To sell or not to sell?


The Economist

Date Published

At the biggest-ever global wildlife conference, khaki-clad hunters rub shoulders with animal-rights activists, nerdy scientists and blustering politicians. All have one thing in common: a desire to save endangered species from extinction. The similarity ends there. Pelham Jones, a South African, leads a group of private rhino owners arguing that legal trade in horn would stop the slaughter of their animals by criminal gangs. Across from his booth sits a Vietnamese delegation that claims to have reduced demand among consumers back home, where rhino horn is proudly used as “medicine”. Around the corner are conservation groups that think legalising the trade will doom the rhino to extinction. “It’s very clear in this room there is total polarisation,” Mr Jones says.

This is the first time for 16 years that Africa has hosted the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which regulates trade in plants and animals. This one has record attendance: some 3,500 participants are meeting from September 24th to October 5th in Sandton, a swanky suburb of Johannesburg. The stakes are high for the continent’s most iconic fauna. Rhino poaching in Africa reached record levels last year, while the African elephant population is facing a precipitous fall. Census figures released at CITES show a continental decline of 110,000 elephants, to 415,000, over the past decade, though there are striking regional differences.

The central issues at the conference concern the ban on trading ivory. Elephants are mostly listed under Appendix I of CITES, which prohibits all trade in animal parts. In southern Africa, though, they come under Appendix II, which permits regulated trade. That said, those countries still abide by a complete ban on the sale of ivory. Namibia and Zimbabwe, with support from South Africa, want to open the ivory trade in certain cases, arguing that elephant populations in southern Africa are large, growing and damaging to habitat. They have in the past threatened to withdraw from the ivory ban unless it is loosened. But a coalition of 29 African countries wants all elephants to be moved to Appendix I. Another attention-grabbing proposal, from Swaziland, seeks to legalise trade in rhino horn. This is expected to fail, though South Africa may decide to reopen the issue in the next few years.

Bigger questions include whether trade bans work and, in the absence of trade that would allow private and public owners of wildlife to get an income from their animals, how to pay for conservation. There is friction between strict conservationists and those who support the “sustainable use” of wildlife—a euphemism for regulated hunting and trade. All sides say that, unless governments follow their prescriptions, the animals will die out.

Countries such as Zimbabwe, as well as South Africa’s mostly white hunters, chafe at the West telling them what to do with their wildlife. John Hume, who owns 1,410 rhinos—more than any other private owner in the world—has five tonnes of horn stockpiled that he is not allowed to sell. He wants to be able to make money from his valuable property, and deter poachers, by cutting and selling their horns (which grow back, like hair and nails). “I breed and protect rhinos. That’s what I do. And I think that’s what we need to do to save them,” he says.

Thumbing their noses

Many conservationists think legalising trade in either ivory or horn is too risky, since demand is hard to predict. Regulated exports might not dislodge the poached stuff, as the criminal product might still be cheaper. And demand might be stimulated by marketing, leading to more poaching, not less. Dan Ashe, the head of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, calls the rhino horn proposal “a dangerous experiment with the future of this magnificent species”.

But too often forgotten in the debate are the Africans, many of them poor, who live alongside elephants and rhinos. Ross Harvey, a researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, says it is vital that conservation should provide them with economic benefits. (Tourism is one, but not enough.) Otherwise, saving endangered animals “is going to be seen as a very middle-class issue”.