Saving threatened habitats worldwide

Trade in rhino horn and ivory: to ban or not to ban?

26 February, 2013 - 11:10 -- John Burton
African elephant, Ruth Canning / WLT

It is clear that existing anti-poaching measures are not working.

In 2012 a record number of rhinos were poached in South Africa, 668 in total, according to the South African government. This is nearly a 50 per cent increase on the 448 rhinos poachers killed in 2011, and double the 333 animals killed by poachers in 2010. (Note just 13 rhinos were poached in 2007.)

I haven’t been able to find figures for total ivory poached in 2012, but half way through last year CITES reported that levels of elephant poaching were the worst in a decade and that recorded ivory seizures were at their highest levels since 1989.

So, to ban or not to ban? that is the question.

For over a quarter of a century various bans on the trade in ivory and rhino horn have been in place. And at the same time the number of elephants and rhinos has steadily declined

Now, I am not for one moment advocating that these bans should be removed, but I do think a more thorough investigation of alternatives to bans should be made.

It has been claimed that one rhino horn is worth as much as £68,000, and while ivory prices continue to grow there will always be a huge demand for both commodities.

Some conservationists simply rely on trying to ‘educate’ the Chinese that rhino horn does not have any medicinal properties. To me a pointless task, and never likely to succeed. After all we live in a culture where millions of people take pure water as an ‘alternative’ medicine (Dr Bach’s remedies).

Experience has shown that banning things that are popular rarely if ever works. But taxing them does give at least an income that can be used to police the trade.

The USA and other countries have tried banning the sale of alcohol, but nowhere has it proved 100% possible. But taxing it produces vast revenues, which can at least help control the illegal trade. 

Cocaine, marijuana, and other drugs are banned in many countries, but the trade is rife, costing millions of dollars a year to unsuccessfully control.  

There is another scenario. If the trade in ivory and rhino horn was legalised (there are large stockpiles) and a passport system developed to monitor the trade in legal specimens, surely such as process would both produce revenue to police the illegal trade, and also make it more socially unacceptable to own illegal supplies?

To a certain extent this has been done with crocodile skins, and some species of parrots. In neither case has it stamped out the trade in illegal specimens, but there should be enough data available to indicate if it is a more sensible route than outright bans.

I am not advocating this. I am simply asking the question, because it is quite clear that the present policies are failing; we have to come up with new solutions. And all we are doing at present is continually pushing the prices up, so that the risks of the illegal trade are worth taking.

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