Recently a controversial proposal was put forward to remove the ban on trading rhino horn 1. At first is it very hard to see how removing the ban will save the rhinos, with rhino numbers in the wild plummeting regardless of current conservation efforts 2, 3. However, the argument has been put forward that the current ban is not effective and that by legalising the trade it would reduce the demand on the black market 4. There are many issues to consider when determining the best action to take to conserve a species, and it is not always clear what will be most successful in protecting the remaining animals.
Legalising the trade in rhino horn would reduce the incentives for poachers to kill rhinos 5, because people could obtain the horn legally, so there would be no need to use poachers. Because the trade would be legal, the huge confiscated stores of rhino horn (which are obtained from poachers at boarder control or during raids) could be sold and flood the market, reducing the price of the horns 5, so making poaching unappealing and the money raised could be used for conservation and protecting the remaining rhinos. Since rhino horn is similar to hair and nails, it is something that continues to grow throughout the animals life, so sedating the rhinos and removing a section of horn would make it renewable and sustainable 5. Making it legal would also produce incentives for people to encourage large breeding populations of rhinos and keep them alive, rather than killing them. The horn can also be tagged, so that legal horn can be tracked and regulated and illegal horn can be identifies and removed from sale and the sellers and suppliers can be prosecuted 6.
However, Police and government bodies cannot currently enforce the current ban in the trade of rhino horn, so it is debatable how efficiently they could regulate and restrict the trade if it was legalised 5. Also, because the current market is illegal, it is unknown what the current demand is, and that if it was legalised would the countries be able to cope with demand 7. Another issue raised by legalising the trade in the horn in order to try and protect the remaining rhinos; it would be seen by many as suggesting that the practice was acceptable 5, where in reality this is highly controversial. There is also insufficient evidence in to how the rhinos would cope without their horns if they were farmed, as rhinos use the horn in foraging and fighting for mating rights. Due to the huge demand for the horn from all over Asia, it would be difficult in practice to check the sale of each horn to insure it came from a legal source. There has also been a lot of debate as to who should benefit from the sale of these horns and where the profits should go and what restrictions should be places on the harvesting of rhino horns 8, as many of these governments are plagued with corruption and the money could easily be syphoned away from conservation.
Overall, it is difficult to judge what would be the best action to take. Currently the measures and restrictions in place are not protecting the rhinos 9. 10 years ago only 15 rhinos were killed from poaching each year, now more than 500 are being killed each year 10, this is partly due to the rapidly increasing wealth and middle class in Asia in the last decade, many of whom are using their new found wealth to buy Chinese medicines which use rhino horn 11. Due to this rapidly increasing demand it has caused the price on the black market to skyrocket and so the profits make poaching not only inevitable but also attractive. It is not as simple as just banning it, as some poor and desperate people would be willing to run the risk for the payout.
Trades in other endangered animal products have shown that restricting and legalising it has a beneficial effect on conserving the species. Legalising the trade in crocodile skin has led to crocodile farms (which are sustainable) and eradicated the pressure on wild crocodiles 12, leaving a healthy wild population whilst still fulfilling the demand for crocodile skin. This approach is ‘believed to be the lesser of two evils’ as the current ban is not protecting the rhinos and there is no way to eradicate the demand for the horn on the black market.
7. http://www.savetherhino.org/rhino_info/threats_to_rhino/poaching_for_traditional_chinese_medicine/supply_and_demand_the_illegalE Markham (2013). Counterintuitive Conservation Blogspot