Legal trade and military-style protection may help, but ultimately elephants and rhinos will not survive with their ecological function intact unless demand and price falls
From NatureUp : Astonishing numbers of elephants and rhinos are being poached across Africa. Between 25,000 and 40,000 elephants are likely to be illegally killed there this year. South Africa, home to about 80% of the continent’s rhinoceroses, is projected to lose between 900 and 1,000 of those primeval beasts to poachers by Christmas, up from a mere 13 in 2007.
Governments and conservation organisations are struggling to contain the rising carnage, a result of increasing demand for rhino horn and ivory in Asia, especially in China, Vietnam and Thailand.
I recently wrote about some proposed solutions to the problem for two US-based environmental magazines, Ensia and Yale e360. Although I’ve followed the poaching issue for years, researching these articles has heightened my sense of it being, to use an appropriate metaphor, a“blind-men-and-an-elephant” problem.
Stopping the onslaught of poachers is a daunting, complicated task. It requires understanding the economics of the illegal wildlife trade, the methods of the criminals engaging in it, the psychology of those buying its products and the biology of the animals being killed.
Many experts that I’ve interviewed understand only part of the problem and the solutions they propose are strongly coloured by personal expertise. Unsurprisingly, economists often put forward market-based solutions, legislators push more laws, police want better law enforcement, soldiers say they need more drones and guns, politicians think more speeches and treaties are useful, and conservationists with no deep experience in any of these fields tend to favour whichever solutions they’re most exposed to.
Most of those trying to save elephants and rhinos are intensely emotionally invested in their struggle. I can relate to them, because every time I encounter wild elephants I’m amazed by their power, their intelligence and their sense of fun. Rhinos are perhaps the nearest living thing we have to dinosaurs. The thought of the next generation not being able to experience these pachyderms is heartbreaking. We’ve recently lost the Western black rhino and the Vietnamese subspecies of Javan rhino to poachers, so the fear of further extinctions is not at all irrational.
But this desperate emotional investment combined with many individuals’ limited exposure to aspects of the poaching problem has led, in my opinion, to an unhelpful amount of conflict among conservationists and the decision-makers whose actions will decide the future of elephants and rhinos.
Opposing views have become strongly entrenched, and instead of acknowledging that there can be disagreement among honest people about the solutions to wildlife crime, many activists are quick to demonise those with differing ideas. Instead of asking more questions and together exploring the possible implications of various courses of action (because no one can, in my opinion, cover enough mental ground to take it all in alone) many pay lip service to the complexity of the issue and refuse to engage meaningfully with the “‘opposition” who, as it happens, want to save elephants and rhinos just as much as they do.
One extremely divisive potential solution that I explore in my Ensia articleis to re-legalise the international trade in rhino horn, which has been largely banned since 1976. South African state and private stockpiles contain over 18 tonnes of horn recovered from dead animals and de-horning operations, which could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars if it were allowed to be sold at today’s black market prices. The only people currently making money from the rhino horn trade are criminals, and it’s extraordinarily frustrating to some rhino custodians that they could fund conservation by selling these stockpiles if they were allowed to sell them.
Another potential solution is to adopt military equipment and tactics in the fight against poachers. This is the first-used option of many wildlife managers, and understandably so. Poachers don’t drop in with jasmine garlands in their hair to politely present you with tea and a plate of home-baked cookies; they’re often blooded, hard men with military training and increasingly sophisticated weapons who are a threat not just to animals but to people. I’d want my own squad of hard men with guns if I managed a wildlife reserve.
Military-style solutions to poaching are popular because there are many examples that when looked at in isolation seem to confirm their success, albeit success that comes at a high price in dollars and human lives. (Military-grade equipment costs millions, and poachers and game rangers are regularly killed in firefights.)
Game rangers training at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya. Photograph: Adam Welz
For example, when I visited the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in late 2011, they’d lost five of their famous rhinos that year to poachers. In response, they’d recently employed a just-retired British soldier to train a new anti-poaching squad equipped with Heckler and Koch assault rifles. Ol Pejeta lost no rhinos to poachers in 2012, and has lost only one so far this year.
But poaching in Kenya as a whole has gone up since 2011. The rhino and elephant slaughterers may be avoiding Ol Pejeta, but they’re hitting less well-protected areas of the country. As I explain in my Yale e360 article, researchers of the illegal drug trade call this the “balloon effect”. If you push down drug production in one area — for example by destroying coca crops in one part of Colombia — it pops up elsewhere. It’s simply proved impossible to control illegal activity across large, remote areas when a lucrative market for that activity’s products — eg cocaine — persists. Despite the US having spent billions on enforcement and interdiction operations in Latin America as part of the “war on drugs”, drug production remains high and murderous drug smuggling gangs remain extremely powerful. As many observers point out, the same criminals who smuggle drugs also often smuggle illegal wildlife products.
Some people have already started breeding rhino and regularly harvesting their horns in anticipation of legal trade. (The horn contains no nerves, so cutting it off is painless, and it grows back over a few years. No equivalent procedure is practical for elephants.) Their idea is to ensure the future of rhinos by create a profitable business supplying horn over the long term, which would pay for their expensive security and incentivise more people to breed them.
This might work. If legal horn farming turns out to be profitable, we might end up with many more rhinos than we have today. I’m concerned about what sort of rhinos those will be, though, because the most economical way to keep them for horn harvesting purposes is in dense concentrations, a bit like cattle in paddocks, where it’s cheaper to manage and guard them compared to when they’re free-ranging in large, wild areas.
Initiating a legal trade in rhino horn or ivory will not automatically remove the incentive to poach rhinos and elephants. A black market in these commodities is likely to persist if retail prices remain high, and there is no shortage of poor people in Africa who will risk their lives for the prospect of earning a life-changing amount of cash by shooting one animal, especially when the chances of being caught are low. This means that even those rhino custodians who aren’t involved in the horn trade and who aren’t managing their animals for maximum profit may be forced to confine their rhinos to small “intensive protection zones”, because it’s near-impossible to protect wide-ranging animals across massive, rugged areas like the large national parks and wilderness areas of Africa.
If the only practical way that we can protect animals is to confine them to small areas, the only sorts of rhinos and elephants we’ll have will be ecologically useless ones. They’ll look like the beasts we know, but they’ll no longer be able to fulfill their vital roles in the forests, savannas and drylands. Africa will have “paper pachyderms” to complement its many “paper parks“, those national parks which exist on maps but serve no real conservation purpose because they’re not managed and have been destroyed by settlers, miners and hunters.
Rhinos and elephants are ecosystem engineers, which means that Africa’s iconic ecosystems look and work the way they do because these animals have helped shape them over millions of years. Elephants and black rhinos maintain savannas by knocking down trees and munching bushes. White rhinos create “grazing lawns” for other herbivores to feed on. Elephants spread the seeds of forest trees and dig waterholes in dry river beds that countless other animals rely on to get through the dry season. All megaherbivores transport vital nutrients through landscapes. If wide-ranging elephants and rhinos are removed from Africa, its ecosystems will change fundamentally.
I’m not sure how large numbers of ecologically functional rhinos and elephants will survive unless the demand for and the price that users are prepared to pay for their products comes down drastically, which is why I’ve come to believe that persuading people not to buy rhino horn and new ivory, so-called “demand reduction”, is ultimately the most relevant part of the multi-faceted struggle to save these magnificent animals and the grand, diverse ecosystems that they’re part of. YouTube movies, social media campaigns and thousands of people talking to their friends might not be as sexy as machine gun-toting, drone-flying anti-poaching armies, but I think they’re worth far more investment and attention than they’re currently receiving.
I know that by saying this I’m opening myself up to attack. I’ve already been accused of being seduced by an organisation called WildAid that believes strongly in demand reduction and been lambasted on social media for writing about legal trade, which, apparently, is so wrong an idea that it shouldn’t even be mentioned in public. I’ve also been told that writers like me shouldn’t have opinions on the things they write about, even though I try to be clear about when I’m reporting as neutrally as possible on issues and when I’m delivering opinions on them.
If you, dear reader, are inclined to join the mud-slinging parade, please consider the following: I’m open to the possibility that my view of the potential and importance of demand reduction is because I’m a biased “blind man” who has spent a large chunk of his life working in the media, and none in law enforcement, the military or commerce. I might not have understood significant parts of the poaching problem, so I’m not claiming to have the answer. I’m not even advocating the removal of emotion from the debate.
What I am saying is that I’m not sure how large, ecologically functional populations of rhinos and elephants will survive across their historic ranges in Africa (and Asia) if the price of and demand for newly harvested rhino horn and ivory remain high. I remain curious about solutions to the poaching problem and am open to changing my mind in the face of new information and argument. I hope you are, too.