Below is a response to a paper published in Science March 2013 about legalizing the trade in Rhino horn.
Original paper can be found here: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/339/6123/1038.summary
Response to Biggs et al (2013) Science 339
Biggs et al put forth the case the now is the time to legalise the trade in rhino horn, as the best option we have left. Whilst the overall argument of proponents of this idea is convincing and provocative, Biggs argument was much reduced, and featured several key omissions. An article in a journal such as this is sure to reach a huge audience, but the opportunity to present a compelling argument for legalisation of a trade that is inherently abhorrent to many people was somewhat missed.
When mentioning current destinations for horn, the authors mentioned Yemeni daggers and traditional Chinese medicine, and yet failed to mention Vietnam. Demand for horn in Yemen is actually decreasing whilst that in Vietnam appears to be driving the ever increasing poaching levels. It is a crucial error to miss out Vietnam, where a politician is said to have started the now widespread idea that rhino horn can cure cancer. The “cure” is now also being marketed and extended to maladies such as hangovers. Failure to mention this growing demand centre is a worrying sign. It is also of great importance when it comes to predicting the implications of legalising the trade. A lack of case studies prevent anyone from truly knowing what will happen if the trade is legalised, and yet this doesn’t stop the authors making spurious claims. The potential of a huge increase in demand is answered by the authors asserting that with stockpiles and harvesting a growing natural population future demand can be met. Whilst current stockpiles are estimated to be sufficient for ~20 years of current demand, we have no knowledge of how demand will change, and claims that natural harvesting can meet an unknown demand are inherently dubious. One key point that the authors neglected is the potential that legalising the trade could give legitimacy to Vietnamese claims that rhino horn is a broad cure for common illness. This could potentially hugely increase demand, beyond that sustained by natural harvesting. The authors back up their idea that demand may not increase by refuting claims that one off sales of elephant ivory to China in 2008 increased demand and/or poaching. Whilst concrete empirical evidence is indeed lacking, it is foolish to think that demand and poaching of elephants has decreased. Another issue with this, is that even if poaching wasn’t to increase, and we don’t know if that is true, demand is the key variable of interest.
Criminal syndicates who transport horn from Africa to Asia often do so under the protection of fraudulent CITES paperwork. One could easily argue that a complete legalisation of the trade will make the illegal trader easier, and not halt it. This may result in illegal trade still finding its way into the market. There is also the current international issue that trade and use of rhino horn is illegal in all destination countries, so any decision of African countries to legalise trade has to occur concurrently with Asian legalisation, something they may be reluctant to agree to. At this point, criminal syndicates in Asia would still benefit from a legal trade.
Biggs et al briefly mention a ‘safeguard’ against legalisation going badly wrong, namely halting the legal trade. A counter argument to this is that the damage done in this scenario would be huge. The potential Asian market for horn is 2 billion people, and the more people exposed to horn, the more who are likely to demand it. For this reason it can be argued that legal trade is largely irreversible without huge negative effects, and therefore needs to be thoroughly and meticulously planned, not rushed into.
I am inclined to agree that, in time, a legal trade is going to be the only card left to play. Killing poachers isn’t an effective conservation action, as the incentives present a seemingly limitless supply of potential poachers. Whilst acknowledging that time isn’t something available in abundance to Rhino, the framework for a legal trade simply isn’t yet in place. Under the values of the precautionary principle we need evidence that legalisation won’t cause an explosion in demand. Populations of Black Rhino are still increasing, and until we have more information on the impacts of a legal trade, and plans of how precisely it will work, the focus is still rightly on preventing poaching, and, of utmost importance, education and awareness in Asia.