Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Keep the Boneheads away from the Horn-heads

By Matthew D'AmbrosioPublished November 17, 2018

China’s recent decision to ease regulations on tiger and rhino parts has sparked conversation about ways to deal with poaching. Please, do not let rhino farming be one of them.

            I am considering selling my fingernail clippings.  Now, I am telling you that in confidence; do not go stealing my ideas.  Most people would dub the flakey, white overgrowth we excise from our fingers “gross,” but scientists call it “keratin.”  Keratin is the fibrous, protein material that composes our fingernails and hair as well as many other bodily accessories across the animal kingdom.  So if keratin is abundant among people and animals, why would I sell mine?  Well I have to at least try!  I cannot pass on a commodity trading at $60,000 per kilogram on the black market (nearly double its weight in gold).

            The reason for such stratospheric prices is because the keratin being traded comes from the horns of rhinos.  A poaching epidemic is targeting this regenerative lump of keratin what sits atop the buff quadruped’s nose.  Presently, demand from Vietnam and China for its role in pseudo-medicine and business status is accelerating the killing. 

             Rhinos are imperiled.  Do not be fooled by other contemporary stories of slow, but successful, wildlife conservation.  Black rhinos, for example, have lost 96% of their ranks since the 1970s.  Initially, that seems quite grim compared to white rhinos (the other African species).  They recovered from less than 100 individuals at the turn of the century to now numbering 20,000—mostly in the Republic of South Africa.  These oft-parroted statistics suggest that black rhinos are struggling while white rhinos thrive.  This would be misleading.  Poaching in South Africa alone spiked by 9,000% between 2007-2014.  In 2017, over 1,000 slaughters occurred in the country that houses 80% of world’s 35,000 rhinoceroses.  Needless to say, we need a solution.  But we cannot accept just any proposal—no matter how hard John Hume foists himself upon us. 

            Mr. Hume is an elderly, bespectacled gentleman with an old-school, Afrikaner accent and a legal rhino farm with a head count of 1,000.  Contradicting his taciturn demeanor, Mr. Hume gives interviews to anybody who will listen to his opining on the prohibition of rhino horn trade.  He is becoming a gadfly for conservationists who find themselves unable to read any update on rhino poaching without his name being shoehorned into the article.  National Geographic?  He’s there.  New York Times?  Yep.  TEDx?  Hi, John. 

            Mr. Hume argues that instead of preventing rhino horn from reaching the unrelenting Asian black market, we should work with the economic forces and farm rhinos to sustainably meet demand.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this idea.  Rhino horn grows back, and it can be painlessly harvested once every two years.  And Americans farm threatened bison for meat without problems.  Moreover, rhinoceroses are odd-toed ungulates and thus related to domestic horses.  Plus, think about it, what really are rhinos other than funkier, more aggressive cows?  Rhino farming is a bad idea, but rhino ranches themselves are not the point of contention.

            Rhino farming is a bad idea because it may encourage greater rhino poaching as it institutionalizes and entrenches rhino horn as a legal commodity in Asia.  In order for farms like Mr. Hume’s to remain profitable, the horn must sell at above a certain price.  Poaching syndicates could simply undercut that price point.  Because it is infinitely cheaper to shoot a wild animal than it is to raise, feed and house a domestic one, the illegal traders would still prosper at a lower premium.  And riding the wave of normalized demand would present more opportunities for traders to profit.  One analysis of the situation concluded that rhino farming could be feasible if the number of farmers and black market suppliers was favorable, predictable, and stable.  However, it is ridiculous to think that anything in the wildlife trafficking industry could be guaranteed.  The study outlined how even a 3:1 ratio of farmers to traders could sentence rhinos to extinction.

            Still, we do not need to rely on economic models to forecast extinction when we can observe a similar situation already playing out.  There are ~8,000 privately owned tigers across ~200 farms in Southeast Asia.  It is difficult to discern exact numbers because while some are brazen slaughterhouses quietly authorized by the Chinese and Vietnamese governments, many shoddily run sanctuaries have been outed as fronts for pelt and bone mills.  If semi-legal tiger farms are supplying the market with parts, why does the Environmental Investigation Agency call southeast Asian tigers “functionally extinct?”

            How to stop poaching is too multi-faceted of a discussion to have in one opinion piece.  The question of whether or not rhino farming is a valuable asset to that discussion is not.  We recognize that Mr. Hume and other potential farmers who wish to profit off of this morose, international crisis have nothing to offer us.  Hopefully, the people of East and Southeast Asia will soon realize that keratin has nothing to offer them.