Recently I attended a series of seminars on wildlife crime. The information presented at these events was so staggering (for my mind at least), and often so sad, that whenever I set about writing on the subject I found myself staring blindly at the screen. The reality is that African wildlife on a whole is in dire straits, but our focus on one species, rhinos, is distorting our vision.
There are many voices on the subject of legalising trade in rhino horn, but I found hearing these four brought some clarity to me. The two first voices are not conservationists, which lends them an impartiality. The following two are conservationists on opposite sides of the fence. My hope is that their combined analysis will help us come to a conclusion that moves us beyond the question of legalising trade so we can focus on a much broader conservation picture.
Tackling the criminal elements in poaching and wildlife trafficking is paramount to preserving endangered species, but, as anti-smuggling, fraud and organised crime consultant John M. Sellar said, “a lot of money is spent bringing the wrong people to wildlife crime conferences.”
Sellar has been engaged in law enforcement for almost four decades. Initially in the Scottish Police Service and then the United Nations, most recently Sellar spent 14 years focused on anti-smuggling, fraud and organised crime for the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Speaking at two recent seminars in Cape Town, Sellar stressed that people in conservation roles are not necessarily the best people to tackle sophisticated and experienced crime networks that deal not only in wildlife, but also in a variety of other contraband.
“The core business of wildlife, game, forest and national park agencies around the world is not law enforcement,” said Sellar. He pointed out that many senior managers of these agencies have limited, if any, experience of law enforcement activities, particularly with regard to intelligence and investigations. “Consequently, they may not be best-placed to direct enforcement matters, determine enforcement policies or even appreciate the needs associated with such work. Few of them will have regular contact, or close working relationships, with their peers in, for instance, Customs, Police, Public Prosecution Departments or Financial Crime Agencies.”
Sellar said that some governments choose to place senior military figures in charge or in positions of coordination, which is understandable given the characteristics of much of today’s poaching, but he added: “the cop in me makes me believe that such strategies should always be temporary. A militaristic answer may stop the killing, but it will not stop the trafficking.”
His certainty is that wildlife trafficking will go on relentlessly “until we either bring the people controlling it to justice or we make it too risky to be profitable for them. To do that, we need to engage with the senior managers and policy-makers of those agencies around the world whose job it is to target organised crime, and get them onboard. We need them to deploy their investigators. Following that, we need to support those investigators.”
Sellar added that we need to stop talking about legalising trade in rhino horn as a solution to rhino poaching, and start talking about trafficking as the criminal issue that it is.
Many favour legalising horn trade as a means to saving rhinos, reducing wildlife crime, and funding conservation efforts. Backed by private rhino owners and conservationists alike, the South African government is working on a proposal for the legalisation of rhino horn trade at the CITES Convention of the Parties in South African in 2016. Their proposal hinges on economic studies that recommend legal trade as the best possible conservation solution.
Mexico University professor of economics Alejandro Nadal asked how we can accurately evaluate a conservation policy that relies on a deregulated market for rhino horn when we don’t know how such markets behave. “There simply are no such studies for anything similar to a rhino horn or ivory market,” he said.
After doing a comprehensive review of the pro-trade economic literature, Nadal described what he saw as their key arguments:
– That a ban on trade causes prices to increase, generating incentives for illegal trade and poaching.
– That the profits of illegal trade go to crime syndicates.
He says that pro-traders propose that a legalised trade with a stable supply of rhino horn will:
– Bring prices down
– Put illegal traders out of business by outcompeting them.
– Return profits to lawful rhino owners or custodians and be reinvested in conservation.
Rhino horn is today estimated at between US$60,000 and US$100,000 per kilogram. But Nadal questions why pro-traders think prices will drop as a stable supply flows into the market.
“If you say that the prices will go down, I will ask you, what will that do to demand? Because textbook economics will tell you – on page two very rapidly – that when you decrease prices demand will expand,” Nadal said.
Nadal emphasised that we know very little about the firms operating in this market: nothing about their ownership structures, size, vertical integration, cost and pricing structures; whether these firms are diversified or how much product diversification they engage in; their relation to money-lenders or big traders, the debt equity ratio and so on.
In terms of the market, he said we know little about the size of demand and response to price changes, pointing out that we don’t have the capacity or finance to study the evolution of demand.
“We have been blinded by this veil of ignorance of how this market looks. We don’t even have an approximation of an idea as to the structure of this market,” Nadal said, warning that, ultimately, legalising trade may find us locked in to a runaway expanding market without any idea of the end.
“The banalisation of the policy debate is dangerous and is not the way forward. Everyone stands to lose, including rhino owners and rhino custodians.”
In conclusion Nadal said, “Many economists propose a conservation policy based on an easy slogan that says ‘what pays, stays.’ I think the world they think that they understand does not exist.”
“Emphasis on rhinos and elephants means we neglect the full spectrum of biodiversity”
Two leading conservationists followed Professor Nadal. Conservation consultant and proponent of legal rhino trade, Dr John Hanks, began his address by saying, “that’s a tough act to follow”.
Hanks put arguments forward that focused on the advantage of returning the profits from horn trade into conservation. He explained that there is not one protected area in Africa that has sufficient funding, and that in the case of rhinos, the private owners are baring a large burden.
“25 % of white rhino are on private land and they get no support from government and very little from NGOs,” he said. “Some such private areas are spending ZAR150,000 monthly on rhino security. That’s just not sustainable.”
Hanks also emphasised that the ever expanding communities on the periphery of wildlife areas are resorting to poaching as means of survival. He and many others believe that one of the keys to conserving wildlife lies in community benefaction. He cited a recent study which found that a 16km squared community rhino farm could hold at least 60 rhino, create 100 full-time jobs and generate income of at least R12-million a year.
According to Hanks, the proposed advantages of a legal trade are:
– That rhino horn can be supplied without killing a single animal (rhino horn regrows after it has been harvested; in males at a rate of about 1kg a year and in females at about 600 grams a year).
– That horn stockpiles in government and private hands can be fed into the market, removing the high costs and security risks of keeping them.
– That state reserves and private owners can generate substantial income from these animals which at present are a massive burden.
– That controlled legal trade would encourage other private rhino owners and local communities to buy more rhinos and breed with them.
Hanks says that no serious proponents of a legal trade have made the following claims:
– It will put a stop to poaching.
– It would operate without giving attention to enhancing field security, closing down the illegal traders, addressing corruption, etc.
– All remaining rhinos would be farmed like cattle – Hanks proposes that South Africa can supply 1,500 horns without the need to kill one rhino. 500 can come from stocks (on a sustainable basis), 400 from natural deaths and the equivalent of 600 from farmed horn.
– Rhino horn use would be promoted for its therapeutic properties.
One of his more curious claims is that if opening up a legal trade led to an increase in poaching, the trade could either be closed down or restructured.
Hank’s also lamented “the emphasis on rhinos and elephants and that we should conserve the full spectrum of biodiversity – that we look beyond one single species and concentrate on supporting our ecosystems.”
Will Travers, president of the Born free Foundation, agreed with Hanks that legalising trade will not stop poaching, but in his view “it will potentially increase poaching as criminals launder rhino horn into the now legal market and undercut the prices established by the CSO or whatever mechanism is dreamed up. And as for a trial period – the genie will be out of the bottle,” Travers said, challenging Hanks’ claim that the trade could either be closed down or restructured if it led to an increase in poaching.
Travers has attended every CITES Conference of the Parties since 1989. He was critical of some of the Conference results, highlighting “the highly intimidating atmosphere of the Harare meeting in 1997 where the President of Zimbabwe intoned that fateful phrase ‘if it pays it stays’. It was at that meeting that the fateful decision was taken to permit the first ‘one-off’ ivory stockpile sale.” Travers also mentioned the Bangkok 2004 Conference where the decision was made to approve a second one-off ivory sale that took place in 2008.
Travers and many others believe these one off ivory sales were the reason for the scourge of elephant poaching that we find today. “The issue, just as it is today, was the market, China,” said Travers. He echoed Professor Nadal by saying: “No one, as far as I am aware, had done any really serious analysis of the market, the drivers of the market, the size of the market, the desire of the market. What we found, after the event, was that the market was and is enormous and that the 60 or so tonnes of ivory that was legally imported into China did little more than whet the appetite.”
The potential for rhinos is that, given the apparent demand for rhino horn in Asia, legalising trade would be even more catastrophic for rhinos.
Ultimately Travers upholds CITES as a vital body in preserving endangered species. Describing his extensive experience of the Convention of Parties, he is firm in the belief that trade in rhino horn will not be supported. “Let us say that 160 countries turn up with appropriate credentials. For a motion to pass would need the support of 107 countries. By the same token, for a motion to fail in this scenario it needs to be opposed by just 54 States,” he explained. “In order for a proposal to succeed it needs the support of more than two thirds of parties voting. My understanding is that the EU – 28 votes – has already, as I understand it, made it clear that it will not support a pro-trade proposal. That leaves only 26 more votes to find and, believe me, based on experience, I can already identify them and many more.”
Travers concluded by saying there is no silver bullet or one thing that will be a game changer. “But if we could clear the field by removing the spectre of legalised trade from the agenda then I can tell you one thing. It will allow us all, from all our different backgrounds, with all our different skills and energies and resources and enthusiasm and commitment to come together and end the scourge of poaching – for rhino, and maybe for elephants, for lions, abalone, cheetah – for the many species threatened by wildlife crime – for good.”