Saturday, October 01, 2016

The fate of the rhino is in the hands of the Chinese

Recently, this blog looked at the very Canada-centric issue of why the peregrine falcon should or should not be de-listed from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). But the upcoming CITES meeting in Johannesburg will have an even more knotty ethical conundrum to confront: whether the current trade ban on endangered rhinos and elephants should be lifted.
At first glance, the very idea sounds nuts. Of course, we shouldn't allow a bunch of greedy entrepreneurs to kill or maim those iconic animals in order to sate yet another ridiculous and unfounded Asian medical vice. Rhino horns, for example, are in hot demand among the newly-affluent consumers of China and Vietnam, partly as a status symbol, and partly as a purported "cure" for headaches and other ailments (in fact, the horns made of keratin, similar to human hair and fingernails, and have no medicinal value whatsoever). Powdered rhino horn sells for over US$60,000 per kilo, more than gold or cocaine.
Elephants and rhinos have seen their numbers in Africa decimated in recent years, to the point where their very survival is threatened. An estimated 111,000 elephants have been lost in the last 10 years to ivory poachers, and 1,338 rhinos were lost to poachers in the last year alone. At this rate, both species could become extinct within about 25 years.
But the point is that the numbers of these magnificent beasts have not been reduced by international trade - which is banned - but by poaching and illegal trafficking. There are some conservationists who legitimately believe that allowing hunters and ranchers to find some commercial value in the animals could serve to expand their habitat and protect their numbers in the long run. For example, John Hume, a wealthy South African businessman, keeps more rhinos on his ranch than exist in any one country except Namibia and South Africa itself. He spends about $215,000 a month on security to protect his herd, and he currently has a stockpile of rhino horn which would be worth around $300 million on the open market. As one might imagine, Mr. Hume is at the forefront of the push to legitimize the trade. But he is far from alone.
Next week's 12-day CITES meeting will be attended by a record 3,500 delegates and observers from 183 countries, and it has a very full agenda. Among those agenda items is whether to allow a limited commercial trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn, including the sale of existing stockpiles, in the interests of reducing poaching and generating income for conservation. It is not as silly an idea as it may at first sound, and it hangs on a similar argument to that employed by proponents of legalizing marijuana or other drugs: prohibition has not worked, and legalizing the trade might force out the poachers and illegal traders and replace them with a carefully regulated trade. Some advocate the regulated "harvesting" of ivory and horn without the need to kill the animals (although they will of course remain maimed in some way).
Others, mainly in the mainstream environmentalism movement, argue that any kind of legalized trade could open up a Pandora's box of unpredictable consequences, and could even stimulate new demand and allow poachers to more easily hide their illegal goods. Economists have found it impossible to convincingly predict the ultimate effects of a legalization of the trade.
There have also been the predictable accusations of "eco-colonialism", whereby it is asserted that wealthy developed countries are trying to impose their restrictions on the hapless poor countries of Africa. But, equally predictably, it is nothing like as simple as that, and a grouping of 29 African countries have banded together to call for an even stronger ivory trade ban.
An added wrinkle in the decision is that there is a strong possibility that South Africa may soon have to allow internal trade in rhino horn due to a court case (yes, Mr. Hume is at work there too) which is looking to exploit a technicality in the way the current moratorium was instituted. South Africa itself is not proposing a legalized rhino horn trade at the CITES meeting this year, but little Swaziland (which has only 73 rhinos is its national parks and wildlife sanctuaries) is, and similar proposals are being made by Namibia and Zimbabwe. So, the issue will come to a head this week, come what may.
These rhino horn and ivory legalization proposals are expected to fail next week, but the issue will almost certainly continue to rear its ugly head in future years.
To tell you the truth, I'm kind of glad it's not me making the decision. But, personally, what I think should happen - a suggestion that has been strangely conspicuous by its absence in what I have read recently - is for the world to put pressure on China and Vietnam to clamp down on the unethical vendors in their own countries, and on those ridiculous elements of their populace who insist on taking powdered rhino horn to cure a hangover. Sell them a placebo, if necessary - anything would do, and would have just as much efficacy. Ditto with shark fins, tiger bones, sea turtle shells, pangolins, and any number of other endangered animal parts that are regularly consumed in China and the Far East. Surely the key is to reduce, or even eliminate, the demand, which is a spurious one anyway.
As expected, the CITES meeting in Johannesburg has voted unequivocally (100-26) to reject the controversial proposal by Swaziland and others to legalize the sale of sale of ivory and rhino horn. Instead, stronger law enforcement, the closure of domestic markets, and stronger attempts to reduce demand from countries like China and Vietnam were recognized as the best way forward. Even China voted against the proposal, even though its public stance is for some form of legalized trade. Vietnam and Mozambique in particular were singled out as two of the countries most complicit in the illegal rhino horn trade (Vietnam as one of the two largest consumers, and Mozambique as a major source of poaching and trafficking), and trade sanctions were threatened if the countries do not make significant progress on the issue over the next year.
All of this makes a good deal of sense to me, but the divisions among different countries on the issue were palpable, and similar proposals will almost certainly be raised again next year.

No comments: