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Trophy Hunting Fails Rhino Conservation, Supplies Poachers, And Perpetuates Fraud

Updated on October 26, 2015
Illustration of white rhino targeted, … derived by R. G. Kernodle from Creative Commons source images.
Illustration of white rhino targeted, … derived by R. G. Kernodle from Creative Commons source images.

Rhino Poaching Crisis

Africa is home to over 90% of the rhinoceroses on Earth. Conservation experts and wildlife activists are well aware that the rhinoceros, as a species, faces an accelerated threat of extinction caused by an unprecedented, accelerated rate of poaching over the past seven years.

South Africa's Rhino Poaching Statistics

Illustration of rhino poaching statistics adapted by R.G. Kernodle from Peace Parks Foundation graph, embellished with white rhino photo from Wikipedia, plus added textual clarifications.
Illustration of rhino poaching statistics adapted by R.G. Kernodle from Peace Parks Foundation graph, embellished with white rhino photo from Wikipedia, plus added textual clarifications.

Seemingly intelligent arguments … claim that enforcement of laws against poaching rhinos in Africa are doomed to fail because of overpowering market forces driving demand for rhino horns. These arguments appear to rely on observations of current enforcement efforts that are, in fact, failing miserably. These arguments seem to assume that current enforcement efforts are mainly legitimate, conscientious, consistent, widespread, and free of corruption.

Words Not Equal To Actions

There are two ways that enforcement can fail. First, it can fail, because people ARE truly trying to do it, and it does not work. Second, it can fail, because people are NOT truly trying to do it correctly in the first place.

Observations of current enforcement efforts, therefore, might be nothing more than observations of the second kind of failure, which is corrupt enforcement. In other words, a concept that describes a legitimate action is being used incorrectly to describe a reality that is anything but legitimate in many instances. The idea of enforcement, thus, is being dismissed based on its false association with bad practices – a situation that reflects the difference between talking the talk and walking the walk.

There certainly appear to be a number of legitimate efforts to enforce the laws against poaching, but a disturbing number of instances involving corruption are undermining these legitimate enforcing efforts. More than … one source …alludes to such corruption in high levels of government that enables rhino poaching. Government inconsistencies and slack laws apparently allow crime syndicates to succeed in poaching. Consequently, a person could well wonder whether legitimate enforcement has ever had a chance to be judged fairly.

When governments can speak the rhetoric of enforcement without fully committing to the actions of enforcement, intelligent people can be tricked by words into believing that enforcement fails. This is why it is important to realize the difference between mere words that advocate effective actions and real actions that fail to honor these words completely.

False Views Cause Unethical Solutions

A false view of enforcement, thus, might be the basis of suggesting legalized and regulated trade of rhino horns as a viable solution to combat poaching. Trophy hunting is already part of the current strictly regulated (in theory) trade of rhino products, and, unfortunately, it can provide a loophole for illegal trade of the horns by people who pose as trophy hunters just to acquire the horns for illegal sale.

Trophy hunters are likely candidates to embrace the enforcement-fails argument, since such an argument gives greater weight to utilitarian arguments that support hunting as a method of conserving rhinos. According to this argument, creating financial incentives based on killing a few rhinos drives land owners to conserve more rhinos. Successful recovery of the white rhino is often cited as proof of this argument. What this argument fails to take account of, however, is the insanely accelerated rate of rhino poaching that has occurred in a short time, which threatens to defeat this very recovery.

In effect, recovery of the white rhino, via trophy hunting and other financial incentives, has ultimately served to supply an ever increasing number of people entering the poaching business. The poaching business then has gone on to serve an ever increasing number of people who are either gullible enough to believe in fraudulent curative claims about rhino horns or vain enough to flaunt their affluence using popular practices that require rhino horn as an ingredient. Regulated trade of rhino horns, even with humanely harvested horns that do not require killing, would very likely increase demand for rhino-horn products to yet higher levels, which would eventually drive prices higher, thereby making the poaching business even more lucrative and worth the risks to future criminals.

In general, arguments that advocate regulated trade of rhino horns endorse either recreational killing of rhinos, recreational use of rhino products derived from killing, or misguided uses of rhino products derived from killing, driven by fraudulent assurances. How any intelligent, developed nation could condone any of this is almost beyond belief, because it undermines all sense of ethics in business, medicine, recreation, government, and social development.

Illustration of rhino horn uses derived by R. G. Kernodle from Wikipedia white rhino picture, with added text.
Illustration of rhino horn uses derived by R. G. Kernodle from Wikipedia white rhino picture, with added text.
Table from ASSESSMENT OF RHINO HORN AS A TRADITIONAL MEDICINE, A report prepared for the CITES Secretariat by Kristin Nowell on behalf of TRAFFIC.
Table from ASSESSMENT OF RHINO HORN AS A TRADITIONAL MEDICINE, A report prepared for the CITES Secretariat by Kristin Nowell on behalf of TRAFFIC.

Conserve Rhinos For What Purpose?

Laws that cave in to human ignorance, superstition, greed and egotistical indulgences are bad laws that do nothing to advance modern civilization. Legalizing trade of rhino horns, therefore, is a bad idea on multiple levels.

Farming rhinos specifically to harvest their horns for trade, even without killing the animals, reduces these animals to less than authentic specimens of their species. A rhino in the wild could not survive very long without its horn, since other wild rhinos would reject the dehorned animal, and the dehorned animal would now lack an effective means of self defense against other animals that might attack it, including competing members of its own species. Moreover, the humanely harvested horns would supply more consumers that are being scammed inhumanely by fraudulent claims of rhino-horn curative powers. Why would advanced nations want to support such an economic growth principle based on scamming people (often desperate people seeking miracle cures to save their lives from cancer)?

Why would advanced nations want to actively supply party drunks with false hangover remedies? Why would advanced nations want to actively supply self-indulgent, affluent members of society with fetishized artifacts to flaunt their affluence? Why would advanced nations embrace economic growth principles based on such frivolous, selfish, ill-informed uses of rhino horns? Are these reasons justifiable reasons to “conserve” the rhinoceros? Do these reasons advance social development? Is this what “conserving a species” really means?

Trophy hunting gets top billing in the title of this article, because it epitomizes the ethical shallowness of killing for the fulfillment of killing and owning a dead carcass as a piece of furniture to symbolize status, self glorification, or control over nature. As part of the whole legalized scheme of rhino body-part commerce, trophy hunting would continue to be in good company with an ever expanding volume of other ethically shallow uses of rhino body parts. To ask the question again, is THIS what “conserving a species” really means? Is this why we conserve a species?

Why Conserve A Species If Extinction Is A Natural Process?

If satisfying human consumptive needs (however shallow) is not a reason to conserve a species, then why be bothered with conserving the rhinoceros, since extinction is a part of the epoch cycle of life, death, and evolution on Earth?

To answer this question, consider a statement appearing in ... SCIENCE ADVANCES … , a journal published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

Arguably the most serious aspect of the environmental crisis is the loss of biodiversity—the other living things with which we share Earth. This affects human well-being by interfering with crucial ecosystem services such as crop pollination and water purification and by destroying humanity’s beautiful, fascinating, and culturally important living companions.

As for why we would want to avoid extinction (since it is a natural process), we need only look at the incredible increase in the rate of species extinctions resulting from human domination of the planet.

Extinction rate chart from Robert M. May (2009). Ecological Science And Tomorrow's World, PHILOSOPHICAL TRANSACTIONS B, Volume 365, Issue 1537, p 41-47.
Extinction rate chart from Robert M. May (2009). Ecological Science And Tomorrow's World, PHILOSOPHICAL TRANSACTIONS B, Volume 365, Issue 1537, p 41-47. | Source

The rate of extinctions today is many hundreds of times greater than the rate of extinctions even a few centuries ago, and probably in the range of a thousand times greater than when human beings came onto the scene. Consequently, the goal of species conservation is NOT to avoid extinction as a natural process, but rather to maintain a reasonable rate of extinction compared to what is “natural”, which is hundreds of times LESS than it is now. In other words, the RATE of extinctions occurring now is NOT natural, humans seem to be the cause, and humans need to take responsibility to get this under better control.

Rhinos shape many aspects of the landscapes that they inhabit, in profound ways that keep other species in check or provide for them in critically important ways. Removing rhinos from the equation destroys the balance of those landscapes, which can have cascading effects, all the way to humans. Biodiversity (or the great variety of life) exists because such cooperative interactions, checks and balances are necessary to sustain entire living ecosystems.

Laws that fail to respect this basic principle of life ultimately contribute to the demise of civilization, via bad management and bad stewardship for future human generations.

Survival Value Vs. Economic Value

Laws that conserve rhinos for the purpose of sustaining beneficial biodiversity are laws that respect the survival value of the animals. Laws that conserve rhinos for the purpose of serving self-centered human consumers are laws that respect only the economic value of the animals. Survival value is long-term value that benefits the entire human race into the future. Economic value is short-term value that benefits only specific markets active in the present era of the human race. The long-term survival value of rhinos, then, logically outweighs the current economic value of rhinos. This logic, unfortunately, is NOT what dictates current human behavior.

An amazing fact that many people are not yet aware of is that the current economic value of rhino horn on the black market exceeds the current economic value of gold, platinum, cocaine, heroin, marijuana, even rough diamonds.

Dollar Value Of Rhino Horn

Illustration, compiled by R.G. Kernodle, comparing current black-market prices of rhino horn, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana, based on United Nations data and source images from the Creative Commons.
Illustration, compiled by R.G. Kernodle, comparing current black-market prices of rhino horn, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana, based on United Nations data and source images from the Creative Commons.

Prices in the above illustration are per kilogram (about 2.2 USA pounds). One kilogram of rhino horn at $100,000, thus, translates into one pound of rhino horn worth over $45,000. Considering these numbers, a person might well understand why some experts claim that enforcing poaching laws is a hopeless endeavor, since the average weight of just one rhino horn is about 1.5 kilograms, worth $150,000! One horn appears to be worth risking life and limb to acquire, since the risk of getting shot by a dedicated ranger or prosecuted in an efficient court system are still relatively slim. A sad fact is that some rangers and other officials entrusted with conservation are themselves involved in the poaching of rhinos, while other rangers are regularly killed in the line of duty fighting poachers. Black-market prices entice even law keepers to enter the rhino-horn business.

A sadder fact is that most consumers of rhino products, aside from trophy hunters, are NOT aware of the utter disregard for suffering often involved in acquiring rhino body parts for self-satisfaction. There are any number of horrifying, detailed revelations of this fact on the internet, some so disturbing that they linger in one's thoughts (not easily forgotten). Money (or economic value), therefore, seems to be driving ignorance, lack of empathy, and other self-destructive human traits with regard to rhino products. These negative human traits, in turn, seem to be becoming (or have great potential to become) more widespread, to drive prices of rhino products higher.

Is There Any Hope For A Solution?

A global network of understanding, law making, and commitment to enforcement of laws regarding rhino conservation does NOT exist. The greatest hope for a solution would be such a network, which would depend on:

  • educating people of the world about the survival value of key species and the cruel practices of rhino poachers,
  • actively reducing demand for rhino products in hot spots (like China, Vietnam, Thailand),
  • creating international legal agreements to help enforce wildlife laws consistently,
  • cracking down more on rampant corruption in wildlife conservation,
  • most importantly, taking more steps to reduce poverty in areas where people are desperate enough to break laws to earn money,
  • developing infrastructures to attract tourists who would pay to experience rhinos in non-consumptive ways that could generate mountains of money over the entire natural life span of a rhino (rather than a relatively small sum of money from one instance of a rhino's death), and
  • actively discouraging trophy hunting of challenged, iconic species, to send a clear message that advanced civilizations do NOT endorse recreation or fulfillment based on killing real live beings.

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