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Failing the rhino: controversial conservation

David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

The mass slaughter of rhinoceroses for their medicinally useless horn has left the African and Asian populations on the brink of extinction. Today, the global wild rhino population stands at around only 27,000 individuals and although this represents a worldwide increase over the last decade, figures show a steady decline since 2016 – a worrying trend for a group of such endangered species. The international trade in rhino horn was banned in 1977, however, a lack of resource and law enforcement clout, ineffective policy implementation, and apathy among governing bodies has seen it become a prime commodity in the illegal wildlife trade. The illegal trade in rhino horn is valued at between USD 64-190 million per year and horns themselves can fetch for USD 36,000 per kg. It is clear to see why the financial incentive for poachers is hard to resist, and their increasingly sophisticated poaching methods reflect a desperate need for conservation and anti-poaching efforts to keep up. Right now, the poachers and crooked consumers are winning the fight, and our efforts to protect the rhino must be reviewed and drastically improved upon.

Green militarisation

The most controversial anti-poaching method currently underway is green militarisation. Also known as green violence, it is the deployment of violent instruments and tactics towards the protection of nature where in many cases no other alternatives exist. As a result of national security implications resulting from poaching and trafficking, which have been described as synonymous with the threat of terrorism, the war on poaching is internationally supported as a just war. One obvious argument for green militarisation is the fact that most poaching attempts are carried out with the use of weapons, killing two rangers a week on average. Thus, those rangers who devote their lives to protecting wildlife must be equipped to deal with the threats of violence that for them, exist on a daily basis.

Nevertheless, targeting violent retaliation or prevention measures on poachers has negative consequences for neighbouring communities and their relationships to protected areas and the wildlife therein. ‘Shoot-to-kill’ policies have been adopted by many countries, most notoriously and recently in Botswana, and described as a necessary evil. However, the militarisation of conservation – particularly in Africa – creates a debate and pitches a conflict over morality and human rights with our obligation (and it is an obligation) to protect endangered wildlife. This forces a false dichotomy upon policymakers and conservationists: protect humans or protect wildlife. The sad reality is, however, that little option is given to those trying to protect wildlife; poachers are often armed and carelessly determined, and the rangers must do whatever possible to prevent loss of life, whether it be a rhino’s or their own, and rightly so. Regardless, fighting violent wildlife crime with like violence fails to address the underlying causes of poaching, such as the global trade networks and demand from consumer markets, where greater effort is needed.

Legalised trade

There is fierce debate over whether or not to legalise the international trade in rhino horn, which has been banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international agreement between governments aimed at regulating and controlling the international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants, since 1977. A significant proportion of the global rhino population is maintained within privately-owned reserves, and rhino farmers are increasingly moving toward disinvesting in rhino due to the escalating risks and costs associated with protecting them from poachers. Those that advocate for legal trade argue that this will take the money away from the illegal market and criminals, instead ensuring the money goes to rhino managers who can put this additional income back into rhino conservation. This implies that a legal trade network for rhino horn would quash the existing illegal trade; in a spectacular show of hypocrisy, CITES’ authorisation of multiple “one-off” sales of ivory stockpiles has provided the evidence to suggest otherwise.

In 1999, CITES authorised a one-off sale of over 50 tons of stockpiled ivory from Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia to Japan, less than a decade after international trade in ivory had been banned. This was done in the name of experimentation, in order to gather data on the trade’s impact on the Japanese market – the data showed no impact on the total volume, price, or demand of Japan’s ivory trade, giving no reason to believe that legal trade is a useful tool for reducing demand or disincentivising poaching. However, this “one-off” sale (their words, not mine) was repeated again in 2008 – this time for a total of 108 tons of stockpiled ivory from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe to Japan and China. This sudden flooding of the ivory market fuelled a dramatic increase in demand and poaching, contributing to the illegal killing of some 100,000 African elephants from 2010 to 2012. There is nothing to suggest that a legal rhino trade will have any different effect, and thus represents a dangerous threat to rhino conservation that must be confronted and rejected. Instead, it has been found that less conventional demand management strategies, such as consumer education and behaviour modification, are much more effective in reducing demand for rhino horn than trade legalisation. These strategies must be, and are, implemented by the more responsible players in rhino conservation, and their efforts should be supported with the same gusto and force as that of those campaigning for legalised rhino horn trade.

Maximum population growth

An obvious method of rhino conservation is, of course, increasing rhino population sizes as well as establishing new populations. Rhino farming does exist, however, as long as the illegal rhino horn trade exists then it is not sustainable or profitable enough for farmers to be a long-term solution. Complex models have been simulated regarding management interventions when seeking to grow rhino populations, and these have been shown not to work for intensive rhino farms where biodiversity conservation is not considered a priority, such as John Hume’s Buffalo Dream Ranch.

Rather, these models are aimed at growing rhino populations in a way that optimises population growth rates, while at the same time minimising any negative impacts on the local ecosystem of a protected area. The main thematic element of this is the biological management of the rhino population. Managers can stimulate high population growth by manipulating population density, sex and age ratios, and aspects of the gene pool, all done in such a way as to mimic the characteristics of a wild rhino population. These manipulations are often achieved through translocating individuals elsewhere, inferring the need for new populations to be established.

For the Javan rhino, of which there are less than 70 individuals left, the establishment of new populations is essential for their protection. After the illegal killing of Vietnam’s last Javan rhino in 2010, all remaining individuals are found in a single, isolated population in Ujung Kulon National Park at the westernmost tip of Java, Indonesia. This area is at high risk of tsunamis, and with the majority of the rhino population concentrated near the shoreline, a single giant wave could see their extinction. The establishment of a second independent population has been proposed and will show that additional populations of all five species of rhino are valid options for conservation. How you protect those populations however, as discussed, is a topic of great scrutiny and uncertainty.

Why we should protect the rhino

The single biggest risk to the existence of the rhino is undoubtedly the illegal trade in their horn. This is what we have to stop if we want to save the rhino. Governing bodies have been ineffective in working towards this and time is running out. Nearly 10,000 African and Asian rhinos were poached in the last decade; basic math will tell you that with a global population of less than 30,000, the next decade must see that figure drastically reduced. We are obliged to support the rangers working on the ground, education initiatives aimed at demand reduction, sustainable population growth efforts, and sign every petition in sight to keep international trade in rhino horn bound tightly in the history books. If we can’t halt the illegal killing of rhinos across Africa and Asia, the only rhino left will be ornamental pieces of keratin on the shelves of trivial businessmen.

Written by: Linus Hiscox, studying MSc Global Biodiversity Health and Conservation at University of Bristol and DSWF Programmes and Policy Intern.

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