Saving rhinos: what will it take?

Did you catch the news? 80 rhinos are headed down under to create an insurance population for these endangered animals. With the African poaching crisis out of control and worsening, drastic measures are required to prevent extinctions.

The plan, spearheaded by The Australian Rhino Project, is to translocate 20 rhinos each year for the next four years. With similar environments and being relatively safe from poaching, Australia is seen as an ideal place for establishing an insurance population. The new population will be an extra breeding pool of rhinos, safeguarding some of the species’ genetic diversity. What makes this population unique among captive herds is the project’s larger goal to return the rhinos and/or their offspring to Africa once the poaching situation is under control. After all, conservation is about protecting species in their natural environments, not foreign lands.

This good news story has seen enormous support across social media over the past week. Even some big names, like Jane Goodall and David Attenborough, have voiced their support for the project. With the rhino situation so dire, it seems any thing that strives to keep rhinos on this planet is a thing worth supporting.

Nevertheless, there are some valid questions and criticisms also.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, this is an expensive exercise. The cost of the translocations will be about $5.6 million. That’s $70,000 per rhino. In a world with very limited conservation budgets, we need to ask ourselves: what’s the return on investment, conservation-wise? Could this money have been better spent in Africa, say by improving anti-poaching taskforces, or in Asia, where the demand for rhino horn is the root cause of the entire crisis?

Moreover, should this money be used to save Australian species? Australia is losing the battle to save many of its own native animals. In fact, we have the worst record for mammal extinctions of any country in the world. Why, then, are we spending so much time, effort, money and land to help prevent extinctions of non-native species?

Additionally, without addressing the major problems in Africa, we have no guarantee that the rhinos will ever return there, thus undermining the project’s objective. We might be left with nothing more than another captive population, no step closer to preventing extinctions in the wild. Is that conservation?

And lastly, in the event that a return to Africa was possible, will a rhino raised in Australia know how to be a rhino in Africa? No one can say for sure, but by leaving the rhinos to live ‘wild’ in large open plain properties the hope is that they will maintain enough of their natural behaviours to survive back in Africa.

It’s not the be all and end all. The Australian Rhino Project acknowledges that it is but one part of the solution to a very complex challenge. Sure, saving the rhino requires a lot more than one extra insurance population, but one extra insurance population is certainly better than 80 fewer rhinos in the world. Wouldn’t you agree?

A rhino family in South Africa

A rhino family in South Africa

A dire situation

With a 9000% increase in rhino poaching over the past decade, it is clear that we are losing the battle. Current efforts to curb the crisis are simply not working. Extinction within a decade, maybe two, is not a far-fetched theory - it’s conceivable, even likely, under the status quo.

Things need to change.

But what? What can be done differently?

In a bold move, a group of conservation scientists have proposed the legalisation of the trade of rhino horn, which has been globally banned since 1977. Arguably one of the most unpalatable solutions, it may also be our only hope. Here me out.

It’s supply-and-demand logic. Economic growth in Asia is seeing a growing demand for rhino horn. However, because demand is met entirely through illegal networks, supply is artificially restricted, which further drives up prices. This gives poachers even more incentive to harvest the product, perpetuating the cycle.

Rhino poaching has become a highly sophisticated, militarised operation, run by large criminal syndicates. A kilogram of horn is now estimated to fetch around $65,000 – that’s more than gold, diamonds and cocaine!

The only solution, the scientists argue, is to legalise the trade of rhino horn under highly regulated conditions.

Like human fingernails, rhino horn is made of keratin and regrows when cut. Therefore, it can be harvested without any apparent harm to the animal (sidenote: there are arguments that the horn is important for social behaviours, so what would this mean for dehorned animals?). Demand for the product, it is thought, can be met with rhinos currently held on private land in South Africa. Removing the artificial restriction on supply will cause the price of horn to fall. The incentive for poaching will be significantly less. Rhinos will become worth more alive than dead.

The South African government is taking the matter seriously. Last year, the domestic ban on rhino horn trade was lifted and the government is currently debating whether to table the idea at the meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) later this year. A two-thirds majority vote here would see the global trade legalised.

However, conservationists, all striving towards the same end goal of saving rhinos from extinction, are deeply divided on the issue; whether legalisation can solve the crisis or whether it will make matters worse. The major concern is that a legal trade will add fuel to an already out of control fire - that the demand for the product will skyrocket even further. If demand extends beyond a sustainable supply, prices and poaching will once again rise. What’s more, an increased demand may incentivise poachers to target rhinos in wilderness areas, not the privately owned ‘rhino farms’ of South Africa. The potential for an increased demand for rhino horn is a valid concern, and one that leaves me most unsettled. Many people and organisations, including The Australian Rhino Project, have voiced their opposition to a legal trade for this reason.

Moreover, critics argue that we should rather focus our efforts on curbing the demand in Asia, since there lies the fundamental problem: the mistaken belief that rhino horn is cure-all for everything from a hangover to cancer. I agree entirely that the situation in Asia needs concerted efforts, but it is possibly the greatest of all challenges. The problem, I believe, is that people unfamiliar with the place of rhino horn in the Asian culture are largely ineffective in changing peoples’ attitudes. It is far too simplistic for us to say rhino horn has no medicinal value, so stop buying it, when we have no understanding or empathy for their cultures and beliefs. I fear that we cannot crack this challenge in time to save the rhino.

And then there are the questions about whether it’s ok to selectively breed rhinos for larger horns, as would be inevitable under a farming arrangement.

And whether domesticated rhinos’ altered behaviours and genes might adversely affect wild rhino populations.

And whether it’s ok that rhinos become valued more for their horn, as commodities, than as wild animals.

A world without rhinos?

Right now, we need to figure out which actions are actually feasible and have an acceptable likelihood of success, and then target our resources towards those. At this point, I’m not sure if that’s creating more insurance populations or targeting more myth-busting efforts in Asia. In theory, legalisation of the global rhino horn trade seems an obvious solution, but I hold concerns over increasing demand for the product. Like most conservation issues, it’s not clear what the best approach is – but it’s clear something needs to happen, and quickly. For a world without rhinos would be a sad world indeed.