Saving threatened habitats worldwide

Harvesting rhino horn sustainably is one way to reduce poaching

9 August, 2013 - 14:46 -- John Burton
White rhino, etching by Isabel Hutchison

The idea of harvesting rhino horn, and even ivory, has been around for as long as I can remember - at least as far back as the 1970s. But before discarding the idea, I’d like to ask, how valid are the arguments against harvesting?

One thing is clear from the outset: bans have not worked for either elephant or rhino conservation. There is an argument that bans may even increase demand. Other measures such as destroying stockpiles of confiscated ivory and rhino horn may well have simply raised the value of both materials.

Back in the late 1970s when I was working with TRAFFIC, I published some of the first data on the international ivory trade, but even then, I had doubts and misgivings about publishing values of ivory, knowing that the information could easily and unwittingly drive up the price.

At that time newspapers were reporting the incredibly high value of rhino horn daggers in Yemen. This, I believe, fuelled the demand and, again, there is little question that this was unhelpful in terms of the conservation message.

Conservationists at that time seemed to neglect the fact that while the poachers may well be ill-educated, middlemen and retailers are certainly literate and will read newspapers and take note. And now, with widespread internet access, this information is all too readily available. Type into an internet search engine ‘ rhino horn value’ and see what I mean. For instance, a headline such as A gang of thieves have stolen rhino heads and horns worth up to half a million euros (£428,000) from a museum will immediately excite the community that wants to make money out of rhino horn.

An economist might be a better placed to comment on these issues than a conservationist. A review of the silver market (which as I recall, in the early 1970s, the Hunt brothers tried to manipulate) may be a better model than conventional wildlife models. We tend to think of both ivory and rhino horn as wildlife commodities but actually, in the way they are traded, they are more akin to gems or precious metals. They are mined in an unsustainable way, and the rarer they are, the more valuable they become simply.

As a last ditch attempt to save rhinos, my solution would be to have a legitimate, ‘sustainably mined’, captive bred source of rhino horn. I would also suggest a source of fake rhino horn to plug the gaps in the market.

I can think of instances where this solution has worked, particularly with World Land Trust’s partner Wildlife Trust of India, but the process would need to be approached and managed very carefully. It shouldn’t take too long if there was a real will to achieve - get together a good team of economists and conservationists, and in six months a plan could be hatched.

More information

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


Submitted by John A Burton on

There have been comments on twitter and facebook saying this is wrong and what we need is more effective enforcement of bans. My point is (and I was very closely involved with wildlife trade issues back in the 1970s and 80s), that bans have never worked, and never will. So keep arguing for bans is effectively doing nothing. Billions of dollars have been spent on enforcing drug bans, and whole armies have been mobilised, but still the trade in drugs goes on, and becomes increasing profitable for those involved. I believe the same is true for commodities such as rhino horn and ivory. The only way of conserving wild rhinos, is to drive the price down to a level where it is no longer worth the risks of killing them. How one does that is a matter of conjecture. But I cannot see any other solution.

Submitted by Claire Attfield on

I have tried on numerous occasions to get soneone in the rhino conservation circles to pick up on my idea for fake rhino horn produced to such a high quality that it would never be questioned. Nobody has ever bothered to ask what the idea is. Instead they continue to argue the ban/trade debate. I am starting to think that they would rather argue than find a feasible alternative to drive the price of rhino horn down. Why won't anyone pick me up on this???

Submitted by Kelly Jacobs, E... on

If anyone is interested in following this up then I see from the latest RGS Bulletin that there is an Earthwatch Debate on the 17th October in London "Would a legal trade in wildlife save threatened species?" (See for more details.)

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