Professor Adam Hart asks what the future holds for rhinos


On the eve of World Rhino Day 2016, Adam Hart, who researched and presented the BBC Radio 4 documentary “Rhinos: The horns of a dilemma”, gave a talk at the University of Cheltenham on the rhino poaching crisis, possible solutions, and his predictions for the future. Save the Rhino’s Director Cathy Dean went along. [Additional observations by Cathy are in square brackets.]

Hart began by introducing the five species of rhino, together with the latest population figures and distribution, before discussing the threats facing them. Historically, the biggest factor in the decline of the two African species was colonial-era trophy hunting, whereas today – with the exception of pseudo-hunting that allowed horns to leak into the illegal trade in rhino horn in East Asia – trophy hunting is not a threat to black and white rhinos’ survival. Habitat destruction and logging, together with agricultural development and encroachment into former wildlife areas by the world’s growing human population all threaten the Asian rhino species, and to a lesser extent so far, African rhinos. But by far the most significant problem for black and white rhinos is poaching.

Having displayed tables and graphs showing poaching statistics during the last decade, Hart took issue with the often-used conflation of the South African moratorium on the domestic trade in rhino horn that took effect in 2009 and the rise in the number of rhino poaching incidents in that country. Those in favour of legalising the trade in rhino horn point to the domestic trade ban as having triggered the poaching tsunami that followed, the implication being that the demand for rhino horn in Vietnam and China had been satisfied by rhino horn “leaked” by unscrupulous rhino owners or managers. But there are other ways of interpreting the data, and this mono-causal interpretation ignores the fact that the current poaching crisis had begun in Zimbabwe a couple of years earlier.

Hart also discussed the slight drop in poaching in South Africa from 2014 (1,215 rhinos killed) to 2015 (1,175 rhinos killed) and criticised organisations claiming that the war against poaching was succeeding, pointing out that the overall number of rhinos killed throughout sub-Saharan Africa was still increasing annually.

 The South African government recently announced that as at 31 July 2016, 702 rhinos had been killed against 796 by the same time in 2015. Hart had seen a projection of an expected total of 1,053 rhinos killed in South Africa by the end of 2016 but, given that last weekend alone (a full moon) more than 20 rhinos were poached in KwaZulu-Natal alone, Hart felt the end-of-year figure would be higher.

Having discussed the nature of the demand for illegal rhino horn in Viet Nam and China, Hart went on to discuss a range of the solutions that have been put forward.

Hart criticised claims by an NGO [ Humane Society International ] that its survey showed that demand by Vietnamese consumers had dropped by 33% following its education and awareness-raising campaign, pointing out that people don’t necessarily answer questions about their illegal activities accurately, and that rhino poaching was still on the rise.

Protecting rhino populations has become increasingly militarised, with rangers now being armed with R1s and supported by fleets of Squirrel helicopters. Aggressive anti-poaching strategies led to claims by the former Mozambican President Chissano that 100s of Mozambican citizens had been killed [ in fact, Chissano misunderstood the term ‘neutralised’ as used in a SANParks statement to mean arrested / convicted / imprisoned, as well as killed in armed combat ].

Hart also briefly touched upon the enormous problem of corruption – an issue addressed by CITES CoP17.

He talked about dehorning, as a strategy to deter poachers, explaining that it is not a cure-all: problems include dehorning being too expensive for reserves with large populations, anaesthetics carry a risk, dehorned rhino cows may not be able to protect their calves from predators, and of course the horn grows back.

Hart then talked about potential methods of contaminating or changing rhino horns such that they are no longer desirable: the Rhino Rescue Project that claimed it could infuse horn with toxins [ a paper by SANParks and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife scientists and veterinarians disproved this ] but conceded that the publicity about the procedures having been carried out in one area simply shifted poaching to another area; and Photoshopped images of rhinos with pink horns, which has been ruled out for all practical purposes.

Then Hart moved onto the hottest topic in rhino conservation this decade: the much-discussed potential legalisation of the international trade in rhino horn. Having set the scene by discussing the importance of the private sector in rhino conservation management in South Africa, he went through the pros and cons of the debate; much of it the same territory as that covered by John Hume and Will Travers in their debate, held in August 2016 in London.

An aspect I hadn’t heard discussed previously was the issue of the “lag phase” if Swaziland’s rhino horn trade proposal (or a future South African one) were to be approved at this or a future CITES CoP. Given that even the pro-traders recognise that much preparatory work will need to take place before a legalised trade could actually be implemented – there has been talk of up to 3 or 4 years preparation before the launch of the legal trade mechanism. Hart’s opinion was that the criminal syndicates would realise that they needed to up the scale of their poaching activities in the intervening period and absolutely hammer rhino populations, in a rush to stockpile / sell horn before it became readily available.

Hart critiqued arguments put forwards by both sides, and reminded the audience that no one actually knows what would happen if the trade were legalised. In particularly compelling analogy he compared the vote on a legal trade with the vote for Brexit: people were asked to vote on a vital issue without knowing or understanding all of the implications.

In conclusion, Hart said that the pro-trade arguments are strong on concept (a renewable, sustainable resource that would allow wealthy Vietnamese without rhino horn to buy it from poorer African countries that could provide horn) but weak on detail, as is the current Swaziland proposal. Conversely, the arguments against legalising the trade are often ideological, are not related to conservation, or are not properly supported. Hart commented that working up the options in the necessary detail is difficult, time-consuming and potentially expensive (in terms of commissioning research etc.).

After so much international, hostile and unhealthy debate, pro-traders have developed a “bunker” mentality and are reluctant to come together to work on a detailed proposal, for fear of attracting more criticism. Neither side has engaged with the issue fully; however no serious proposal can be developed without that investment of time, effort and money. At Save the Rhino, we feel that If the South African government were to release the findings of its 20-strong Committee of Inquiry that looked at all these issues, that would be a good start.

 Finally, Hart revealed his predictions:

  • Swaziland’s proposal to CITES CoP17 to allow the international trade in rhino horn to be legalised will be rejected
  • The trade argument will not go away, and there will be a South African trade proposal for CITES’ consideration, perhaps even at the next CoP in 2-3 years’ time
  • Rhino poaching will continue, in South Africa and in the other rhino range states
  • The illegal trade in rhino horn will continue

 It was difficult to take issue with any of those predictions.

 Questions from the audience included:

  • What is CITES? Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora
  • What are the penalties for having rhino horn? Depends on the country and its penal code
  • What has been the impact on ecosystems depleted of rhinos? Research still to be done
  • What about burns of elephant ivory and rhino horn? Futile at best; harmful at worst in that they send out a message to criminals that scarce resources are becoming scarcer
  • Given that homeopathy is used in the UK, despite no evidence that it works, can education about the lack of effectiveness of rhino horn as medicine work in Viet Nam? Should we say that anyone caught with homeopathic remedies faces 25 years in jail….
  • What do pro-trade proposals need to include? Demonstration that corruption controls are adequate, detail on who the trading partners would be, and on how the trade would be regulated to ensure that illegal horn (from poached animals, rather than legally harvested) could not enter the trade


All in all, a very interesting, balanced lecture that covered the main points well.


Cathy Dean, September 2016.

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