July 2012

A horny dilemma

This article was written by Simon Barnes and published in his Wild Notebook column in The Times on Saturday 21 July 2012

A generous offer puts us on the horns of a dilemma

All tenners are equal, but some are less equal than others. That’s an important principle to bear in mind when you are trying to do a bit of good in the world and are desperate for cash to do it with. It takes a bit of guts to say thanks but no thanks to £10,000.

It’s the sort of thing that all charities – but perhaps wildlife charities in particular – have to keep in mind all the time. You have to be unbelievably careful about what you do with the money, for the excellent reason that it’s not your money. You also have to be unbelievably careful about who you take your money from.

The Olympic Games takes money from McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, which in my view is grotesquely inappropriate. Wildlife charities have to be careful that they are not being used for greenwash: to give a bogus air of respectability to a destructive organisation. If you’re a charity protecting bogs, you don’t accept donations, however tempting, from people who sell peat.

I am a patron of Save the Rhino and we have had disagreements in the past about what money to accept and what not to accept. But the charity is absolutely right to turn down this ten grand. Not that it couldn’t do wonderful things with it, but it’s the wrong ten grand.

It was offered through Mallams the auctioneer. Someone had inherited an 18th century libation cup made from rhino horn, sold it at auction and wanted to make a donation. The cup went for more than £200,000, but the sale didn’t go through because the purchaser was arrested for smuggling. It was then sold for £64,000. You can’t pick and choose what you inherit. It’s a splendid windfall for the vendor and a nice gesture to the charity; not one you have to make, after all. So what’s the problem?

The problem is the dramatic escalation – the sudden spike, if you prefer – in rhino poaching over the past two or three years. The wealthier China becomes, the greater the demand for rhino horn (no, it’s not an aphrodisiac, it’s supposed to cure fever, rheumatism and gout).

The more rhino horn being bought and sold, the more heated the market. So the sale of the horns of rhinos long dead is contributing to the death of the rhinos we still have left – five species, all in various degrees of vulnerability. Save the Rhino is in the business of trying to prevent the very thing that bought it the offer of the ten grand. So there’s a logic to turning down the donation.

And there’s also the emotional question, and that matters to a charity. People support a charity because they feel good about it. It’s the tide of good feeling that keeps charities afloat: it’s not something you jeopardise for one nice cheque. If it doesn’t feel right, it’s probably wrong.

The issue has come up before. Save the Rhino was sent a cheque for £500 from Clevedon Salesrooms, which arose from the sale of a walking stick with a rhino-horn handle. This too was turned down.

Back in 2009, before the poaching situation became critical, Save the Rhino did accept a donation of £1,000 after a libation cup shown on Antiques Roadshow was sold. The vendor went on to run the London marathon for Save the Rhino and took part in Rhino Trek South Africa.

Trophy mount

It’s a minefield. So much of wildlife conservation is carried out by non-governmental organisations; charities that work on public goodwill and, by extension, financial support from commercial organisations.

 But they exist on trust; we rely on an organisation we support to be scrupulous. Organisations that spend unacceptable sums of money on admin or fundraising – as opposed to saving tigers or rainforest or hungry children – will lose support.

There is a sense in which we delegate our own conscience when we make a charitable donation; we trust that the organisation will do the job righteously.

And if we ever get the impression that it is not doing so, we don’t react calmly. We feel betrayed, exploited, outraged, inclined to give up that organisation, inclined to give up that sector of charitable giving, inclined to keep our bloody money where it will do us most good.

A few years ago, a couple inherited a rhino-horn trophy and didn’t feel comfortable with it. So they gave it to Save the Rhino, which used it for education.

But as the rhino horn market really got going, there were more and more reports of robberies of rhino horn from museums, auction houses and zoos in Europe. So Save the Rhino gave the horn, via the police, to the UK Border Agency. It’s being used to train sniffer dogs who nose out smuggled rhino horn.

Save the Rhino has lost ten grand then. But it’s kept its credibility, and that’s worth a great deal more money. Meanwhile, its work goes on, trying to ensure that we still have a planet on which five species of stonking great one and two-horned monsters eat, breathe and get on with the job of making more rhinos.

© The Times <07 2012>

(16) Comments

  • Andrew Attias
    30 July 2012, 21:19

    That's a tough one, especially given that the donor appears to have been genuine, but the right decision has been made. If lines aren't drawn then inevitably the slide down the slippery slope begins. I'm certain that Save The Rhino would not fall in to that trap but how easy would it be for a charity to convince themselves of the justification in accepting a large donation and then when the next, more dubious one comes along, accept that too? Best to stop at the start. Credibility is worth more than a single donation and, I hope, lead to the generation of many more donations worth a far greater total value.

  • john Burton
    02 August 2012, 16:34

    A liberation cup? Sounds interesting. perhaps someone could enlighten me as to what they look like.

  • Captain GONZO
    02 August 2012, 21:13

    Well done for making a stand.
    Last year I asked the ethical question (being a Parkinson's sufferer).
    How would I feel if the proved that Rhino horn cured Parkinson's???
    My answer is in the title....'Save the Rhino'!!!!!

  • Cathy Dean
    03 August 2012, 09:49

    John Burton: Thanks for spotting the typo (ours, not Simon Barnes') - now corrected. Do quite like the sound of a "liberation cup" though, as long as it's not made of rhino horn!

  • Michael 't Sas-Rolfes
    03 August 2012, 21:49

    Something I simply do not understand - and would love you to explain - is how preventing the sale and export of rhino horn artefacts from rhinos that are long dead helps protect existing live rhinos. Whenever a rhino trophy gets stolen from a museum, surely that saves the life of an existing live rhino in Africa? I really don't understand this 'additive' theory of rhino horn trade: i.e. the more rhino horn that reaches consumers the more it threatens live rhinos: to me, that flies in the face of economic logic and downward sloping demand curves. I would very much like Save the Rhino (and all those who support this view) to back up your claim with both solid theoretical economic arguments and empirical evidence. I strongly suspect you can do neither, but would be happy to be proven wrong!

  • Rithvik
    07 August 2012, 16:43

    In the 1980s. The poachers killed. All the rhino in Botswana which was a disaster. Now the rhino reserves want to bring back the population of the black rhino

    Thank you

  • Andrew Attias
    07 August 2012, 19:45

    There are many reasons that can be laid out to answer your question, Michael, but in brief... any sale of rhino horn no matter what the age or condition, continues to stoke the overall trade in horn. Even antique trophies end up in the illegal chain to be ground down to powder to serve the voracious appetite of Vietnamese medicine. The recent spate of museum thefts prove this. Once ground down there is no distinguishing it from poached horn. This horn does not put money in to honest traders or doctors pockets but the pockets of international criminals. Supplying horn to meet partial demand only leads to the stimulation of more demand and that in turn leads to more poaching. More demand means higher prices, more profits for the gangs and corrupt officials in a never ending spiral. There will never be enough rhinos to meet the potential of a multi-billion person market in the Far East, even with so called 'farming of horns'. Rhinos will end up becoming extinct unless all trade is stopped and people are educated so that they know that Rhino horn has no medicinal benefits at all. As I say, the short answer!

  • Andrew Attias
    07 August 2012, 20:10

    just a couple of economic arguments to add... 1) rhino artifacts are far too scarce to have any effect on the black market price of horn. The price would remain high regardless and therefore still stimulate poaching 2) rhino artifact horns on the market do not replace poached horn but are simply added to it. there would not be enough antique horn to stop demand for poaching 3) mined diamonds are plentiful enough for their price to be nearly as low as cheap semi precious stones. The reason the price of diamonds is so high is because they are horded by dealers to keep the price artificially high. The same would be the case for rhino horn if stocks of old horn were released on the market place. They would simply be bought up and hoarded by the same gangs that poach now so that they will get higher profits. While the price remains high, there will always be the incentive to poach. 4) As previously mentioned if the demand for horn is not stopped entirely, there would never be enough rhino horn to meet it. After all, the potential market is in the billions of people. Can you see a billion rhino being bred to meet that demand? the chances of the price of rhino horn ever being low enough to make poaching not worth the risk are therefore very low indeed, if not impossible.

  • Michael 't Sas-Rolfes
    15 August 2012, 05:07

    Andrew, all I asked was for a credible explanation as to how preventing the sale of rhino artifacts from already deceased rhinos helps to protect live ones. You did not provide one.

    Instead you claim that ‘any sale’ continues to ‘stoke the trade’. I have no idea what that means. The spate of museum thefts only proves that the current price is high enough to justify them, nothing more. And why is the price high? Simply because there is some supply of horn reaching the market?? Your argument suffers from circular logic. Supply stimulates MORE demand? Which in turn stimulates poaching and leads to more supply and thus more demand and so on? Where does this end? Why are there any rhinos left at all? And why is it that I can’t go into the business of selling widgets and simply rake in the profits as I supply increasingly more of them and relentlessly stoke additional demand?

    You also claim a potential market of ‘billions’. That’s quite a bold claim – do you have any evidence of this?

    Finally, you claim that rhinos will become extinct unless ALL trade is stopped and ‘people are educated’. And how do you think we can achieve that? How much will this cost and who is going to pay for it?

    In summary, you have provided no solid theoretical argument or empirical evidence to back it up. I must therefore ask again: where is the peer-reviewed, data-based literature to back up your claims?

  • Andrew Attias
    16 August 2012, 20:50

    I apologise for my lack of clarity. Lets look at the points. 1) stoking the trade. While there is any kind of supply of rhino horn, legal or illegal, there will be trade in rhino horn. Every time rhino horn enters the market place, with rare exceptions it will end up in the hands of the criminals that smuggle illegal wildlife artifacts. This is fact because there are no legal avenues to trade it. They will continue to operate, continue to develop black market demand and continue to make big profits. they will ensure that illegal avenues remain open to satisfy the demand of people who do not care whether the rhino horn is illegally traded or not. If the supply dried up completely, the trade would stop. Any sort of supply including antique artifacts keeps the trade flow going and encourages demand. 2) The price is high because demand exceeds supply, simple economics. Demand is currently held back because the trade is illegal. this makes obtaining it beyond the means of many people who would otherwise want horn for medicine. If supply increases while the trade is still illegal, the only source is through poaching or through the theft of artifacts. This level of supply is sufficient to keep the trade routes going but not sufficient to reduce the price. 3) where does it end? Good question. It ends with certain countries continuing to push for legalising the trade or turning a blind eye to it. If the trade remains illegal then poaching will continue and the species will be lost. If it is legalised then the floodgates of demand open, more medical practitioners in the Far East will offer rhino horn as a remedy. The initial impact will be for prices to rise even higher. this will stimulate more poaching or so called 'rhino farming' where rhino are bred for their horn. If stockpiles are sold off then the price will drop but economics will tell you again that a fall in price will stimulate yet more demand. There is a high risk that the sold stockpiles will simply end up being stockpiled elsewhere, this time with criminal gangs or private commercial companies. In both cases, supply to the market will be drip-fed to ensure that prices remain artificially high in order to make more profits. If prices remain high then there continues to be the incentive for poaching. The debate on legalising the trade is too big to include here so I don't want to go too far down that line. It can be debated on another article. 4) why are there any rhinos left at all? Another good question. The answer is simply down to organisations such as Save The Rhino and individuals willing to sacrifice everything they have to prevent poaching. Without them there would be no rhinos left. It's as simple as that. 5) why won't the same logic work with widgets? Because an endless supply of widgets can be produced to meet demand and you can't guarantee being sole supplier. Your widgets will be copied, stopping your monopoly and then undercutting you in a price war. If you remain a monolopy then it will work because you can keep your must-have widget at an artificially high price. The only equivalent for rhino horn is for rhino farming and that is not as easy as making widgets. You can make hundreds or thousands of widgets a day (depending on the widget). You can't produce rhinos that quickly. The 'factory' (farm) would also have to be of a huge size if production needed to be increased. 6) The market of billions. This is not a bold claim, simply fact. There are over 2 billion Chinese. Expand that to include Vietnam and other Far eastern countries that practice traditional medicine and you have a huge population. Rhino horn is not just used as a final resort when all other treatments fail, it is also used as a daily supplement (by those who can get hold of it). Traditional medicine is so deeply routed in these countries that a very large proportion of the population would use it if they had the opportunity, even those who use modern medicines. Let's be generous and just say 50% would use it even if only casually. That's still over a billion people. How long would a rhino horn last one person when ground down? A month? A year? 2 years? that still equals a billion horns every 2 years. Ok, lets be reasonable and use 25% of the population. that is still half a billion horns. 500,000 rhinos each re-growing their horns every 2 years. That doesn't seem sustainable to me. 7) education. This will be achieved by pressure being put on nations such as Vietnam and China to stop allowing their top officials from making claims about the benefits of rhino horn as medicine (such as the Vietnamese politician who claimed it cured cancer). Political Pressure needs to be put on these governments to educate their populations that these remedies do not work and that other modern medicines do. They should make a distinction between traditional medicines that do work (and many do) and those that are pure myth. Who would pay for it? The charities and their supporters who are already putting large sums of money in to anti-poaching measures and Governments who already give educational aid to poorer countries. The main money should come from the Governments of the countries where the rhino horn ends up and political pressure including the witholding of other aid and loans needs to be applied.

  • Cathy Dean
    17 August 2012, 13:08

    Mike (and others): thanks for your comments. We're working on a reply, which we aim to post by early September.

  • Stormy
    17 August 2012, 14:08

    It is ok do prevent the rhino horn market from heating up. But can't the market even be destroyed? How difficult would it be to produce fake rhino horn? Maybe with the help of a partner in the industry? To sell synthetic horn that cannot be distinguished from natural horn except you have a laboratory?

    Because if you flood the chinese market with fake rhino horn, the prices will drop as supply increases. And lower prices will make it less attractivee for poachers to get new horn from the wild as they will earn much less by selling it. Demand is also likely do decrease if consumers are not able to know if what they buy is real. This further lowers the price.

    You may compare it to what illegal software copies do to the revenue of western companies in East Asia. Expect that the horn copies wouldn't be illegal, but safe life.

    So instead of just staying away from the market...why not make a plan to destroy it? But maybe I'm too optimistic...

  • Michael 't Sas-Rolfes
    17 August 2012, 19:22

    Andrew, thanks very much for going to all that effort to flesh out your arguments. I understand them much better now, although I think you are making some highly questionable assumptions. Many of your arguments appear to be based on your perceptions and opinions rather than hard facts established by peer-reviewed empirical research. I will be the first to acknowledge that the whole issue of trade relating to rhinos is fiendishly complicated - after all, I have been studying it in great detail for some 23 years (including a in-depth study which Save the Rhino part-funded in 1994). I don't propose to clutter the comments section here with a blow-by-blow response to all of your points, so for now let's just agree to disagree. Cathy, I will look forward to reading your reply. And I have no doubt the debate will continue, somewhat heatedly, in various forums!

  • Unconvinced Rick
    25 August 2012, 17:56

    If this is the cup concerned I am curious what it would have fetched if it was made of something else. The workmanship is exquisite and it would look as good in the same wood as the stand..... http://www.catalogue-host.co.uk/mallams/cheltenham/2011-11-09/lot_277?image=5&prev_page=illustrations%2c%20page%206%20of%2013&prev_url=%2fmallams%2fcheltenham%2f2011-11-09%2fillustrations_6
    Whatever your complex economics argument I still think grinding this to powder WOULD save the life of one Rhino. The demand is so vast it approaches infinity compared with the supply (1435190000 for China and Vietnam at the end of 2011) the price will go up more and more. Every trophy sacrificed is one rhino that lives. Wild and captive rhinos could and should have their horns painlessly removed. This could quickly force the supply towards zero. In fact the removed horns could be sold to finance it. I don't think the horns have a function necessary to sustain their life which removing them certainly would.
    I have lived and worked in China albeit a few decades ago. I've seen stalls in markets which look like exotic pet stalls until you realise all the creatures are for the pot. It's not just the use in medicine which is causing global erradication of species. Sharks, Sea Horses, Tigers, Bears, to name but a few, are all doomed. Thats just animal species... Plants, trees, rare minerals .... all will be exhausted or owned entirely by the Chinese as their wealth increases. Global action and a moratorium has still not saved the whale and the Dolpin species from the Japanese and there are only 127,570,000 of them. How do you educate 1,435,190,000 people that as they get richer they will have to change a culture older than that of the West. I saw a very old and frail Tiger butchered in one such market and the "normal" Chinese present paid a fortune for the parts even if they couldn't afford them. Unless we simulate extinction by "harvesting" and controlling supply it will become a reality whatever the economists and academics think.

  • Esta
    28 August 2012, 15:50

    I think there is a fundamental problem with your moral values, Michael.

  • Cathy Dean
    20 September 2012, 17:03

    For Michael 't Sas-Rolfes and others interested: with the help of Albert Küller and Maria Nazarova-Doyle, we have posted an "economic response" to the query Michael raised in his first comment, see here:

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