In the year 2014, 1 215 rhinoceroses were killed by poachers in South Africa. Each year, their numbers continue to dwindle due to poaching. Rhino horn is incredibly sought after in many East Asian nations due to its perceived medicinal qualities. The black rhino and the white rhino used to have a range all across sub-Saharan Africa stretching from the Southern African low-veld to as far north as Somalia, with multiple subspecies flourishing in different regions. Today, the vast majority of rhinos left in the wild are in South Africa. Decades of war, strife and bad governance in Africa have made them sitting ducks for poachers anywhere north of the Limpopo river. South Africa’s conservationists are now faced with the enormous task of saving a species.
Sadly, if recent statistics are anything to go by, the work of our conservationists has been in vain as the rhino populations continue to decrease. I find it amazing that poachers are able to infiltrate high profile nature reserves such as the Kruger National Park and be able to remove the rhino’s horn (often while it is still alive) and leave without getting caught literally hundreds of times every year. At this current rate, we will likely witness the extinction of the rhino in our lifetime unless drastic changes are made.
I personally believe that many changes could be made to help the rhino survive. As somewhat of an animal lover, this issue is very close to my heart and I would be devastated to see this species go extinct. Here, I’d like to outline the hypothesis I have for saving the rhino in South Africa using free-market principles.
Encourage private game reserves
One of South Africa’s main tourist attractions is its game reserves where people get to drive around in the wild and view animals in their natural habitat. We are particularly lucky to have such amazing reserves as the Kruger National Park and the Hluhluwe-Umflozi Game Reserve as well as smaller surrounding reserves, many of which have no physical separation between their borders allowing the animals to roam free.
Many of South Africa’s nature reserves are governed by the larger government organisation called SANParks. As usual, with government involvement comes deprivation of liberty and government sponsored nature reserves are naturally going to also include government sponsored regulations. A key example would be something like the fact that visitors to the Kruger Park are largely not allowed to go game viewing after a certain time in the evening. By contrast, a private game reserve – such as Ingwelala where I usually go – has much more relaxed regulations regarding traversing the reserve and members are allowed to traverse the reserve at any time of day or night. In terms of tourism, government regulations or bureaucracy can only hinder a place’s potential to attract tourists and so dismiss valuable profits which could go towards conservation.
I think the model on which Ingwelala works would be a good example of how private game reserves could be more effective for conservationists. Ingwelala is made up of just over 200 share blocks. If a share block becomes available to be sold, people may purchase that block which allows them a share in the reserve as well as a bungalow in the camp and traversing rights for the reserve itself. This private model gives every person that visits the reserve a sense of ownership and responsibility. It creates a genuine concern for the well being of the reserve because those who visit it are not just temporary visitors, but also owners.
Conversely, a reserve such as the Kruger only has temporary visitors who are much less likely to care for its well-being once they have left. I can state with great confidence that there is not a single shareholder at Ingwelala who does not have a passion for the bushveld and wants to see an end to the plight of the rhino. It is this type of tourism that we need to be encouraging.
In addition to this, the private sector has one piece of capitalistic magic which the public sector does not: competition. Competition among private reserves will encourage their owners to keep a diversity of flora and fauna. While I do believe that the main motive here is that of people’s love of wildlife, the profit motive is an undeniable force in a free market. From a free-market perspective, it makes sense to look after our wildlife as it is a source of fame and attracts tourists.
Currently, rhino horn is worth more that its weight in gold in some Asian nations. An economic problem that conservationists face is the basic economic principle that the availability of a product is inversely proportional to its market value. As the rhino populations dwindle, they become harder to find and so the price of rhino horn increases which increases the incentive of poachers to get rhino horn. This is also why burning confiscated piles of rhino horn and ivory is an utterly horrendous act which helps no-one and only hurts the rhino.
The unfortunate fact is that we are seeing a trend with rhino horn that has happened throughout history: ban something and people will use criminal means to get hold of it creating an underworld of crime. Such was the case in America during Prohibition and is still the case with the outlawing of recreational drugs in most countries. The logical solution at this stage of the game is to allow for the commercial farming of rhinos. This way, the Asian markets will not have to rely on poachers to supply them. It is far more attractive to any consumer to get your goods legally rather than illegally. If we start farming rhinos for their horn, poaching the animals will become an obsolete and unnecessarily dangerous illegal practice.
What’s more, rhinos commercially farmed won’t even have to be killed to have their horns harvested. Many a time, poachers in game reserves don’t intend to kill the animal per se, but rather dart it and chop off its horn below the flesh line which causes the poor rhino to painfully bleed to death. Farmers could simply remove the rhino’s horn leaving the animals completely unharmed (albeit without a horn).
Now, I am an avid lover of our wildlife and so I can understand many people’s reluctance to turn to farming. Something to remember is that we are not just striving to save the rhino from extinction, we are striving to save it from becoming extinct in the wild. If we were to see the next generation of rhinos become domesticated, this might defeat the very objective which conservationists strive towards. I agree in principle that rhinos are feral animals and should remain as such, however, it has become more than evident that with the current plight of the rhino, we are left with little alternative. Besides, farming will not affect the rhino populations still living in the wild. One should also remember that this would not be the first time that the species will be saved through the profit motive. It was thanks to the thinking of Ian Player that the white rhino was saved from extinction through hunting in the 1960s.
Even if we do all of this, I firmly believe that the issue of rhino poaching will only go away for good once we can get the Asian nations involved. There needs to be some kind of program to educate people in rhino horn-demanding nations about the ecological crisis which animals are facing. We need to be able to teach the people of these countries that rhino horn is made of the same material as our own hair and nails and has no medicinal properties. Until we can properly instill this kind of knowledge into the population of the Orient, there will always be a demand for rhino horn.
This is by no means a be-all and end-all solution. Rather, I have outlined steps which I believe if taken, can seriously get us back on track to saving the rhinoceros. Let us not say to our future grandchildren and children that we sat by while a part of our wildlife was poached to extinction.