Rhino populations are facing a very serious threat. The International Union for The Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports that poachers in Africa killed at least 1,338 rhinos during 2015. This is part of a continuing crisis that has resulted in a total of 5,940 rhinos being poached to date. With a 9,000% increase in occurrence since 2007, this has rapidly become the greatest threat to the populations of white and black rhinos, two species whose numbers have recently been brought back from the brink of extinction thanks to extensive conservation efforts. This raises two questions. Why are so many people illegally killing rhinos, and what can be done about it?
Asian Demand for Horns
The answer to the former question lies in the most distinctive feature of rhinos, their horn. In Asia, rhino horns are used for traditional medicines, allegedly holding the cure for a multitude of ailments ranging from hangovers to cancer. It is also increasingly becoming a symbol of status and success in these emerging markets, where many people have disposable income for the first time. This has clearly created a very strong demand for rhino horns in Asia, particularly Vietnam, which has warranted prices of $60,000 per kilo. By weight, that’s more expensive than gold. That’s some serious bling.
A Black Market and Its Consequences
Where there is a demand for something, a market will form to meet it. This will happen regardless of any government prohibitions to prevent it from occurring. Of course, this doesn’t stop politicians from trying, and black markets are formed in response. This is precisely what has happened with the markets for drugs, prostitution, and, yes, rhino horns. It is illegal to buy or sell rhino horns in Africa and most of Asia.
Prohibitions are created by well-meaning (and sometimes not so well-meaning) protectionist politicians who would like to see a certain action they deem evil, such as profiting from the sale of rhino horns, stopped. The problem is that the consequences of these prohibitions are, without fail, worse than the actions they are intended to eliminate and they often exacerbate those actions as well. The rhino horn prohibition is no exception.
It is the government’s prohibition of the horn trade that is the root cause of the disastrous increase in poaching. If it is illegal for the rightful owners of rhinos to sell the horns of their rhinos, the only way to meet the demand is to resort to poaching rhinos, particularly wild ones located in state-run reserves, instead.
Oddly enough, it is not illegal to remove the horns of rhinos if they are not later sold, prompting both governments and the few private owners to saw off the horns of their rhinos in attempts to keep them from being targeted by poachers. The South African government has vast amounts of horns sitting in storage. This poses the crucial question. If the laws aren’t actually to protect the rhino’s horns, why do they even exist?
Privatization And Legalization
If governments and animal rights activists wish to put an end to the poaching epidemic, the solution is clear: private property and free markets. All laws criminalizing the trade of rhino horns should be repealed and as many rhinos as possible should be put in the hands of private owners. Not only would this solve the poaching crisis, it would solve any worries of rhino populations dwindling in the future.
If the trade of rhino horns was legal, it would no longer be necessary for poachers to kill rhinos under the cover of darkness for their horns. Merchants could simply purchase them from rhino farmers, just like grocery stores purchase cuts of sirloin or pork. The welfare of rhinos is further guaranteed because it would be hugely important for the rhino’s owners to provide them with as much care and safety as possible, as the rhinos now have a realizable economic value to them. If a rhino is harmed or killed in any manner, its owner stands to lose a large sum of money. The farmers’ livelihoods would depend on their rhinos, and vice-versa. It should be stressed further that it is far from necessary that a rhino be killed for its horn to be removed, and if properly done a horn will regrow.
Not only would the lives of existing rhinos be securer than ever under a system of private ownership and free trade, it is conceivable that the total population of rhinos would increase as well. It is clear that at the current extremely high prices being paid for horns that demand for them greatly outweighs the available supply. Legalizing trade will immediately do a great deal to change this with existing rhino populations. However, it is very possible that the current rhino population is wholly insufficient, and if so market forces would motivate farmers to breed rhinos, increasing their population, until the market was brought towards equilibrium.
This reveals why it is also of the utmost importance that private owners and not governments handle the rhino trade. Government management makes the whole system fall apart, as it lacks the necessary tools to effectively manage profit and loss. The welfare of governments does not depend on the rhinos and they have very little incentive to care for them or preserve them. As trade in rhinos themselves can’t take place if the government is the sole owner, it is also impossible for market prices to form, making it impossible for them to determine the proper population of rhinos or how much resources to devote to their care. This is a perfect concoction for waste, mismanagement, and devastation.
In the absence of government and in the presence of free markets, the demand for a rhino’s horns would be the greatest insurance of the animal’s survival, not its greatest threat. Nobody, after all, worries about the extinction of chickens or cows. The time has come to legalize and privatize rhinos and their horns.
Nathan Keeble helped start the Campaign to End Civil Asset Forfeiture in Tennessee.