Bad economics is killing rhino

Now, I’m a fan of rhinos. I will admit the one that chased us one day wasn’t on my list of favourites at the time, but she didn’t stop me from going back into the bush later to look for more. I spent a little more than a decade living in Africa and would visit wildlife reserves 3 or 4 times per year at the least. One rhino reserve was about 30 minutes from home, but I often visited the larger reserves in Kwa-Zulu Natal or Mpumalanga. 

What had me perplexed, until recently, was the sudden increase in poaching of rhinos in South Africa over the last few years.

Since I left Africa there are some issues I haven’t kept up with regarding the local economy. Certainly, when I was there, rhino poaching was extremely rare. My initial assumption was this rise in poaching was just another sign of poor government policing. I then realised that didn’t make much sense since many of the incidents occur on private reserves with their own staffing. The CNN documentary “Trophy” suddenly answered the question.

The main reason rhinos are poached and killed for their horns is because superstitious folk think the horn has medicinal value. It doesn’t.

The value of the horn could actually save the rhino as there is no necessity to kill a rhino to harvest the horn. It can be removed easily with little discomfort to the rhino and then it immediately starts growing back.

There were breeding projects on private rhino farms where they raised rhinos in order to harvest the horn. One result was the population of rhinos in South Africa was growing. That’s how things were when I left—a growing population with almost no poaching.

But, as nations banned the sale and ownership of rhino horn — no matter how it was harvested — the incentive to breed rhinos declined. South Africa allowed the sale of rhino horn until 2009, eight years after I left. Then they made it illegal to sell.

In 2007, the poaching problem amounted to 13 rhinos across the country, in one year. Then horn sales were made illegal and the price skyrocketed, creating an economic incentive for poaching but a disincentive for breeding rhinos. Within a few years, poaching increased a hundredfold, to around 1,300 to 1,400 rhinos per year.

One rhino farmer said he still regularly harvests the horns of his rhinos because it reduces poaching, but he’s not allowed to sell rhino horn. So he has warehoused horn worth $60 million on the world market. That sort of glut in the market, if sold internationally, would push down the value of rhino horn and dramatically reduce the incentive to poach. It would also encourage farmers to breed a lot more rhino.

This farmer, however, is losing money. He’s passionate about saving rhino and is selling off his other assets to keep the rhino farm alive, but these are being depleted. He expects about 200 calves a year, which would increase rhino populations quite considerably. But, his most vocal enemies, short-sighted, economically illiterate “conservationists” don’t want him selling the surplus horn. They don’t see that this will keep the price of horn high and incentivise even more poaching.

Letting rhino farmers breed and raise rhinos and then harvest the horn would be lucrative and would lead to a massive increase in the number of rhinos. The problem is people react without thinking and we still get people who think the legal sale of horn is why the rhino is dying out now.

Using similar logic, I have to assume harvesting eggs is why chickens are almost extinct, harvested mutton threatens the ability of lambs to survive, and eating hamburger is why cows are now as rare as the chickens and lambs.

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute and author of several books including Exploding Population Myths and The Liberal Tide.

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