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Outside The Box: Rhino Horn Farming

March 8, 2013

When rhino horn has increased in value from $4700 a kilo twenty years ago, to $65,000 a kilo today, radical strategies are needed to address the poaching that is driving the rhino rapidly toward extinction. Kevin Charles Redmon takes a look at the possibility of rhino farming:

As parties to the international Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) meet in Bangkok this week, a team of Australian conservationists are presenting an unusual—and controversial—proposal: in order to save the remaining African rhinos, farm them for their horns.

The economic logic goes like this: demand for horn is inelastic and growing, so a trade ban (which restricts supply) only drives up prices, making the illicit good more valuable—and giving poachers greater incentive to slaughter the animal.

“Rhino horn is used for dagger handles in Yemen and has been used in Chinese traditional medicine for millennia as a presumed cure for a wide range of ailments,” explains Duan Biggs, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Queensland, in a March issue of Science. “Rapid economic growth in east and southeast Asia is assumed to be the primary factor driving the increased demand for horn.” Conservation managers have even tried preempting poachers by de-horning animals in their care, to no avail; the stubs are simply too valuable to pass up. (As documented in the 2012National Geographic article, “Rhino Wars,” African wildlife conservation has become as militarized as America’s “war on drugs,” with the same miserable failures.)

But horn harvesting need not be an all-or-nothing proposition.

“Rhino horn is composed entirely of keratin and regrows when cut,” writes Biggs. “Sedating a rhino to shave its horn can be done for as little as $20.” A white rhino produces about a kilo of horn per year, and the current global demand could be met by “farming” as few as 5,000 animals on a private, well-guarded preserve. (Natural rhino death “would also provide hundreds of horns annually,” even as the herd continues to grow at a rate near 10 percent.) The millions of dollars generated by the legal enterprise could be used to fund further conservation efforts, such as wildland preservation, sustainable rural development, and field research.

It’s not a solution that feels good. But it is a practical proposal that might actually make a difference, and the times we are in demand progress more than philosophical purity.

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