All three SULiNews articles on rhino have left me with a sense of dissatisfaction.

It would seem that everyone is a ‘stakeholder’ when it comes to debating the rhino crisis...but it is essential to understand that these stakeholders are not equal. The primary stakeholders (those with rhino on their land) should have a far greater say than other stakeholders on decisions relating ‘to trade or not to trade’. All three articles are weak in this area.

Last year in July and August, I did a field trip around South Africa and Namibia to assess the readiness of the diverse players in this theatre to put a proposal to CITES for a legal trade in rhino horn.  The following is an extract from my trip report:

I was surprised at the overwhelming consensus amongst the people with whom I met that a legal trade in rhino horn offers the best remedy for the escalating illegal hunting of rhino in South Africa. In Namibia, although illegal hunting is not yet as serious as it is in South Africa, there was a similar consensus in favour of a legal trade.

However, this groundswell is not reflected in the articles. Both‘t Sas-Rolfes and Knight want more research. This appears to me as temporising.

Mike Knight calls for risk-benefit assessment but adds that: “We also need to be adaptive in our approach, and accept the fact that we learn most by trying”. There is an inherent contradiction in this. Adaptive management is both a means of managing and, simultaneously, it is the research tool to understand the system being managed. Adaptive management requires structuring one’s approach into a comfortable acceptance of surprises and uncertainties as an ongoing part of the environment, and not simply events which one failed to predict.

Colman O’Criodain reduces the problem simply to that of closing down the illegal trade in rhino horn in Viet Nam. This is naïve. Studies of the illegal drugs trade show quite clearly that getting rid of one entrepot will automatically result in the opening of another.  

But O’Criodain’s letter also gives an insight into much larger issues. Let us say that, implausibly, shutting down the Viet Nam connection worked and, overnight, the illegal hunting of rhino in South Africa ceased. What is the prize? A quote from Marshall Murphree (1997) is relevant: “The incentives which determine preferences for the mode of use vary significantly from global to local levels. At present the tendency is for international intrinsic and existence valuations to be accorded higher order status and for local and instrumental conservation incentives to be regarded  as lower level factors to be co-opted in the pursuit of these values. This does not work. Aside from their inherent merits, local incentives have a powerful veto dimension. Unless they are accommodated, international values and goals will be subverted by local responses ranging from defiance to covert non-compliance.”

Mike Knight observes that: “The increase in poaching has coincided with soaring rhino protection costs and general risks, so much so that members of the private sector have started disinvesting in rhinos.” South Africa is moving further and further away from its stated goal of disseminating rhino widely throughout the country and increasing their numbers, and a process of range shrinkage has already started (Martin 2012). O’Criodain’s solution to the rhino crisis does not address the fundamental issue that reducing the illegal hunting will not, on its own, realise the national goal for rhino.

Rhino have the potential to transform land use in southern Africa. Martin (2011) estimated that the net land use value of rhino managed under dehorning is at least 100 times greater than that of domestic livestock earnings. But to achieve this real conservation victory would require an active and thriving legal trade in rhino horn and the full suite of incentives for private and communal landholders to benefit from such a trade.

The prospect of continuing to pursue failed conservation measures such as O’Criodain is advocating is an unsatisfactory option with extinction at the end of the tunnel: however, there is nothing unsatisfactory about a legal trade in horn that does not require the deaths of rhino in order to take place.

Rowan B. Martin is a consultant.