How to fit a rhino into a can
The 9th Wildlife Ranching Symposium is taking place in Windhoek as we speak. It started on Monday and carries on through Friday. One of the highlights in terms of presentations is when the chairman, Professor Wouter van Hoven defends his views on the breeding of lions in captivity. This happens on Friday morning.
The significance of the reason for choosing Windhoek as the city to host this high level meeting, must not be overlooked. This is no ordinary symposium. It brought in more than 200 delegates from 22 countries to deliberate on the future and the value of wildlife as a natural resource. In short, I would assume that most delegates support the premise that wildlife must pay for itself.
Now I realise such a statement is a gross simplification of the immense complexity that pervades wildlife utilisation and wildlife management, but I still believe my simple view is the fundamental driver behind its practical application in the community based natural resource management regime found in a myriad of places in Namibia. In essence, when a live rhino has a live value exceeding the black market value of its horn, then the community on whose land it runs free, will ensure that that rhino stays alive. And that value must not be seen as a once-off, it must continue for many years. The same applies to elephants, buffaloe, lions, leopards and even small animals like pangolins and tortoises.
One of the presentations I attended was by Ross Hyland, the Chair of the Agritech and Agbio Investment Committee in New Zealand. Mr Hyland does not come from academic or conservation circles. He is a business manager and like all of his kind, he considers profit and sustainability to be key concepts in any enterprise. Only, he takes this through to conservation arguing that if rhinos can be farmed commercially and their horns harvested every three years, then a live rhino is worth ten times a poached one.
He base his arguments on the so-called velvet trade in New Zealand where invader species like certain types of deer, have been farmed for a hundred years for their antlers and now generate revenue in the millions of Kiwi dollars. Initially, conservation minded people wanted to exterminate the deer but through a process of selection and culling, the antlers have been improved to such an extent that a buck today provides more than double the amount of velvet harvested from a buck fifty years ago. Furthermore, the population is stable and healthy and does not hold any conservation threats to the indigenous wildlife.
I met Mr Hyland socially later that day and told him I hate to break it to him but he will not find many supporters locally for his ideas of farming rhinos commercially. Of this he is aware but he also explained that there are much more value in a rhino than just a horn that can be hacked off and sent to China. A dead rhino is left in the bush, he pointed out, and only the poacher and some middle men earn something. The rest of the profits are taken by the pushers in East Asia who sell the compressed carotene to insecure lovers. “You can just as well make your own concoction from your own hair and nail clippings and use that as an aphrodisiac” he said. But a live rhino supports a whole chain of tourism-related activities while its harvested horn provides a bonus every now and then.
This is true in the biological sense but it still amazes me when I did an internet search on the chemical composition of rhino horn, how many (hundreds) of sites there are all punting the benefits derived from consuming rhino horn. This is exactly the problem and according to Mr Hyland, the primitive perceptions in East Asia will not be changed by rational science. The only thing that will work is to crash the price of rhino horn, first by legalising the trade, and then to flood the market with cheap, farmed rhino horn.
These are big issues and they always elicit emotional responses. In a week from now, the next Cites meeting starts in South Africa and it is at this meeting that members of the Wildlife Ranching Symposium will advocate to make the controlled trade in rhino horn legal. But like all matters of conservation, there are strong views, both for and against the notion of legalising the trade in rhino horn.
I realise there is no easy answer. The proponents of legalisation do not want the gates flung open, they want the breeding, harvesting and trading strictly controlled. Again, the New Zealand velvet trade was offered as workable solution. On the other hand, the opponents say that is exactly what will happen. The gates will be opened and rhinos will become extinct. I do not know who is right.