Debate: Should the global trade of rhino horn be legalised?

by - August 05, 2016

A couple of days ago my friend and I went to the debate at the Royal Institution of Great Britain on whether the trade of rhino horn should be legalised internationally. It was between John Hume, the largest private rhino breeder in South Africa, and Will Travers, the CEO and President of the Born Free Foundation, and moderated by Craig Packer, a professor of ecology. 
We voted for or against at the beginning and the end. The initial vote showed that 62% were against, 30% were for and 8% were undecided. After the debate, 60% were against and 39% were for, with only 1% undecided. Therefore, more people were against legal trade, but more people changed their mind to support John Hume. I'm sure you all can guess that I voted for both times. I was disappointed that not more people did. 
I don't know much about Will Travers and I do not want to overly criticise him, however I was surprised he won. The audience was very passionate and so the debate was actually an hour longer than expected, because people felt so strongly on both sides. 
To me, Will Travers seemed like a preservationist/protectionist. He talked about how we shouldn't interfere with nature and the wild should be left wild. He talked a lot about the risks associated with a legal trade. I wanted to ask him, although I didn't get the chance, at what point would he risk extinction? He never really acknowledged that rhinos are heading for extinction. We don't live in the ideal world he seemed to want where humans don't interfere with wildlife. Whether you think it's right or wrong, there reaches a point where it is necessary for the sake of the wildlife; conservation vs preservation. It's idealistic and I think it helped win people over. 
John Hume spoke a lot about his rhinos. He spoke with emotion and passion, and used his own life to demonstrate the rhino crisis. Although some people felt he was making too much of a point of his own rhinos, and Will Travers was talking more globally, I disagreed. I think it is so important to listen to the people who are actually looking after the rhinos. No one knows better than them exactly what problems they are facing. I think it is easy for people from London to go and listen to the debate, and hear some facts, figures and stories and then make a decision without fully understanding the issue. John Hume understands it better than anyone. Now I'm not saying to understand rhino poaching you have to go to Africa and live on a rhino reserve, but I think we should take into account what the people who are doing that think. It's their whole lives. When we don't listen to the people who fight this war every single day, then what's the point?
It also worries me because people like John Hume need our support. The results of this debate worried me because it showed that people will listen to a man in a nice suit over a rhino breeder. They are both experts in their field, and I do not doubt Will Travers' research and experience, but John Hume has given his money and life to this cause. He risks everything to help save these animals, and people didn't listen to him. 
What annoyed me about the debate was that Will Travers referred to other solutions that would be less risky and more helpful. As far as I can tell, he didn't name them. The only other solution I heard was to stamp out the demand. Members of the audience were vocal about this as they know that when the buying stops there will be no need for any trade in rhino horn, legal or otherwise. I do not dispute this. Of course I want to continue increasing awareness globally, and particularly in countries such as China and Vietnam that rhino horn has no medicinal purpose whatsoever, for their own sakes just as much as for the rhino's. However, I do not think we have enough time to do this before rhinos reach extinction in the wild. Time is not on our side and the market is too big. I think people who believe killing the market is the only solution, are naive. Will Travers tried to point out the negatives of a legal trade without presenting a realistic solution to replace this. 
Another argument Will Travers made was that it is arguably unethical to sell a product we know does not do what people who buy it think it does. I agree, but how many products do people buy on a daily basis that don't do what they think they're going to? Now this doesn't make it right, but its not as if it's unheard of. Secondly, as I said previously, education should work along side a legal trade. We should continue to tell people that rhino horn does not have medicinal value, even while selling the products legally. An analogy I sometimes use is smoking. When you buy cigarettes in the UK (and possibly elsewhere, I'm not sure) it says in big letters on the packet "Smoking Kills" or something similar, such as a nasty side effect, and a picture of often someone's lungs or arteries that have been effected by smoking. This is a legal requirement to make people aware of the health risks. 
People still smoke!
The moral of the story being, people are going to do what they want. If they like something or believe in it; they're going to buy it. I also think this analogy highlights a good way to package rhino horn products. In the ingredients section on the label I think it should read "keratin" and not rhino horn to remind people it's just hair, and it should even have written that there is no scientific proof that it has medicinal value. Then people know what they're buying, and it's their choice if they still buy it. This doesn't happen with illegal trade because there are no regulations. Legal trade has regulations that can be put in place and controlled. 
Will Travers made a point about a legal trade not necessarily meaning the end of poaching. He pointed out that if the price to buy rhino horn legally is say $30,000; then the poaching syndicates can sell rhino horn at $20,000. Obviously this makes sense at face value, but a legal trade will severely harm the black market. Rhino poaching is a very dangerous job. When you enter a reserve to poach a rhino, you are risking your life. It's appeal is the huge sums of money made (although of course those actually doing the poaching do not receive the bulk of this money, but it's still a lot more than they could make elsewhere). If this prize money gets lower and lower, it becomes less appealing. 
John Hume acknowledged that legal trade will probably not mark an end on all poaching, but it will dramatically decrease it. What John Hume did so well was focus on the fact we are talking about keeping a species alive. There's no easy option; no quick fix; no one solution. We have to do what we can, and fast, to prevent losing this iconic species. 

No one is arguing that a legal trade is perfect. No one is suggesting that we legalise the trade, sit back, relax and let things happen. It does not mark the end of saving rhinos. 
What I believe it can do, is bring the species back from the point of extinction. 

This blog post is my opinion. Obviously, based on the debate results and the opinions flying around the room, it is not the only opinion to have on the topic. I know not everyone will always share my view, but I urge people to consider what could happen to the species if a legal trade is not introduced. 

You May Also Like


  1. Julian Sturgeon
    Lovely blog! In 1995 I was part of a group that started an NGO in South Africa about community based conservation, and our first project was called 'A voice for the Voiceless' - so your blog resonates with us! I will certainly post it on Twitter. Just a few observations. I know John Hume pretty well and have visited his farms on a number of occasions. He has 5% of the world's white rhino on his farm, and anyone who cares about this marvelous species owes John a huge debt of gratitude. People attack him for the most outrageous reasons, yet he protects over 1000 animals and this costs a small fortune every month. He needs support. To visit his farm is like going to Jurassic Park. To see 50 or 60 rhinos feeding together is beyond any description. Just a few observations about your blog - a friend of mine also attended the debate and he said the protectionists know how to sell their argument. Yet they have no real solutions. The attempt to suppress demand for an ancient trade has so far had zero effect - unlike the shark fin trade, which is a very recent phenomenon. Yet they persist with the argument that trade is destructive. ILLEGAL trade is destructive. When all is said and done, we are all going to lament the loss of the rhino species, and while that debate was taking place it is a racing certainty that at least one rhino was killed in the Kruger Park. But there is a bottom line, which the preservationists ignore, and it is this. Loss of habitat is the greatest killer of biodiversity. The only way we can ensure the survival of mega-species like rhino and elephant is to make their existence, outside of protected areas, a viable land use option. This means that trade in elephant and rhino related products is the only thing that can save them. Moreover, it is entirely feasible that rhino horn and ivory can satisfy global demand without the necessity of killing a single animal. Several studies have examined this possibility. And since rural African communities share the habitat of these species, they are critical players. This should be the foundation of an initiative to transform the illegal trade in horn and ivory into a legal, transparent and sustainable program that ensures conservation of biological diversity and also provides rural communities with a significant income. This is a win-win scenario that protectionists dismiss out of hand, yet they offer no solution other than enforcement. And after decades of applying this 'solution' we are worse off than ever before. If only the protectionists would start listening to these arguments.

  2. To avoid extinction, I think legislation should help to criminalize the commercialization if rhino horns!