will concluded: “The future of African wildlife lies in Africa, it’s up to them, with our support, to lead the charge.” I really hope Swaziland’s CITES proposal doesn’t set the tone.
Keep up to date with this year’s CITES meeting here: cites.org