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Legalizing it – when “it” is rhino horn

March 7, 2013

It is news to no one that rhinos are becoming scarce. Really scarce. Like non-existent scarce. The western black rhino (Diceros bicornis longipes) was declared extinct in 2011. At current rates, the remaining wild populations of rhino will be extinct in the next 20 years. Why? Revered for its supposed medicinal and magical properties, rhinoceros horn is a hot commodity in traditional Chinese medicine. CITES (Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species) banned the trade of rhino horn in 1977, but it remains a hot commodity on the black market. The increasing scarcity of its source (that is, living rhinos) has driven rhino horn value skyward, according to a recent policy piece in Science Magazine:

Rhino horn is now worth more, per unit weight, than gold, diamonds, or cocaine.

In South Africa, where 90% of white rhinos and 40% of black rhinos live, 100 game wardens have been murdered this year. Green Berets are now even training game wardens on intelligence tactics to combat poachers in a new Animal Planet show, Battleground: Rhino Wars. As a result of the apparently insatiable appetite for this illegal substance, South Africa will propose at this year’s CITES conference that the Convention begins allowing legal, regulated trade of rhino horn.

This proposal does not sound as outlandish as one might think. Unlike many other horned mammals, rhino horn is not made of bone, but rather a protein called keratin, the same substance that forms human hair and fingernails. Therefore, it is possible to harvest rhino horn by shaving off the horn of a sedated rhinoceros (good luck attempting this on a conscious one). Although tranquilization is surely a fate better than death, there are serious animal welfare concerns when one is considering the repeated sedation of an endangered species for a frivolous, superstition-based enterprise. Nonetheless, in order for this live harvesting to offer a viable alternative to poaching, the same Science article suggests that 4 conditions must be met:

(i) regulators can prevent the laundering of a threatening level of illegal supply under the cover of a legal trade;

(ii) the legal supply can deliver the product (horn) more easily, reliably, and cost-effectively than the illegal trade;

(iii) the demand does not escalate to dangerous levels as the stigma associated with the illegality of the product is removed; and

(iv) legally harvested horns from live animals can substitute for horns obtained from wild, poached animals.

Of these conditions, the first seems the most difficult to meet. How a central selling organization will differentiate legally-harvested horns from poached horns is unclear. What if unsavory but licensed “harvesters” begin including poached horn in their haul? Will it be obvious to current poachers that harvesting is the more sustainable – and lucrative – alternative? Or will the licensing procedure for becoming a legal harvester of rhino horn be so prohibitive to poachers that they retain their current livelihoods? Finally, what are the ethical ramifications of this potential legalization? When do we decide that it is impossible to uproot a dangerous behavior, and opt to reduce its danger rather than continue efforts for eradication?

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