Will Travers and John Hume debate the legalisation of the rhino horn trade

On Wednesday 3 August 2016, Craig Packer, a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour at the University of Minnesota moderated a lively debate on whether the global rhino horn trade should be legalised. 

Arguing for the lifting of the current CITES ban was John Hume, South Africa’s largest private rhino breeder, with almost 1,400 rhinos living on his property. Arguing against the motion, Will Travers, CEO of Born Free Foundation and President of Born Free USA, took to the stage. 

Professor Packer began proceedings with an introduction to a millennia of horn use across south east Asia, recent population and poaching trends, and the key questions arising from the debate topic. Aware of the controversial and highly emotive nature of the debate, he hoped the audience and speakers could find common ground – rather than polarising opinion.

Before the debate:

  • 30% voted for legalisation
  • 62% against
  • 8% were undecided

Would the debate change their minds?

Each speaker’s stance

Both speakers were invited to summarise their stance, and the audience held a vote on whether they were for or against legalising the trade. Travers took to the floor first, commenting that “on first glance harvesting seems to offer a win-win situation”, he then critiqued Swaziland’s proposal to open up trade, focusing on the facts that a two-thirds majority from CITES Parties was unlikely in any case but, furthermore, debating trade encourages poachers. Travers argued that markets are complex, and legalising trade can cause unforeseen circumstances. It is not the case that a regulated market will function in the way we want it to.

Hume then outlined why he is in favour of legalising the global trade, making the case that “trade bans don’t stop the trade, the only push it underground to the illegal channels” and criticising those who expect local people not to want to sell local assets when they desperately need livelihoods. 

The Debate starts in earnest

The debate began with questions and comments from the audience. Had the existing trade ban created the current poaching crisis?

Travers objected the argument that there was a correlation between the introduction of domestic moratorium and the huge surge in poaching throughout the last decade. He pointed out that between 1997 and 2007, the ban was very effective. He saw the origins of the current crisis in 2005; when South Africa and Swaziland successfully had their white rhino populations downlisted for trading and hunting, combined with a rapid growth in the Chinese middle class during the same period and a rumour across Viet Nam that rhino horn was a cure for cancer.

As noted by the moderator, the 2007 one-off CITES sale of ivory stockpiles saw illegal poaching spike in the following years, a trend still continuing. At the time, economists were split into two camps, arguing that the sale would reduce or grow poaching. Based on this incident, the latter appeared to have been right.

Hume argued that had the sale been conducted properly, it would have succeeded better. According to his estimates, South Africa could sell 30+ tonnes of rhino horn sustainably, and meet demand. 

When it came to looking at the communities living alongside rhinos, both Hume and Travers found some common ground. 

The future of Africa’s wildlife lies with Africans and they will be the standard bearers – with our support – Will Travers

However, whereas Travers was optimistic that local people, especially in Kenya, can make money from wildlife – citing the recent stockpile burning as part of a grassroots movement – Hume was more pessimistic, citing a statistic that between 2009-2013 Kenya’s wildlife has reduced by a quarter, and also commenting that Kenya’s tourism sector has also contracted.

In terms of the role of governments and the international community, Hume was sceptical, telling the panel that they didn’t understand Africa: 

African governments always let you down – John Hume

Travers argued for a framework of “World Heritage Species” and made the insightful claim that Viet Nam is often a “staging point” for the Chinese market, and there are examples of demand reduction projects coming to fruition, with shark fin a notable success in recent times. 

Concluding remarks

Hume argued breeding rhinos and selling their horns is not morally wrong. Rather than a “begging bowl” for donor funding which is in short supply, legal trade would help him and many others like him to cover the cost of protecting rhino populations. 

Travers argued that the crux of this debate reached far wider. Our relationship with nature has transformed throughout history from hunter-gatherer to explorer and now exploiter. We face three futures: the demise of wildlife, the commodification of wildlife, or a tough option, an option which doesn’t put us first.

The results

Before the debate 30% voted in favour of legalisation and 62% against. A remaining 8% were undecided. At the close of the evening, 39% voted “for”, 60% “against” and only 1% were undecided. Whilst the majority remained against legalising the trade, the opportunity to hear passionate speakers discuss such a complex issue did swing some votes, and helped those without a firm view solidify their thinking. 

For full notes of the evening’s debate, check out Save the Rhino International’s Director’s blog post here

How would you vote? Let us know in the comments below.

8 thoughts on “Will Travers and John Hume debate the legalisation of the rhino horn trade

  1. Only an idiot or someone who profits from poaching /dealing in Rhino horn could suggest this wicked trade be legal, it is obvious it will only hasten the total excestintion of a magnificent animal. No No No to any trade in Rhino horn or Ivory

  2. i am against legalising the trade, if it is legal there will be no way to check the slaughter, which has reached almost unsustainable proportions.

  3. Maybe Mr.Hume will be willing to have his nose cut off and sold legally!! Since he’s so amid about cutting these amazing creatures horns off…how about it Mr.Hume you [ deleted ]!!!

  4. Having a debate and putting any idea on the table is always worth at least an academic view.
    I prefer action, strategy so if this debate can be used in anyway to reaffirm peoples attitudes then it has been a success.
    The WILL within the nations needs to be strengthened and a proposal of “”fining”” receipt nations often crosses my mind on such cases. If China etc were forced to pay a certain amount of money to fund protection then maybe they would be more prepared to engage in multilateral solutions.

  5. Even if you take out the moral / animal rights issues of taking the rhino horn, without killing the Rhino to make money, it will lead to even more poaching as proven. The difficulties and cost of differentiating between the so called legal horn and the poached illegal horn will be impossible. We should have reached the stage were we protect the Rhino becasue it is the right thing to do not becasue we can make money from it. Keep the ban 100% in place.

  6. All the idiots voting against the legalisation of rhino horn trade, I dare you to come and stand in the fluids next to a rotten carcass where the calf is calling its dead mother. The calf could not drink for a couple of days and it does not leave it’s mother side.

    I can show you video footage of a 6 weeks old calf shot through its front legs trying to get to its dead mother for help
    Most of you have not even seen a rhino in real life. The animal looks like shit without a horn but this is the only way that we can protect it!!

  7. The last ivory auction was extremely flawed because there was no follow up. A one off auction followed by a drought in supply was crazy.
    The Swazi proposal on rhino horn had merit. The Swazi holding of horn is miniscule compared to the South African stockpile that at current prices sits close to $1.5b (US). 75% of Afrcan rhino are in South Africa where the national herd has grown from 5,000 head in 1990 to about 22,500 today. Growth will stagnate if trade is not resumed. The potential for growth is 10% compounded annually and this is required to re-stock the rest of the continent. (Once they stop “”losing”” their animals).
    The key to the survival of big ticket wildlife is that rural Africans get economic benefit from it. Would the animal rights activists, who are not conservationists rather see these people living in squatter camps outside major cities.

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