Call for unorthodox economics to save rhino


Conventional approaches to save the rhino aren’t working: Professor Alan Collins

Aggressive and unusual tactics and a regulated supply of horns are needed to help save rhinoceros threatened with extinction.

Rhino horn can fetch more per kilogram than gold, cocaine or heroin, but according to new research, the time has passed for conventional approaches to protecting one of nature’s most iconic and at-risk creatures.

Professor Alan Collins, an economist at the University of Portsmouth Business School, and Professors Gavin Fraser and Jen Snowball of Rhodes University, South Africa, are calling for an unorthodox economic approach to turn the tide against “a depressing onslaught” by poachers.

Their research is published in Cambridge Journal of Economics.

Among their suggestions are policies legalising shoot-to-kill of poachers and wielding diplomatic pressure on China and other countries which demand the product to help pay to save the rhino.

Professor Collins said: “There’s very little time left to protect the rhino and conventional approaches aren’t working.

“When you combine all the factors –well established illegal trade routes and markets, unflagging demand, that this product is to some people worth more than gold, platinum, heroin or cocaine, which attracts a highly reckless, determined criminal interest, and with the rhino perched on the edge of extinction – it’s well overdue that we consider new policies and experiment with new approaches.”

The research calls for:

  • More pressure to be put on China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam – the main source of buyers of rhino horn – to provide ‘substantial’ aid to help finance well-resourced game reserves that can support sustainably managed herds;
  • Marketing companies wishing to win South African government contracts to offer pro bono marketing and public relations campaigns to persuade those who buy rhino horn for its perceived medical benefits to buy instead only pharmaceutical grade ‘safe’ product from sustainably managed herds;
  • To use ‘any and all means possible’ to undermine speculators who invest in rhino horn for financial gain, including degrading the horns by dousing them in indelible dye or poison, embedding tracking devices in horns, and flooding the market with fake rhino horns, or ‘lemons’;
  • Institutionalising routine DNA analysis of all rhino horn products to verify the source and thus help support a regulated market;
  • Legalise and support game reserve managers in their use of firearms when protecting rhino herds;
  • Begin screening embassy diplomatic bags, known to be a key trade route in some illegal rhino horn supply chains.

The researchers spent two years studying complex factors behind the threatened loss of the rhino in its native South Africa. They found a dizzying web of problems and hurdles conservationists need to overcome including the fervently held belief by many in south-east Asia that rhino horn – made of keratin, the same material which makes human fingernails –will cure everything from cancer to a mild rash, to investors buying and storing rhino horns in the hope the animal will become extinct, boosting the value of their stock.

The obstacles the rhino and those who wish to save it face don’t end there.

The research found there is a seemingly endless supply of desperate young men prepared to risk their lives as poachers because the reward is so vast.

Game reserve owners in South Africa who once kept rhinos are now often reluctant to do so because of the high cost of paying to protect them across vast swathes of land, 24 hours a day. Removing the horn has been attempted by some, in the hope of solving the problem of poachers, but even that is seen as overly bureaucratic and an expensive waste of time because poachers continue to risk their lives to kill rhinos for even a slither of horn from the stump. De-horning also alerts poachers to where rhinos are and, as with cutting nails, it has to be done repeatedly and costs £200-£500 per rhino, per year.

Professor Collins said: “There is no single panacea, no simple solution. But the principles of demand and supply that lie at the heart of economics do suggest some prescriptions to specifically help preserve rhinoceros from extinction. Such a new approach to policy could seriously transform the supply chain.”

Orthodox economic policies tried or envisaged to protect the rhino include the government selling its stockpile of rhino horn to fund conservation efforts; captive breeding programmes; taking a regulated market approach and overturning the ban on buying and selling rhino horn to drive down prices. Despite many attempts to raise awareness and fundraise to support protection for the animal, nothing has deterred the poachers or the demand for the product.

The authors say it isn’t surprising rhino horn attracts the interest of sophisticated and ruthless criminals prepared to go to extreme lengths to protect their profits, including making death threats, bribing officials, sending a seemingly limitless stream of poachers, often ex-military and willing to risk their lives for huge rewards.

White rhino were close to extinction in the 19th century, but numbers are recovering, though still at-risk. Black rhinos are still endangered.

South Africa legalised the domestic trade in rhino horn in November, but although international trade is banned, the supply continues to reach south-east Asia and the demand continues to rise, driving up prices which, in turn, drive up the incentive to poach, creating a vicious circle.


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