In a recent announcement, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) announced the micro-chipping of every horn of every rhino in the country. This is an increasingly high tech solution to the epidemic of rhino poaching which is afflicting every country in Africa and which shows no sign of abating. On the contrary, there is a surge in demand with new countries like Vietnam taking over the mantle from China of leading consumers of rhino horn.
As part of the press release, KWS declared that “Investigators will be able to link any poaching case to a recovered or confiscated horn, and this forms crucial evidence in court, contributing towards the prosecution’s ability to push for sentencing of a suspected rhino criminal.” The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) financed the donation of the chips and scanners for a total cost of £9400. Whilst we applaud and encourage such efforts, this small contribution has to be seen in the context of an illegal and abhorrent industry which is worth approximately £6.6 billion a year.
The laws of supply and demand are not in equilibrium for this industry. Every new effort by law enforcement agencies to successfully restrict the supply has the effect of pushing up the price of poached horn. Paradoxically, the elevated prices are enticing new consumers in countries like Vietnam where rhino horn is seen as a status symbol and is a favoured gift amongst the highest echelons of the business and political classes.
Whilst the east African nation of Kenya is making efforts to save its rhino population, the real battle is being fought in South Africa. With the continents most well run and managed national and private parks and the continents largest rhino population, this is where the war will be won or lost. Thus far, South Africa is not winning. In 2010, 333 rhino were poached, 448 in 2011, 668 in 2012 and over 520 so far this year. These losses are not sustainable.
In any country or continent where there are wide disparities between the wealthy and the poor, where the the poor are in the overwhelming majority and where the agencies of state are prone to either incompetence or corruption, you will find fertile ground for illegal activities.
Perhaps other solutions are needed. Dr Ian Player of South Africa, one of the world’s leading conservationists and the effective saviour of the white rhino in southern Africa, has proposed an alternative answer to the problem. “There is much opposition from the animal rights movement, with which I have sympathy, but we have to devise other means of ensuring the survival of rhinos. Conservation agencies are desperately short of money. Surely it is in the interest of the rhino and conservation economics that we legalise the sale of rhino horn accumulated through natural mortality.”
If the trade was legalised and regulated, it is estimated that South Africa could supply at least 600 horns a year from natural rhino deaths and historical stockpiles, and that private rhino owners could “farm” rhino horn sustainably and provide another 1 000 horns a year.
Whilst conservationists and politicians are fiddling, the rhino is burning a path to oblivion. With the price of horn at $65,000 per kg (viz $4700 in 1993), which makes its worth more, per unit weight, than cocaine, diamond or gold, something needs to change. And fast. Otherwise the only rhino our children will see will be in zoos and books.