I’ve been debating people on twitter today about the merits of legalising rhino horn trade and the farming of rhinos and harvesting of horns. Many myths still prevail to justify why rhino horn trade cannot/must not be legalised. Let’s put these myths to bed.
Myth 1: Poaching would increase if we legalised horn trade
Reality: Under banned trade the ONLY way to obtain and sell horn is by stealing it, and the fastest and most cost effective way to steal it is by killing the rhino and hacking the horn off. It follows that banned trade necessarily maximises poaching. Any other regime that allows free and peaceful alternatives to harvesting horn will diminish poaching.
Myth 2: Rhinos are worth more dead than alive so poaching would continue
Reality: Rhino horn grows back like fingernails so rhinos are clearly worth more alive than dead since their meat is not widely enjoyed. But even if rhinos were worth more dead than alive, like beef cattle, they could still be bred and farmed like cattle so this myth is doubly wrong. The irony of this silly myth is that rhinos are only worth more dead than alive BECAUSE IT IS CURRENTLY ILLEGAL TO HARVEST AND TRADE HORN.
Myth 3: Demand would outstrip supply leading to increased poaching in a desperate search for extra supply
Reality: The price mechanism works constantly to bring supply and demand into equilibrium so the market clears. Moreover, supply would necessarily grow faster than it does today under the poached supply regime. Would demand in Asia grow if trade were legalised? Who knows. Probably not. But even if it did, the price mechanism would work just fine.
Myth 4: Legalising horn trade means an end to anti-poaching security
Reality: Horn trade will raise the funds needed to bolster rhino security from thieves and poachers. Legalising horn trade and combating poaching are aligned incentives. Under banned trade, rhinos are worth less as legal economic goods than they otherwise would be, reducing the incentive to protect them from poaching, hence the general failure of anti-poaching initiatives to stem sufficiently the rate of rhino mortality. Also, farmed rhinos would be much safer than wild rhinos from being poached, because their horns are stumps due to regular harvesting – so return on the crime risk is greatly diminished as is the incentive to poach at all.
Myth 5: Rhino farming is not viable
Reality 1: This is for individual entrepreneurs to find out using free market prices. Rhinos would be allocated to their highest marginal value use, some to horn farming, some to zoos, some to game reserves, and some to hunting farms.
Reality 2: I don’t know what the going rate for horn is these days but when I checked a few years ago the price of rhinos and the price of horn meant rhino farming would yield about 5-10% annual profit margin – like any normal business. That also assumes current known rates of horn regrowth. Under rhino husbandry farmed rhino would be bred to have smaller bodies and slow metabolisms (requiring less food) and large, fast growing horns. ‘Normal’ rhinos would be in zoos and game reserves. Large and big-horned rhinos may find their way onto hunting farms to satisfy rich American hunters.
Myth 6: Rhino farming/trade is more complex than other kinds of farming/trade so it’s not as simple as you think
Reality: Rhino horn farming is categorically the same as dairy farming. Cows also have dual use. Horses are bred for multiple purposes, including for meat, racing, riding, herding etc. Chickens for meat and eggs. Impala for biltong, game viewing, and hunting. Rhinos are used for horn, skin(?), game viewing, and hunting. Rhino farming might be challenging, like all kinds of farming, and demand for horn in Asia might collapse one day as consumer preferences change, rendering farms bankrupt, but those are normal market processes that make no case against legalising farming and trade.
Myth 7: Rhino farming would remove all rhino from the wild
Reality: Initially, since the ban on horn trade has led to such a radical depletion in rhino numbers, and since the only place to find rhinos in any meaningful number is in game parks, there would likely be a dramatic reduction in the number of rhinos in game parks and a dramatic increased in farmed rhinos. Even White rhino may become quite scarce in game parks. As the supply of farmed rhinos increases, the marginal value of farmed rhinos will diminish and the marginal value of game park rhinos will increase. Farmed rhino breeding programmes would come to be used to sell rhinos back into game parks, and an equilibrium would be reached. As overall rhino numbers climb higher again, the marginal value of all rhinos will diminish and game park rhinos would once again become relatively abundant. Also (referring back to Myth 4) allocating rhinos to their highest marginal value use helps more efficiently fund rhino protection/security in parks and farms at source.
Myths busted. It’s time to legalise rhino horn trade and farming, and of course hunting too. Let’s also not forget that humans owning and trading animals IS natural. So called ‘conservationists’ claim to “conserve nature”, but those enforcing a fiat ban on free human action to cooperate, own, and trade animals peacefully are fundamentally anti-nature. The results are in and exactly what you’d expect: the ban on horn trade has been a spectacular failure for preserving the species.
UPDATE: For more myth debunking and the case for privatising the rhino industry see Rhino Economics.