by Michael Lorentz
It's turning into yet another terrible year for rhino. It's not just the poaching, though that is awful and ongoing. It's the action that's now being considered to stop it.
South Africa has announced that it's going to back a proposal to legalize the trade in rhino horn.
That's right: legalize it.
In one respect — and I'll get to some others in a second — that's a good thing. The fact that a country is considering legalizing a trade which has done so much harm to Africa ought to wake people up to the mess we're in.
It's such a desperate measure that it leaves no doubt about the grave threat that Africa's rhinos are facing. That wake-up call is absolutely necessary. Things are very very bad for African wildlife. In an eloquent interview back in June Colin Bell laid out what we can expect to see happen over the next ten to twenty years. I agree with what Colin said: the current slaughter is unsustainable and must be stopped.
But legalizing the trade in rhino horn is the wrong way to go about it.
The argument made by people in favour of it is that a well-regulated trade in legally-harvested rhino horn will make it economically pointless for poachers to kill the animals.
To anyone familiar with Africa's history of corruption and bad governance, those words "well-regulated" and "legal" will already be ringing alarm bells. But let's leave that aside for a second.
There is a seductive logic about the argument. There are instances where suppressing vice — alcohol in Prohibition-era America — is more futile and more costly than regulating and taxing it.
But, outside the pages of a textbook, that argument has no relevance to the trade in rhino horn. I think it's a terrible idea and could be the death-knell of the wild rhino.
Rhinos are a tragically finite resource. At the moment, the horn is worth more than its weight in gold. It's sold in China and Vietnam where it's used in traditional medicine. Another significant market is Yemen, where it has been used in making ceremonial dagger handles.
To me, the only feasible long-term solution is to kill demand for the horn. We need to send a clear and consistent message to the end-users of rhino horn that this trade is damaging, unethical, and comes at an unacceptable cost.
Creating a legal source of rhino horn sends exactly the opposite message. It says: go on, have some more rhino horn, help yourself.
It legitimizes a demand that will swallow up all the rhino horn we have. And then what?
The winner, in this scenario, will not be the rhino.
Those arguing for a legal trade in rhino horn are failing to recognize that legalization will push up demand. If rhino horn becomes freely available and a million new customers are created (a tiny percentage of the potential market) it would result in the complete extermination of wild rhino in less than a decade.
I believe that traders in rhino horn are already anticipating an end game where the rhino is extinct. Stockpiling rhino horn now is like cornering the market on gold or diamonds. I'm sure these traders recognize that when rhinos in the wild are extinct, rhino horn will be of almost incalculable value. By then none of it will be within Africa.
I believe entrepreneurs have already worked out where the logic of this argument leads. By the time the rhino is extinct in Africa, breeding programmes will be up and running to supply Far Eastern customers with farmed rhino. For the wild rhino, it will be game over. Another swathe of Africa will have been depleted of its megafauna. The bush will fall silent. And we will have facilitated it by surrendering our moral objections to the trade.
Africa must stop sending mixed messages to the world. We cannot argue that rhinos are rare and at the same time welcome hunters to our shores to shoot them.
There is still time for us to register our objections to this plan. Members of the United Nations' Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) will vote on approval of legalisation in 2016. Between now and then we need to stop this proposal and focus instead on waking up buyers of rhino horn to the tragedy and devastation they're funding.