Photograph by David Chancellor, and inspiration for my next painting 'One Step in Front of the Other'
What you see in the image above is the largest privately owned rhino farm in South Africa. Owned and run by John Hume, these 21,000 acres of former crop and cattle land now holds more than 2,000 near threatened southern white rhinoceros.
These animals are the only of the five rhino species that are not endangered, with an estimated population of over 18,000 in protected areas and private game reserves. Most southern white rhinos are held in private reserves in order to protect them from poachers and to drive eco-tourism. However, protecting and maintaining the rhinos is an extremely expensive operation that requires a significant number of resources. This may include miles of electric fence, salaries and equipment for rangers and security teams, food and supplies for the animals, helicopters and planes, automobiles, veterinarian services and medicine, technology to track rhinos and poachers, and the list goes on. Hume’s monthly costs grew to around $300,000 USD in 2019. Because this is such an expensive operation, owners must use multiple avenues to raise funds, typically through charitable donations and profits from ecotourism. However, Hume’s farm struggles to meet the financial costs of conservation as there is no safari or eco-tourism business associated to bring in any income. Hume is a betting man and some say he created this rhino farm years ago in hopes that the rhino trade will be legalized once again. If it were, he would be able to sell all of the rhino horn he has stored from de-horning operations over the years.
As you can imagine, this is a controversial topic – perhaps one of the most controversial topics of rhino conservation. Should the trade of rhino horn be legalized once again? The trade was originally banned by CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) in the 1970’s. And another effort to curve poaching in 2009, South Africa imposed “a national moratorium on the trade of individual rhinoceros’ horns and any derivatives or products of the horns within South Africa”. What is interesting, is that poaching increased drastically in South Africa in the years following the moratorium. In 2007 there were 13 rhinos poached in South Africa and in 2014, this number climbed to 1,125. Clearly this brings more questions to the debate – is this system of banning rhino horn trade a positive solution to rhino conservation?
Graph by Save the Rhino International
Most private rhino owners are pro-trade of rhino horn because the profits from selling their sustainable product would help aid their running costs. The rhino horn is referred to as a ‘sustainable product’ because the horn grows back. It is made of Keratin, the same as our fingernails, so cutting off the horn is like snipping off the dead part of our fingernails. This process of ‘dehorning’ is a staple at nearly all private rhino farms. This is the method of safely removing the horn from the rhino to act as a deterrent against poachers. So, if rhinos are being dehorned regardless, would you rather have it done safely by private owners and vets? Or have poachers kill and brutally dehorn them with zero regard for their well-being and population numbers?
The solution seems simple – make the trade legalized again and allow money from the sale of horns to fund conservation efforts as opposed to criminal syndicates. However, it is not that simple. I will mention a few powerful arguments against this.
The main argument involves the economic principle of supply and demand. At the current state of illegal trade, the supply is already far exceeded by the extremely high demand of rhino horn in Far Eastern countries. The thought is that if the trade were legalized, the demand in these markets would increase even more, ultimately perpetuating the myth that it indeed does have a medicinal value. This increase in demand will quickly wipe out the supply, causing the value of the horn to increase because it will be harder to find and purchase. This increase in price would magnify the idea that the horn is a symbol of high-status. Because of the higher value and the stimulated demand, poachers would again be encouraged to keep poaching to exploit the trade and continue to profit.
Another argument is that if it were legalized, perhaps more people would get involved in rhino farming for the purpose of selling horns and making large profits. Is this the moral thing to do - use an ancient animal to cut off their defense mechanism to sell to people who believe it will cure disease, which in reality it does not? These animals are not livestock and are even suffering from diseases from being in close proximities to one another in large paddocks on the rhino farm.
The question is do we even need to make it a sustainable, legal good? There are not enough animals and the horns don't grow quick enough to feed the demand. In addition, it would just stimulate the market to say "it is okay to consume and purchase the horns", affirming falsities in the far east. Until there is zero demand - this is the most expensive commodity in the world, and it will be traded regardless of if it is illegal or legal. The largest solution across the board is to decrease the demand for rhino horn.
“An inside Look at the World's Biggest Rhino Farm.” Animals, National Geographic, 3 May 2021, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/160122-Hume-South-Africa-rhino-farm.
GMB, director. YouTube, YouTube, 15 Nov. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbqFxs1rFW0. Accessed 5 Aug. 2022.
“Poaching Stats.” Save the Rhino, 2022. https://www.savetherhino.org/rhino-info/poaching-stats/#:~:text=The%20latest%20poaching%20numbers%20from,incidents%3A%20an%20extremely%20sad%20reality, Accessed on July 29, 2022.
“South Africa: Moratorium on Domestic Trade in Rhino Horn Temporarily Re-Instituted.” The Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/global-legal-monitor/2016-06-13/south-africa-moratorium-on-domestic-trade-in-rhino-horn-temporarily-re-instituted/#:~:text=In%20February%202009%2C%20South%20Africa,31899%2C%20GoN%20148%20.
“White Rhino.” WWF, World Wildlife Fund, https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/white-rhino.