Saving Rhinos: Success versus Failure

In the year 1800 about 1 million rhinos lived on earth.  Today less than 28,000 survive in the wild, due to the combined effects of habitat loss and uncontrolled hunting.  Throughout history, humans have hunted rhinos for their meat and other body parts, which are used for ornaments and traditional medicines.  Rapid human population growth and more efficient hunting methods greatly accelerated the decline of rhinos during the 1800s and 1900s.

Despite this bleak situation, there has been at least one notable success story.  The southern white rhino was close to extinct by 1900, but today it is the most abundant species.  In 1900 there were less than 50 in the world – today there are more than 20,000!

Why has the southern white rhino fared better than the other species and what can we learn from this?  Economics provides the answer!  White rhino conservation efforts were driven by South Africa, which has developed a vibrant market economy for wildlife within the last 50 years.  This economy rests on three pillars:

  1. Recognizing and actively developing legal markets for things that people value about rhinos, such as tourist viewing and trophy hunting
  2. Allowing private landowners to legally own rhinos, thereby giving them strong direct incentives to manage them responsibly
  3. Enabling all landowners (private, communal or public) to retain the money they earn from selling live rhinos and rhino products, thus making rhinos a lucrative long-term investment

In the last two decades, the market values of live white rhinos have soared – from around $1,000 a rhino in the early 1980s to more than $30,000 in recent years.  These rising values created strong incentives to protect and breed more rhinos.  The market approach has also been applied to South Africa’s black rhino population and in neighbouring Namibia.  Today South Africa and Namibia protect 75% of the world’s wild black rhino population of about 4,800 animals.  In 1970 there were an estimated 65,000 black rhinos in Africa, mostly in other African countries, but almost all lost their lives to poachers.

Rhino populations in other countries are protected by laws against poaching and illegal trade, but there are limited incentives to enforce these properly.  Government ownership and trade restrictions simply do not create strong enough incentives to invest in rhino protection and breeding, especially not to the people that matter: the people on the ground, who ultimately decide the rhinos’ fate.  We need to learn from the southern African experience!

Unfortunately the southern African success remains under threat because of the world’s refusal to recognize a legitimate demand for rhino horn.  For more than thirty five years, the world has attempted to end the rhino horn trade by banning it – and has failed.  Rhino horn demand and illegal trade persists, and the ban appears to have simply driven black market prices to extraordinary levels, with disastrous results.

The rhino horn trade ban no longer makes either economic or conservation sense.  The natural mortality rate of rhinos in Africa alone yields as much horn as has been poached to supply the market in recent years.  Furthermore, rhino horn is a renewable resource that can be easily harvested without killing rhinos.  And African conservation agencies and landowners already hold between 15 to 30 years’ supply of rhino horn (at the current rate of black market supply).  These stockpiles are worth millions of dollars, money that could be usefully spent on rhino conservation, but the ban will not allow them to be sold to raise this money.

The rhino horn trade ban is quite possibly the greatest remaining threat to the rhino!  Public ignorance and misunderstanding allow this policy to persist.  It is time to dispel some myths and think more creatively about the most sensible way to ensure the future of all rhinos.


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