Trade in wildlife body parts: where the clocks have no hands



Date Published
With the South African government investigating the feasibility of legalising rhino horn trade ahead of CITES 2016, there are some new trends in the demand for wildlife body parts.
That Africa’s iconic wildlife species are under threat due to Asian demand is old news, but what is now emerging is a change in the driver of that demand. Contrary to the image of quackery that Westerners like to project onto Asian consumers, what we’re now learning is that demand is status-based.
“‘Wealth’ [is] replacing ‘health’ as a primary form of consumer motivation,” a new report commissioned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) says. Tiger parts “are now consumed less as medicine and more as exotic luxury products,” it continues.
Another CITES report in 2012 says the same for rhino horn in Vietnam. And recent research by Gao Yufang, a Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies graduate, shows a similar trend in ivory demand in China. “I estimate that over 99 percent of Chinese never buy ivory, and the potential ivory buyers are less than one percent of the Chinese population. The characteristics of the … [1%] are that they are very rich—but also very uneducated—and they want to show off their social status.”
Regarding the recent upsurge in elephant poaching, Yufang says: “The most important trend is the boom of arts investment in China, especially after 2008 and 2009, because around this time the stock market and real estate market didn’t perform as well as expected. So people started to invest in many forms of arts and antiques and collectibles, and this included furniture, paintings, antique books, and ivory. The arts investment boom increased the value of ivory as an investment alternative that has driven ivory demand in China.
“Professional ivory investors know a lot about ivory, and they know a lot about elephant poaching. … We must distinguish between collectors and investors. Investors care about money. Some of these professional investors openly say that blood ivory is from [a] poached elephant. And the ivory was [obtained] when the elephant was still alive. Of all the kinds of ivory, blood ivory is the most expensive. So they know exactly where the ivory comes from,” he explains.
Bearing this new information in mind, the question that arises is: Does ivory/rhino horn/tiger wine’s value as a status symbol make it a good investment?
While status symbols and the nouveaux riche will be with us forever (let’s face it: it’s mean-spirited to frown upon those celebrating a bonanza) what can be done is to encourage a change in what is regarded as ‘having arrived’ and speed up that shift. Here, insight into the psychology of the parvenu mind will help. Cultural influencers are the next step in fast-forwarding the transition to the new fashion and, let’s face it again, the desirability of tiger/lion wine, rhino horn and ivory is a fad, one that will pass, just as others such as ostrich feathers, tulip bulbs, Internet stocks and fur coats did.
Next, let’s look at those people who are cashing in on the fashion, the so-called investors. Sound investment relies on cash-flow rather than speculation. Warren Buffet, arguably the most celebrated investor of modern time, says this about speculation:
“The line separating investment and speculation, which is never bright and clear, becomes blurred still further when most market participants have recently enjoyed triumphs. Nothing sedates rationality like large doses of effortless money. After a heady experience of that kind, normally sensible people drift into behaviour akin to that of Cinderella at the ball. They know that overstaying the festivities … will eventually bring on pumpkins and mice. But they nevertheless hate to miss a single minute of what is one helluva party. Therefore, the giddy participants all plan to leave just seconds before midnight. There’s a problem, though: They are dancing in a room in which the clocks have no hands.”
With the stirrings of a global economic recovery now being felt (with equities and property regaining their lustre), and the inherent fickleness of fashion, the clock hands are approaching midnight for wildlife body part investors.
Entering this perfect storm is the South African pro-trade lobby, trying to convince the government that rhino horn trade should be promoted at CITES 2016. In light of the above, there’s a distinct flavour of making-hay-while-the-sun-still-shines in the move.
The government of South Africa has launched an inter-ministerial task force to investigate whether a legal trade in rhino horn will serve to reduce the levels of poaching. In a 6 June press release, the Department of Environmental Affairs states that: “… South Africa believes that legalising the trade in rhino horn will in no way contribute to increased poaching”, thereby leaving the burden of proof on pro-traders to demonstrate that legal trade will actually reduce poaching – the cash injection into anti-poaching measures from sales being its highest card.
Some pro-traders reckon they can control the price, and thereby the demand for rhino horn. Much has been written about whether this is sound logic and may form a part of the inter-ministerial task force’s report. But what cannot be controlled are personal tastes. What will happen when the bottom falls out of the market? Woe betide the government, institution, company or individual who has banked on, or based their reputation on, the wildlife body parts trade.
And there is more to the pro-trade/no-trade debate. The government of South Africa must also think about how its decision on the subject will reflect our nation’s values, for the simple reason that a country’s good image has an enormous effect on the investment it attracts.
Make no mistake – the clock is ticking.
Do rhinos, tigers and elephants have that kind of time? There’s irony in the fact that Warren Buffett’s son, Howard, has just released massive funding to SANParks for the protection of rhino, which is hugely welcome but cannot be relied upon as a long term solution. At the same time there are also signs of improvement in international co-operation in the defence of Africa’s wildlife.
Nevertheless it is down to every individual, institution, company and government to play a role in creating a love-of-life culture by investing in, and promoting, sustainable businesses in a world that is becoming more homogenised each day. DM
Clarissa Hughes has worked in tourism in Botswana, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe for 30 years and has travelled widely in sub-Saharan Africa. She is the author of a number of tourism and African culture related articles and has published a book on southern African star lore.