The poster boy of conservation success stories of the 20th Century is most definitely the white rhino, recovering from less than 2 dozen head in 1900, to over 17,000 today. But today, poaching for rhino horn is decimating the species, to such a degree that if it continues at this rate, the rhino will be gone in within the next decade.
In 2010, 333 rhinos were poached. The number grew to 448 in 2011 and 668 in 2012, and in 2013, poachers slaughtered 1000 rhinos, all record numbers. The carnage is fueled by the demand for rhino horn in the growing economies and disposable income of east Asian countries; specifically China and Vietnam.
Believed to be a cure for anything from cancer to impotence, rhino horn is nothing more than compacted keratin, the same chemical makeup as your hair and fingernails. But effective or not, the demand for rhino horn is all too real, as $65,000 per kilo and up is more than enough incentive to send an army of poachers to the killing fields with sophisticated night vision equipment, military grade weapons, and even helicopters.
Private ownership of rhino has become a Catch 22; the economic, albeit illegal value in the rhino is there, and it must be protected from the highly motivated thugs that invade their properties, and yet, the law-abiding owners cannot benefit from the value of the horn. Given the present and dire circumstances, perhaps we should view the rhino in a different way; trade in rhino horn should be legalized to derail the economics, and thus the incentive for poaching.
Legal trade would take profits away from poaching rings and their criminal syndicates. Just as taxes on cigarettes fund education and health programs in this country, tax on rhino horn would provide significant funding for campaigns to combat poaching. Legal trade would increase the global horn supply, lowering prices and the attraction of poaching. Rhinos produce nearly one kilogram of horn each year, which can easily be harvested after the animal is darted with a sedative; another source of revenue to sustainably manage the species.
Think about it; with a rhino growing back $50,000 or more worth of horn every year, the incentive to breed rhinos would be so great, every Boer in the veld would be clamoring to breed rhino on every patch of ground they could fence.
During this time when the fate of the rhino as a species is hanging in the balance, perhaps we should focus less on trying to change the buying habits of a billion people and focus more on what we can control, the supply of rhinoceros.
Legalizing trade in rhinoceros horn is a bold and extreme move, but as the fate of the rhino is slipping to the side of extinction, perhaps it is time to try a different approach.