Can Farming Rhinos Save the Species?

Seth Victor

Rhino-horn-tradeKevin Charles Redmon poses an interesting thought: can farming the horns of African rhinoceroses save the species? The horns of the rhinos are used throughout the world, from dagger handles to medicine. Though the animals are endangered, and protected under CITES, there is a lucrative black market business in poaching, especially when the horns fetch $65,000 a kilo; “demand for horn is inelastic and growing, so a trade ban (which restricts supply) only drives up prices, making the illicit good more valuable—and giving poachers greater incentive to slaughter the animal.” Poachers aren’t overly concerned with the long-term extinction risks of their prey. The focus is on the immediate value. Because the activity is illegal, timing is of the essence, and it’s apparently easier to kill and harvest the rhinos versus tranquilizing and waiting for them to go down. What if, Redmon wonders, we were to harvest the horns (they re-grow over time) by placing rhinos in captivity, guarding them well, and introducing a sustainable horn supply that doesn’t kill the rhinos?

It’s not an easy question on either side. On one hand, it is hardly unheard of to take a segment of an endangered species out of the wild to raise its numbers before reintroducing a revitalized, or at least stable, population. In the United States we have done this with the California Condor, the Bison, and the Grey Wolf, just to name a few charismatic megafuana. On the other hand, this wouldn’t be a strictly preservation move. The rhinos would be farmed for their horns. While what Redmon suggests is a long way from anything like a CAFO, it’s a step that likely makes many activists and conservationists wary. CITES would also have to legalize this method of horn harvesting, giving legitimacy to further animal exploitation. Rhinos would be just another animal that exists at our whim and for our uses.

As hard as it may be to stomach, a main issue is that current enforcement of the laws against poaching are not enough to discourage people from the business (even thought World Wildlife Fund is taking a page from the Obama playbook of terrorism deterrence). Supply and demand, as often is the case, are at the core. The focus has (and remains) on limiting the demand. It would seem that there are at least 65,000 reasons why that approach is not as effective as it could be. If we can’t control demand, can’t we try to control the supply? Don’t both ends need to be addressed? For those who seek to eliminate CAFOs, it isn’t enough to promote vegetarian/vegan habits. In the meantime, the supply must also be influenced, which is why you see campaigns to end gestation crates and battery cages. Maybe legalized production of rhino horns would help assuage the demand so that poaching would not be as profitable, and would therefore be worth a more humane form for exploitation, even if it isn’t a utopian one. Maybe it would backfire and instead increase the worldwide demand. Either way, we are running out of time to make a decision.

3 Responses

  1. The premise, like that of conservationism in general, seems wrong I don’t know if farming is justifiable, but if it is, it can only be because it mitigates aggregate harm. Rhinos don’t give a tinker’s damn about species viability, extinction and conservation, and neither should we. These are (reified, extrinsic) human ideas that have no relevance to the animals themselves.

    Conservationism mirrors the market mentality that fuels poaching by making an animal’s value a function of his rarity. The uncomfortable truth is that the rhinos’ value to conservationists and hunters/consumers fluctuates in perfect lockstep. My own view is that we should care no more about a member of species nearing extinction than a member of a flourishing species. Put another way, we shouldn’t concern ourselves with species qua species any more than we do about other human categories such as race or gender.

  2. Though grateful to Google and appreciative of WWF (whose panda logo resided for many years on a side window of my mom’s car), I dislike the way conservationists de-individualize the animals. They seem to care not a whit about the rhinos’ feelings, especially their deep desire for freedom.

    The WWF write-up treats tigers, rhinos and elephants as objects for humans to manage rather than, as Tom Regan would say, “subjects of a life.” Indeed, everyone *except* the animals is mentioned in these sentences: “And everyone pays the price. Decades of conservation gains are jeopardized and fragile ecosystems are compromised. Nations are robbed of a vital natural resource and local livelihoods are affected. Law enforcement and justice is compromised and regional security is threatened.”

    If I were a rhino and were given only two choices — live free and quickly die a painful death at the hands of poachers or live in captivity and slowly die a painful death under the watchful eye of a security detail — I’d opt for the former in a heartbeat.

    But, considering the ingenuity of the human imagination and the wonders of Google technology, there’s no reason not to give rhinos a third choice: liberty *and* long life.

  3. I love BlessUsAll’s third alternative too! But as usual we’re reminded that to most the only way for other animals to be allowed to exist is if they “pay their way” in “usefulness” to humans. Lions aren’t far behind the fate of rhinos.

    They are closing down a lion “slaughterhouse” (yes, they kill them while they’re in cages) – And those who dislike the move are backing their stance with the reminder that without “utilizing” the lions (for hide, taxidermy, and even meat) then they will become extinct. In their minds – What’s the point of letting them share this earth with us if they have nothing to “contribute”. Alas – They too would like to see lions bred as a way to “conserve”. :/

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