We harvest wool from sheep – could we do the same with rhino horns?

Increasingly, legalising the harvesting of rhino horn is being looked upon as a viable solution to save the unicorn’s ugly cousin. However, it’s a controversial topic and environmentalists are divided.

The rise and rise of medicinal horn

The market for rhino horn is growing, largely in Vietnam where consumers will pay in excess of $65,000 for a single kilogram of horn. With such substantial money to be made, poaching of Africa’s rhino’s has escalated markedly in the past few years – 2013 broke 2012’s record for the most animals killed, and the number continues to grow. Whilst in 2007, only 17 were killed in the entire year, it’s estimated that today 3 are killed every 24 hours. If this trend continues, rhinos could be poached from the wild within a decade.

By killing and removing the horn, rather than anesthetising and trimming, poaches are able to remove the horn that lies beneath the skin. Image credit: Hein waschefort [CC-BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons.
By killing and removing the horn, rather than anesthetszing and trimming, poaches are able to remove the horn that lies beneath the skin. Image credit: Hein waschefort [CC-BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons.
The rise in horn’s popularity has been partly attributed to rumours that it miraculously cured a Vietnamese minister’s relative from cancer. This is despite efforts by conservationists to drive down demand through education. It was hoped that by informing users of the findings of numerous studies that demonstrate rhino horn has no medicinal effect, popularity would fall. Evidently, education isn’t happening quickly enough to help the rhinos.

Harvesting Horn

Education, whilst crucial, is clearly not sufficiently effective to stop the decimation of rhino populations. It has thus been proposed that, like we take wool from sheep, rhino horns could also be harvested.

Horn destined for sale seized by the UK Border Agency. Image credit: ukhomeoffice [CC-BY-2.0] via Wikimedia Commons.
From a molecular perspective, there is little difference between sheep’s wool and rhino’s horn: both are made from keratin – the same substance that also makes up human hair and finger nails. The horn grows back within 2 years if trimmed appropriately and the process is painless, with the animal grazing again within 20 minutes. It is hoped that by flooding the market with both harvested rhino horns and the 18 tonnes of horn currently in stockpiles around the world, the price of horn would be driven down. With less money available on offer, there would be reduced incentives for poachers to kill.

Also, if the rhinos become of greater commercial value alive than dead, it is likely to increase the commitment of governments and individuals to their overall conservation. With profits set to be made from the successful protection of the species, far more attention and money is expected to be devoted to their plight.

One vocal supporter of the proposal is Australian Damien Mander, an ex-Sniper and something of a minor celebrity for the cause (here’s an interesting article from National Geographic ). An environmental activist, Mander has what he describes as a “military approach to conservation”, using technology such as unmanned drones to tackle poaching operations that use AK-47’s and helicopters.  Mander explains that it is essential to ensure rhinos are worth more alive than dead: “with the harvesting of just three horns annually, they (land holders) can buy more land and breed more rhino, and overall, protect more biodiversity”.

…but not everyone agrees.

A female White Rhino and her calf in South Africa, home to more than 80% of Africa's rhinos. Image credit: James Temple (CC-BY-2.0) via Wikimedia Commons.
A female White Rhino and her calf in South Africa, home to more than 80% of Africa’s rhino population. Image credit: James Temple (CC-BY-2.0) via Wikimedia Commons.

Opponents argue that poaching would continue despite regulated trades, as the costs associated with illegal kills would be lower than the cost of sustainable harvesting. Also, the general anaesthetic given to the rhino – like all anasesthetics – is not without risk. Even leading rhino conservation organisations such as ‘Save the Rhino’ have an uncertain stance: “(we) do not necessarily… support a legal trade horn trade. Our Trustees are currently seeking advice and answers”.

Horn harvesting is certainly a controversial issue even amongst groups who share the common goal of ensuring the rhino’s long term survival. However, considering the failure of current strategies to reduce poaching, it may be the approach required to halt the slaughter of rhinos.

Also check out:

– The ABC’s great documentary on the subject ‘Head First: Blood Rhino’, which aired on July, 2014.

– Douglas Adams awesome book on species conservation ‘Last Chance to See’ (which you should just read anyway because it’s hilarious and excellent). It devotes a chapter to rhino conservation in general.

2 Responses to “We harvest wool from sheep – could we do the same with rhino horns?”

  1. jwhinfield says:

    I hadn’t come across the story of the Vicuna before, so thanks very much for bringing that to my attention,Julianna!

    There’s certainly no quick fix for rhino poaching. And yes, the success of any legal harvesting would definitely depend upon the quality of regulation and law enforcement. However, given the large amount of money South Africa as a nation could gain from a well-regulated trade, there is incentive for the government to do so. There is the also the knowledge that the extinction of the rhino would be a financial loss for the country. Furthermore, it may have the support of importing countries since a legal trade is expected to drive down prices for consumers.

    While I don’t think harvesting is a particularly desirable way to save the rhinos, there doesn’t seem to be too many other options – certainly despite years of education, demand for horn for medicinal usage is only increasing.

    I suppose only time will tell!

  2. jrozek says:

    It’s truly a wicked issue with no clear solution.

    Vicuña, a type of llama native to South America, were once hunted down to 6000 individuals because of their fine fur. A conservation program which includes native people rounding up and shearing wild populations has seen their numbers increase to 350,000. The native people sell the fur, under tight regulations, to fashion companies for big bucks. However, this is one of the very few examples of exploitive conservation working (and even so, some populations are still poorly managed and at risk).

    Despite the sale of ivory becoming partially legal in 1997, and some countries selling their extensive stockpiles, the poaching and the price of ivory has increased. This has been driven mostly by the growing middle-class in China that can afford what they see as luxury goods. This article questions whether it’s possible for elephants to survive a legal ivory trade, given all of the corruption- http://news.nationalgeographic.com.au/news/2014/08/140829-elephants-trophy-hunting-poaching-ivory-ban-cities/

    The current education programs don’t seem to be working, but I’m not convinced that a legal market would stop the illegal trade of rhino horn. Corruption would be rife, like with ivory, because of the politics in the countries where rhinos are native demand is highest. If prices did fall, demand would only increase. And I’m not sure that the current, low populations of the animals would be able to survive that.

    There’s also the issue that people believe these things are magical and rely on them instead of medicine.