What to do about Rhino horns

Really interesting NPR story on the dilemma of the best policy approaches to limit the illegal poaching of rhinos for their horns which will soon drives the species to extinction unless action is taken.

Among the suggestions, is to legalize the market, as that will give consumers an interest in actually protecting the rhino.  Downside?

This possibility worries conservationists like Ian Craig, founder of the Northern Rangelands Trust in Kenya. He says ending the ban will lift the stigma — and cause demand to soar. He predicts that horn-selling kiosks will crop up across Vietnam not unlike cannabis coffee shops in Amsterdam.

“All the economists I’ve met say that as soon as you place a value on the animal then people are going to look after it and its going to multiply,” Craig says. “They’re not recognizing that supply could never meet the demand, and the demand is what’s killing.”

Another option, burn them, to create a strong symbolic act and shame the buyers (honestly, people who are dumb enough to think rhino horn is going to cure their hangover aren’t going to be easily shamed).  I like this summary of the ultimate policy difficulty by an explicit comparison with drug policy:

Underlying this drug-policy debate about animals is a philosophical gulf about the best way to influence human behavior. Neither side really knows what would happen if you could legally buy a packet of rhino horn in the pharmacy like Tylenol. Would the poachers go out of business, or would they become more audacious, laundering their stolen horn as legitimate? Would we ever be able to see a rhino in the wild again? “If the world at large is happy about rhino sitting in pens and farmed for their horns, then the economists are right,” says Craig, the conservationist. “If the world wants wild, free-ranging rhino, then the economists are wrong.”

And, finally, a radical solution, not at all unlike what we used to do with alcohol during prohibition– poison it:

An organization called the will, for a fee, come to your land or conservancy and use a “patented process of high-density infusion” to put poison in your rhinos’ horns. It won’t harm the animal but will make any person who ingests it “seriously ill.” As a caveat emptor, they paint the horn with indelible ink, a warning label for any would-be poacher or airport security officer alerted to the meaning of its bright pink color.

It’s not surprising that African governments will not support the contamination of horns that people eat, however misguidedly, as medicine. But some private landowners in South Africa and Namibia have poisoned their rhinos’ horns. They’re willing to let the hazards of poaching trickle down to the consumer.

Sounds great to me.  I’m all for it until convinced otherwise.  Once it becomes clear that rhino horn = poison, people will stop taking rhino horn.  Ultimately, though, what clearly needs to change is the magical thinking in certain east Asian cultures.  Not easy, but certainly not impossible.  It’s not that long ago that western medicine thought that bleeding the evil humor out of people was the key to proper medical treatment.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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