In July 2012, Simon Barnes wrote in The Times about Save the Rhino’s decline of a donation generated by the sale of an antique rhino horn at auction in the UK. We posted this on our blog and invited responses. One commentator, Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, who has written extensively on the potential legalisation of the trade in rhino horn and who supports such a move, argued that “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.” Michael asked us to “back up [our] claim with both solid theoretical economic arguments and empirical evidence”.
While we can’t offer empirical evidence (but challenge Michael to provide evidence that “Whenever a rhino trophy gets stolen from a museum, surely that saves the life of an existing live rhino in Africa”), we can offer a reply in economic terms. We are very grateful to Albert Küller and Maria Nazarova-Doyle for their work on this paper.