caroline 800Breaking The Brand is delighted to have a guest blogger, Caroline Bertin. Caroline is a supporter of and donor to Breaking The Brand. Caroline is based in the UK and we were delighted that she headed along to the rhino horn pro-trade/no-trade debate, presented earlier this month. John Hume, South Africa’s largest private rhino breeder put forward the pro-argument while Will Travers, CEO of the Born Free Foundation presented the opposing view. This blog presents the observations of someone who has invested their time in understanding this complex issue, she recently spent time volunteering at TRAFFIC in Hanoi. Like so many, Caroline wants to believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel for rhinos and a way to save these magnificent animals from extinction in the wild. Here are Caroline’s observations from the event……    


Rhino Horn Debate 3I recently had the opportunity to go to an interesting debate called: “Should the global trade of rhino horn be legalised?” Craig Packer was moderating the discussion held in London between John Hume, South Africa’s largest private rhino breeder and an advocate for legalising horn trade, and Will Travers, Born Free Foundation President and CEO.

The goal for me was to understand how educated the audience was about rhino horn and how the split was between pro-trade and anti-trade. There was well over 100 people at the venue and a vote was being held at the beginning of the debate and at the end to reveal the split and how the debate might have affected one camp or the other. A filming crew (from Pulse) was present to film the whole evening to be part of a documentary about trophy hunting which will be released in the coming years.

The First Surprise – Poor Summary of the Current Drivers of Rhino Poaching 

Rhino Horn Debate UKBefore the debate started, there was a short presentation about rhino horn, why it was consumed and by whom. I was very surprised to see that the first mentioned reason was that it was seen as an analgesic in China. The second source of consumption did mention Vietnam but stated that it was consumed because it was seen as a cure for cancer and there was no mention of it being used as a status symbol. Another slide showed us the optimal scenario to conserve the species, namely: 1/ Growing the anti-poaching units and 2/ Raising the fines upon conviction. Again, I was shocked that no mention of demand reduction was made and that people were mainly looking at the supply side of the trade and not the demand side.

Demand Side Facts are Overlooked

I found the debate that ensued then a bit too superficial, with no relevant talk about the demand side. However, it is interesting to note an argument that was raised: in the event of a trade legalisation, whilst funds would be generated to protect those rhinos in private hands, there is no guarantee that the South African government would use the funds raised to protect wild rhinos – it seems likely that if the trade was legalised, farmers would sell to the South African government (presumably at a set price) who would then sell (probably at a mark up) to the Vietnamese/ Chinese governments, etc with no guarantee that the funds raised would be put back into conservation – John Hume himself said the government was constantly letting them down!

Later in the debate, it became clear to me that John Hume and his camp had no understanding of the demand market and that it didn’t matter to them: “As long as they have the money to pay, it doesn’t matter who consume the horn and what for”. The problem is that it does matter to understand the demand market. If they studied it they would know for instance that the end users of real rhino horn in Vietnam do not want farmed rhino horn so their whole business plan is moot. Some of the pro-trade people in the audience supporting John Hume were really obnoxious, with 5 or 6 people granting themselves the right to interrupt people as they spoke and not contributing to the debate with insightful remarks. What is critical to remember is that consumers consistently show a preference for wild over farmed product so there will always be a market for wild rhino horn. As a result, demand reduction campaigns that target the consumers and have them change behaviours is what will really challenge the status quo.

Conservation Beware – Are People Losing Trust in You?  

Rhino Horn Debate 2As a general feeling though, it felt to me that the debate was going in John’s favour as he was able to appeal to the crowd through emotions, keeping on saying that all he wanted was to save his rhinos. As I watched the discussion, it reminded me of a political debate between someone who has valid facts and also speaks in an ideological way about our relationship with nature – but somehow doesn’t have the personality to win people over – against a charismatic individual whose facts are not backed up but still wins because he manages to speak to the crowd “from the heart”.

One lady came to the venue with no clear view whether she was pro- or anti-trade and wanted to see the debate to make up her mind. She told the audience that John had convinced her because in her own words, ‘he spoke form the heart’. It was clear she didn’t understand what was at stake if the rhino horn trade was ever legalised.

 The Audience Vote

Before the debate:

Anti-trade: 62%

Pro-trade: 30%

Undecided: 8 %

After the debate:

Anti-trade: 60%

Pro-trade: 39%

Undecided: 1%

Although the anti-trade camp still represented the majority of the audience, it was clear that the undecided people sided with the pro-trade camp after hearing the discussion.

John Hume stated he was in favour of demand reduction if it meant that the poaching rate is down to zero and he doesn’t have to spend his money each month to protect his rhinos. I had to talk to him at the end of the debate and tell him about what Breaking the Brand does in terms of demand reduction and how it is different from what most of the other organisations have been doing.  I gave him one of the leaflets that I printed out for the event and – maybe it was due to the fact that the filming crew was there filming our discussion – he accepted and looked interested in what I was saying.

Conservation Needs a Re-Think?

As I exited the room, I found the lady who had earlier told us how John Hume had managed to convince her and I decided to go and talk to her. At first, the conversation was slightly hostile and she refused my leaflet, as if she had made up her mind and who was I to try and convince her to look at other facts. I tried to explain to her what was Breaking the Brand and the work they were doing but she replied that to her, it’s just another organization which claims to be saving species when unfortunately, the results show otherwise. I tried to convince her how the methods used by BTB were different and how they are a valid and efficient alternative to the campaigns that have been done before. In the end, she and I want the same thing: stop the poaching of rhinos and save this iconic species. So she started to listen more and accepted a leaflet in the end. But she made a point and rightly so: despite a few successes, she saw like all of us how the big NGOs have failed to save the rhinos and that it was time to do something different.


Firstly, thank you Caroline for your on the spot observations from the event.

It is rather disappointing that someone like John Hume could ‘win’ such a debate and that, as a result, there was a swing towards legalising trade. Sadly, the large conservation sector has only itself to blame for such an outcome. They have consistently failed to discuss the demand side, from a trade perspective, I have had representatives from large conservation say to me ‘We don’t ask the users about farmed vs. wild because it is not in our mandate to comment on international trade’. Well, what use is that to these animals? I know that many organisations have a philosophy of sustainable use of wildlife to minimise human-wildlife conflict; but this approach can not, and should not, be generalised to all species. When there is evidence that buyers/users want a ‘wild and not farmed product’ then they should have the guts to take a strong anti-trade stance. Unfortunately, too many representatives in large conservation, including rhino specialists, only look at the rhino trade from the supply side and have no clue about the user. As a result some conservationists are pro-trade, one said to me ‘Anti-trade people knew nothing of what that the commercial white rhino owners were going through’, while at the same time he knew nothing about the users. Their current strategy of focusing on protection on the ground and lobbying for law enforcement has not produced the results the concerned public are looking for. Maybe they will be more open if their donors start to question this narrow focus more.

Similarly, their lack of openness to ‘try something different’ has enabled the neoliberal ideology of ‘less government, more free trade’ to get a foothold in conservation as well. As a result, large conservation should not be surprised that smaller organisations are stepping in to the void they have created. In a blog I wrote in March 2015: Conservation vs. Wildlife Traffickers. Who do you think will win the war in wildlife crime?! I commented:

The final challenge for the conservation sector to ponder is the pattern of increasing public outage if they are not seen to be making a difference for the animals that people care about – like it or not ‘extinction anxiety’ is in the public domain. This brings with it the expectation that the conservation sector is being innovative in trying to solve the wildlife poaching problems. Any techniques that could work to save animals but the conservation sector isn’t using because they are being too risk adverse could have future consequences; their inertia could come back to bite them. Companies such as Futureye ( in Australia support industries and organisations assess the risk to reputation of making the wrong move and triggering increased public outrage. As they say, “Most businesses and industries struggle to deal with criticism and negative public attention. Although they wish the voices of activists, the media or the community would just go away, they constantly find themselves powerless to stop outrage from growing”. The ‘Increasing Outrage Curve’ reflects how organisations and sectors respond to increased negative public criticism.

Increasing OutrageThe next 5-10 years will be telling for the conservation sector. They may just get away with presiding over a period when rhinos become extinct in the wild; I don’t think they will survive the elephant’s demise. Unless they evolve, some of the organisations that have been around for decades could well follow the animals they have been ‘protecting’ along the road of extinction.

Another example of others stepping in to the void that large conservation is leaving is: