By Chris Davis(China Daily USA)
Thanks to unabated demand for its horn in Asia, the African rhinoceros is teetering on the verge of extinction. There are some ideas for saving them that go beyond stopping poachers, Chris Davis reports from New York.
Crunch the numbers any way you want, but the endangered African rhinoceros is at a tipping point. More are poached each year than are being born. All 5,000 wild black rhino could be gone in 10 years; all wild rhinos – including the 15,000 whites in South Africa – by 2036, experts say.
A record 1,338 were slaughtered for their horns in 2015. That’s up from one the year before 2007, when there were 13 taken; 111 in 2008; 333 in 2009; 448 the next year. That’s a 40 percent-a-year rise.
The numbers have marched upward steadily in tandem with elephant ivory. The reasons are plain. People who traffic ivory also traffic rhino horn. The routes and techniques to smuggle the two commodities to consumers are similar – as are the consumers.
While there has been a steady push on enforcement, small underpowered governments can’t keep up with what has become a robust and deadly criminal enterprise.
There have been a few creative ideas put forward to save the rhino, from the high-tech – one startup, Pembient, is trying to “biofabricate” artificial rhino horn – to good old fashioned free market economics.
The question is: Can any of it be done in time?
The conventional tendency is to point to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as the main culprit on the demand end for rhino horn and simply say if people stopped using it, the poaching would stop.
There is a precedent for such an approach, as Harry Peachey of Conservation Messaging LLC explained. Between 1970 and 1990, the black rhino population in Africa had dwindled down 98 percent – the largest recorded decline in modern history of any large mammal – all from poaching.
The primary consumer was Taiwan. Go into any TCM pharmacy there at the time and the pharmacist would typically have a rhino horn on a spindle, scrape off the customer’s order and wrap it up.
In the early 1990s, a delegation from the UN went to Taiwan on what was ostensibly a consumer survey and ended up teaching more than they learned. They asked people if they used rhino horn. The vast majority said yes they did. Did they know that it was moving rhinos to extinction? No, they did not. Was that a matter of concern to them? Yes it was, most said.
“That could have been a very pure response, it could have been because they wanted rhinos to remain extant so they could have access to rhino horn for the rest of their lives,” Peachey said, “but regardless the vast majority were concerned and as a result they turned away from rhino horn and went to other medicines. It had an effect on poaching and at the time rhino poaching became almost a non-issue.”
The black rhino population got a chance to recover, from less than 2,000 to more than 5,000 today.
Moving into the 20th century, the black rhinos’ cousins to the south, white rhinos, were the ones who needed help. Their numbers had plummeted perilously to less than 50, perhaps to 20. South Africans took them onto reserves and protected them, watching over them and protecting them, thanks to which there are now more than 20,000, a huge recovery and success story.
South Africa now has 80 percent of Africa’s remaining rhinos and 25 percent of those are privately owned on ranches and reserves. But they are all under siege.
“With this increasing demand for rhino horn the tables are starting to turn,” Peachey said. “Most of the rhinos that are poached now are southern Whites, but any rhino with a horn is vulnerable.”
The heaviest demand is coming from Vietnam, he said, where it is being given as gifts and bribes to curry political favor. “Rather than consuming it a few grams at a time, rhino horn there has become a status symbol, consuming more in one event than you would under more traditional circumstances use in an entire lifetime. And there are people who did this two or three times and the value of horn has escalated incredibly.”
To address the crisis, South Africa put together a panel of experts last year to explore the idea of creating a legalized international market in rhino horn trade, something the rhino ranchers are obviously in favor of. The problem for the panel was there was practically no literature – studies, surveys, data, analysis – of the market.
Enter the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “We were hearing about a proposal that South Africa was looking at to legalize an international trade,” said NRDC researcher Alex Kennaugh. “We wanted to look at the data to see if the economics stacked up. And found that there was no good statistically significant data about what the demand looked like.”
The South Africans pushing for the market reckoned they could supply the demand and if they couldn’t then the model fell apart, Kennaugh said.
“They basically said we’ll flood the market, the price will drop, it will alleviate poaching pressures. But if you can’t supply the market, then of course that doesn’t hold water.”
The numbers being used to make the case didn’t sit right with Kennaugh. “We decided it might be better to get some harder numbers,” she said. “Something we could really start to draw what the demand looked like, get a sense of the scale and get an idea of why consumers want to purchase it.”
Then nations could begin to design what conservationists call “demand reduction strategies”. Or actually say, Yeah, you can supply the market; maybe this is a good solution to the poaching problem.
The South Africans’ proposed supply of horn was a mixture from natural mortality and harvesting from privately-owned herds. “The thought was private individuals could have rhino farms and non-lethally shave or cut the horn off and supply the market – a non-lethal solution to supply the demand. They grow back at a slower rate – 1 kg a year once they start cutting it,” said Kennaugh.
“So you have to wait until the rhino is about 6-years-old and they have a life span of 36 years. So you can shave off one kilo every year for the life of the animal. South Africa has a long tradition of using wildlife as a commodity to generate revenue.”
John Hume, the 73-year-old South African owner of 27-square-mile Buffalo Dream Ranch (the size of Manhattan), home to more than 1,300 rhinos, told onearth.org that security was his biggest expense and that a legalized trade is the only way he can cover it.
“Western civilization doesn’t understand the problem,” he said. “They just think, Oh, it’s wrong to cut off a rhino’s horn, and there’s no right way to do a wrong thing. The East will find horn to buy. And if we refuse them, as we are now, they’ll just buy it illegally – which means the rhinos get poached.”
None of Hume’s rhinos have their full horns. He keeps them trimmed and has four tons of horn stockpiled, worth, by his reckoning, about $40 million at today’s going rate.
As Les Carlisle, project manager for Rhinos without Borders in South Africa, put it: “For rhinos to survive, we have to make them worth more when they’re alive than when they’re dead.”
On the consumer end, the NRDC uncovered some things that should inform the debate. Just published this month, their study – Rhino Rage: What is Driving Illegal Consumer Demand for Rhino Horn – went into five of the bigger eastern cities of China – Beijing, Harbin, Shanghai, Kunming and Guangzhou – and found the that market for rhino horn is really two markets, split between medicinal uses and luxury “conspicuous consumption” goods.
Users behave differently in each market and show regional differences. And perhaps most importantly, “the illegal status of the rhino horn trade and awareness of conservation issues dampen demand in both product markets,” the report said.
“We only had the money to do research in urban centers,” Kennaugh said, “which again is one of the weaknesses of the results, as we didn’t test in rural areas, which you could likely assume would have more use of TCM than in urban areas, because it tends to be cheaper and traditional beliefs are more intact.”
They folded price sensitivity and choice of TCM over Western medicine into their survey.
In a nutshell, what she found out was that if you offer people low-priced herbal alternatives to rhino horn, they will choose the lower price.
“So you could substitute the demand for rhino horn in medicine by offering a low cost TCM that’s made with herbs instead. So they can substitute it quite easily. In economics, it’s elasticity – easy to switch between the products,” she explained.
On the luxury goods side – owning a rhino horn as a symbolic display of wealth and status – they discovered there was definitely a market for that.
“It tends to be pieces or the full horn,” she said. “Having a piece shows a degree of wealth that having a medicine or a poultice or a drink doesn’t. The reason for the purchase, even if it may be in a medicinal form, may be as a gift to show status or appreciation.”
Kennaugh found that people would switch between other luxury goods up to a certain price and then after that, just buy the horn: “It doesn’t matter how expensive it is, because the price is a signal that it’s really expensive and rare and unique. So it’s an inelastic demand at a certain point.”
No matter how much horn is supplied in the luxury market, the theory that the price will drop with demand doesn’t wash. “Because people want it at the high price,” Kennaugh said.
The top reasons people gave for not buying rhino horn as a luxury good were wildlife conservation, the expense and a lack of interest.
They also asked questions like: Are you aware that it’s illegal? And found that 25 percent of the respondents were not. “If you’re designing demand reduction strategies, if the Chinese authorities want to crack down on illegal use – because it is illegal in China, and the world – let people know it’s illegal,” Kennaugh said.
Same as arson
The researchers asked if it was a moral issue. Was it the risk of punitive damages or a right-versus-wrong element that was keeping them from using it? They found there was a moral element – they equated it to arson.
“You basically have two products so you can’t maybe apply the same policy to both markets because they behave differently,” she said. “If your aim is to drive price down and that is the solution to your policy challenge, if you drive price down low enough, maybe you don’t need to because you can offer a lower priced substitute.”
“In an inelastic market, if you apply a ban, it doesn’t matter, because people will buy it anyway, illegally or at any price.”
The next step for Kennaugh’s team is to try to get a handle on just how big the market is and they are leaving no stone unturned in their quest for good data.
“I’ve done back-of-the-envelope calculations of demand and it’s very large, because of the size of the population of China, and back-of-the-envelope calculations for the supply that would be available from South Africa. And demand outstrips supply – considerably,” Kennaugh said.
Roughly, she guesstimates close to 500 tons (a year) would be needed and South Africa, in a best-case scenario, could come up with maybe 70 tons.
A poacher today gets about $5,000 a kilo for a rhino horn that is sold at the other end for $57,000 to $65,000 a kilo. Horns average 2.5 kilos and can fetch $250,000.
“That’s a tremendous amount of money. You can see why people indulge in it. It’s difficult to resist, but again we’re talking about organized crime,” said Peachey.
“For a long time as ordinary people were involved in rhino poaching, they would get $100, which seemed like a lot of money,” he said. “People sometimes make excuses for the illegal wildlife trade saying that indigenous people live in a difficult world and this is an opportunity for them to better themselves. It rarely if ever works that way.”
“People who are involved in taking contraband and getting it to consumers move into the beginning of that chain, when they see the profit that lucrative, they just can’t resist.”
“The people who were the middle men got involved in poaching itself. They have cut out the ordinary people who were doing the poaching and now you find there are organized gangs that are highly equipped, heavily armed, poaching from helicopters. It’s organized crime. It’s not just individuals taking advantage of an opportunity, it’s gangs that go out with the intent to poach rhinos, make a substantial investment and experience a substantial return,” Peachey said.
According to China’s Auction Association, mainland auction markets saw sales of rhino horn doubling year-on-year. In 2011, 2,750 pieces of rhino horn carvings fetched $179 million on mainland auction blocks. Today pieces bring an average price of $117, 582.
“The high prices for rhino horns in Asia even attracted the attention of criminal gangs which targeted museums and galleries in Europe and successfully pulled off a series of rhino horn thefts,” said Grace Ge Gabriel of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), who opposes the creation of an international market.
Acting on a tip from IFAW about the auction sales of rhino horn, tiger bone and elephant ivory, Chinese authorities banned all auctions of these endangered species in 2012, Gabriel said.
“The auction ban resulted in a 40 percent reduction of auction volume in mainland China,” she said.
“Legalizing rhino horn trade would feed two distinctly different markets, remove the stigma associated with consumption of endangered species, stimulate the insatiable demand for rhino horn and fuel further rhino poaching,” Gabriel wrote on her IFAW blog.
“Profiteers are pushing the legal trade, lobbying the agricultural industry hard saying, ‘We should have the right to farm these animals and the security costs are so high for our business we need to finance them, of course we’re rhino conservationists, but we stand to make a packet of money’,” Kennaugh said.
“If a legal market exists and these high prices continue to be paid,” said Peachey, “then people will go and kill a rhino on a farm – and it’s already happened. Rhinos that should be protected have been poached. And that horn goes to market.”
“If all rhino horn trade is illegal,” he continued, “then any time you see a rhino horn you know someone has committed a crime. There’s no ‘Let me see your papers’, there’s no opportunity to provide counterfeit paperwork or counterfeit permits. It’s black and white. You’re taking a rhino horn across the border, that’s illegal, you’re under arrest.”
The only way a legal market would work, he believes, would be if people were willing to sell rhino horn for $5 a pound. “If you sell it at a price that is so incredibly low, it loses its value as a status symbol, it loses its value to a certain extent in the practice of TCM and demand just might plummet,” he said.
Peachey cited a survey done by the South African government recently of 54 rhino owners: only seven had ever sold rhino horn. “So for people to contend that this is an industry and they need to do this to survive, in fact that’s not the case,” Peachey said. “That says that there were 47 rhino owners who were not compelled to sell rhino horn in order to survive. They found another way to manage these rhinos that they had on their farms or ranches in order to get them to pay their way.”
The proposal will be run up the flag pole at the next CITES convention in September. It is not expected to pass.
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