Essay: An alternative approach

Robin Cooke-Hurle
June 2012

I bow to no-one in my huge admiration for Save the Rhino, and still remember my amazement on first discovering how just a few dedicated people working in what is ultimately a small organisation achieved so much; I felt then, and still feel today, that SRI punches well above its weight.  However it does seem to me that precisely the focus needed to make single issue organisations successful can also be an obstacle when it comes to taking on board lessons ‘from the left field’, from other analogous situations.  This essay is a deliberate attempt to try to suggest an alternative approach to saving rhinos which may well be controversial, but does draw on lessons from elsewhere.

I am not a conservationist; in fact I am probably best characterised as a ‘red in tooth and claw’ capitalist.  I do though believe that we are stewards of this world, and have a responsibility to hand it on to future generations with its diversity and beauty intact, so find it sad beyond words to think that sometime soon the last wild rhino may gaze at its last sunset, unaware, and not even touched by the loneliness of its plight.

For generations attempts to save rhinos (and other endangered species) have relied on education and law enforcement at source; interdiction of the supply chain, sometimes effectively but often not; and appeals to consumers and their governments, which we try to shame into supporting conservation.  If that approach sounds familiar, then it is, because much the same thing has been tried in the battle against drugs.  Tactical battles are won – poachers arrested or a Columbian drug factory destroyed, or drugs or horn seized - but ultimate success, or even the prospect of ultimate success, remains as elusive as ever.  The reason is very straightforward.  Not only is the value of both rhino horn and drugs high, but the more successful the law enforcement efforts the higher the price goes, as scarcity has its predictable effect, and so the greater the lengths to which illicit traders will go as the risk / reward balance shifts.  There is something profoundly depressing about the pragmatism of the police in recognising that an increasing street price for heroin or cocaine is a measure of successful law enforcement.

So if law enforcement is unlikely to solve the problem, what about education?  Efforts to educate have to continue, and I believe education is valuable in its own right.  However it seems to me that there is often, in the case of many difficult issues, a belief that education is somehow an alternative to hard, perhaps confrontational, choices.  But look at the evidence.  For generations we have known that tobacco kills people and have disseminated the message more and more widely and more and more starkly, but still nearly a quarter of all adults in the UK smoke.  Does it really seem likely that education will put people in the Far East off using products which, however misguidedly, they believe may actually be benefical?

So what might work?  Unpalatable as it may seem I believe that one lesson of the last fifty years is that in the end you cannot beat the market, so we should look instead to use the market.  In my opinion the most likely single way to save rhinos is to render their horn valueless, and the best way to do that is to flood the market, increasing the supply by so much that the price collapses and the trading risks simply outweigh the potential rewards (interestingly there is an increasing debate along those lines in the war against drugs, because the suggestion that drugs should be legalised would have the same effect on price).  And the way to increase the supply would be to initiate a sustained covert operation to ‘leak’ into the market large amounts of fake horn, which I am told can now be made to be almost indistinguishable from the real thing.  The increased supply could of itself trigger a sharp reduction in price, but if it were also accompanied by rumours of such an operation then it would force dealers into an uneconomic regime of testing to try to authenticate their supplies.

I have heard two objections to such an approach.  The first is moral, that if people in the Far East are buying horn as a medicine then are we, even if any effect is only a placebo, ever justified in supplying them with a counterfeit product?  Personally I cannot see any objection, because at least in evidence-based western medicine the active ingredient is the crucial factor, not its source.  If therefore fake horn was effectively chemically indistinguishable then I can see no moral objection.  The second is that South African rhino ‘farmers’ would object because of the impact on the price of their product.  I make no judgement about the desirability or otherwise of farming rhinos for horn, but in purely economic terms it seems to me to that if their activities were properly regulated then in fact their product would command a premium price as ‘authenticated original’, in much the same way as certified organic produce commands a premium price.

I do not know if this approach would work and do not think it should be at the expense of either sustained law enforcement, or efforts to give rhinos and other wild animals economic value through tourism, but do hope that it might spark a debate to look for radical alternatives, because the war is being slowly and inexorably lost.  In 1979, in his book Sand Rivers Peter Matthiessen wrote  

“…. it is clear how simple it would be to shoot this near-blind creature that …. has no enemies except this upright, evil smelling shadow, so recent in its ancient world, against which it has evolved no defense.  It’s rough prong of compacted hair would be hacked off with a panga …. as the triumphant voice of man moved onward, leaving behind in the African silence the dead weight of the carcass, the end product of millions of browsing, sun-filled mornings, as the dependent calf emerges from the thicket, and stands by dumbly to await the lion”. 

Over thirty years later it is still happening.  And it must be stopped.

(2) Comments

  • Carl
    13 November 2012, 16:24

    Apt to use a quote from Peter Mathiessen: in The Tree where Man was Born he describes watching Northern White Rhino in a small park in Southern Sudan... since then they're gone, and from everywhere except a few pockets in Southern and Eastern Africa.

    Its a sad fact that there are no truly 'wild' rhinos left. And the only hope we have of ever having millions of rhinos and elephants again outside of a few 'zoo-parks' is if they have greater value alive than dead... i.e. through a legal trade.

  • Johan Rothmann
    09 January 2013, 07:13

    I agree so much with this article by Robin Cooke-Hurle. I have been contemplating most of the points he put into words. The idea of fake horn is new to me, but definitely worth pursuing further.
    All the efforts and money that are currently spent to stop poaching will not be successful - the market price is just too high for most humans to ignore. While the trade is illegal, we have to continue with these efforts, but the shift must be to get the market price of rhino horn down in the medium to long term. THERE IS NO OTHER SOLUTION!
    How do we overcome all the obstacles and issues to do this ?
    I am prepared to help and dedicate myself to achieve this. It is heart breaking to read the daily news of another rhino slaughtered.

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