Should We Legalize the Rhino Horn Trade to Protect Rhinos?

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. RayMorris1

Animal reserves in Africa are fighting a losing battle. No matter what measures they take, they can't protect their rhinos from the market demands for their horns. With the threat of poaching ever present, many animal reserves have taken to de-horning their rhinos. But even that drastic measure, though it increases the chance of rhino survival by about 30 percent, isn't enough to stop poaching.

The demand is so high that poachers go after de-horned rhinos for the 10 percent of horn that is left after a removal. As if those challenges weren't bad enough, there are cases of those who are meant to be protecting these animals profiting from the rhino horn trade.

Nature conservancies already make efforts to keep track of their animals, have anti-poaching squadrons and high levels of security, and that hasn't been enough. But would poachers profit if the rhino horn trade were made legal?

The legalization discussion usually centers on drugs. The idea is that legalizing drugs would help de-criminalize the drug trade, and some economists believe the same logic could be applied to the rhino trade and perhaps save rhinos from extinction.

"As long as there is money to be made, the poachers will find a way to poach, to corrupt officials, they'll find a way to get their supply," Rheinhardt Schulze, a nature guide and business man in South Africa who has studied the issue, told TreeHugger. "It's very difficult for conservation efforts to work when the demand lies outside of the borders. The demand lies in other countries."

For Schulze, whose family owns a private game reserve, multi-layered solutions, like changing cultural values and assessing business strategies need to be studied in further detail.

Rhino poaching has been particularly bad in South Africa. In 2013, more than 1000 rhinos were killed and as their populations dwindle, conservationists expect rhinos to go extinct by 2020. Current conservation efforts are not effective enough to prevent this, but it's difficult to assess the consequences of trade legalisation from a purely theoretical standpoint.

Recently, researchers proposed using the profits from a legal rhino horn trade to cover conservation costs - especially since rhino horns would bring in a lot of money. But building a sustainable and legal rhino horn trade has its challenges and it's also controversial. It takes a couple of years for the horn to come back and rhinos have long gestation periods - they reproduce slowly. The process of de-horning is also costly. Save The Rhino, a conservancy charity, estimates that de-horning costs between US $620 and $1,000 per animal.

"Cutting horn from a rhino, presumably in captivity, would still require immobilizing with drugs every time you do it," Anthony Sinclair, professor at the University of British Columbia, told us. "This whole process is highly stressful. Animal welfare would not condone such a thing."

The question is, if de-horning is already being practiced for conservation purposes, would it be a stretch to profit from it? On the other hand, de-horning has not eliminated poaching threats, so are there more sustainable solutions to be uncovered?

"There are so many unknowns about how the markets would respond," said Ray Hilborn, from the University of Washington. "However the problem of poaching rhinos has gotten so bad that perhaps there will be a more serious consideration."

Should the rhino horn trade be legal?