One of the best things I saw on my trip to Disney last week was the safari at Animal Kingdom. Sal 11000 Beta, like most kids, loves animals and zoos and she was fascinated to watch them roam around without enclosures. Animal kingdom has a white rhino and a black rhino, both of which been tragically hunted near to the point of extinction.
But that may be about to change:
South Africa, where 75 percent of the world’s rhinos live, is also at the forefront of a counterintuitive move to legalize the rhino horn trade. If adopted, the new policy would promote safer rhino-horn farming: rhinos could be sedated while parts of their horns were cut off, and then the horns would grow back. A team of Australian conservationists signed on to the idea in March. As Kevin Charles Redmon explained at the time on Pacific Standard, lifting a trade ban would ideally increase the supply and lower the price, and thereby lower the incentive for poachers to slaughter the animals.
Legalization remains highly controversial among animal rights activists and wildlife conservationists. The World Wildlife Fund, the Environmental Investigation Agency, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare have all been critical of the idea. What if lifting the ban increases demand, as it did in fact following similar, previous experiments with the ivory market? Or what if a legal trade simply establishes a parallel but separate market, while illegal (whole) rhino horns and heads continue to sell underground?
My worry is that the rhino horn sale will go the same way as the elephant tusk sale — a one-off attempt to “flood the market” that simply increases demand. What they need to do is to establish a legal ongoing trade in rhino horn, with private or public/private ownership of the rhinos that will provide both the financial incentive and the financial resources to crack down on poaching.
Look, we use a lot of animals for food, for clothing, for medicine, for whatever. But the cow is not in danger of being extinct. The reason is because people own herds of cows, governments protect their rights to those cows and all of the incentives are aligned toward keeping the population of cows abundant. When you have a species that is useful to humans but is not protected by the firewall of ownership, capitalism and rule of law, the result is a stampede of people who care about grabbing everything around them rather than building a sustainable ongoing market. The bison was hunted near to extinction because no one really gave a shit.
I know the environmentalist don’ts like the idea of people owning magnificent wild animals like rhinos. But as P.J. O’Rourke pointed out, when you claim that something is “priceless” you are literally, as the word says, depriving it of value. Right now, people only protect rhinos out of the goodness of their hearts. That is rarely an effective defense against the reckless greed that makes people kill rhinos and rip out their horns.
Create a market for rhinos, create legal ownership of rhinos and use the power of the state to protect those interests. Then you align the interests toward growing the “herds”. Maybe it won’t be enough to save the rhino. Maybe it will create a market that drives their eventual extinction. But it has a better chance of working than simply hoping against hope that the world wises up.