There are a lot of initiatives under way to stop the relentless increase in rhino poaching. Unfortunately, we are not seeing any discernable success as rhino poaching continues to grow at a rate of around 50% a year. In order to properly understand the problem we need to look at the link between customer demand for genuine rhino horn (which currently mostly comes from Viet Nam) and the complex supply chain that has been put in place to satisfy this rising demand.
In essence, there are only three possible approaches to saving rhinos in the wild:
- Destroy the supply chain,
- Break the demand, or
- Legalise the product and trade.
The third strategy is highly contentious because there is huge pent-up demand in Viet Nam for genuine rhino horn that would quickly materialise if the product is legalised and prices begin to fall. It is not known if existing stockpiles and rhino herds could satisfy that increased demand without creating an unacceptable risk of a wild population wipe-out.
If we leave the strategy of legalising the trade aside for the moment, the mismatch between the first two strategies is immediately obvious. In order to disrupt or destroy this complex supply chain there are many leverage points. Some of the key ones are:
- Protection and anti-poaching measures in South Africa
- Detection and confiscation of shipments in transit
- Law enforcement in Viet Nam targeting importers, dealers etc.
After decades of watching the so-called ‘war on drugs’ it is clear that permanently disrupting the supply chain for an illegal, high-value substance is futile. You may destroy a poppy plantation, but three others will be planted overnight to fill the gap. You may confiscate a shipment, but all it produces is a temporary price spike in the destination country. You may arrest as many dealers and middlemen as you like, there will always be a queue of eager replacements attracted to the idea of fast money.
The same economics applies to the rhino horn trade. On a per-gram basis rhino horn is more valuable (and therefore more profitable) than any illicit drug. Hence even with the full cooperation of the Vietnamese government on the supply chain side all one could likely hope for are small, temporary dents in relentless rise of the poaching rate. In addition, given the complexity of the supply chain, the strategy for disrupting it is incredibly resource intensive and expensive.
There are only two valid leverage points in the whole picture that have a sustainable chance of success:
- Create an unbreakable economic interest from the local communities so that looking after their wild rhinos is more valuable than getting a payout from poaching, or
- Break the consumer demand.
Namibia has so far been very successful with the first strategy. Of 1,800 rhinos in Etosha National Park only 2 were poached in 2013.
The second valid strategy is to break the consumer demand. It is in this point that the stories about illicit drugs and rhino horn diverge. Breaking consumer demand for highly addictive or euphoria inducing substances is next to impossible without expensive medical and mental health treatment strategies (Portugal is the only country currently going down this path in relation to illicit drugs). But rhino horn is a placebo, it has no effect other than what the consumers chose to believe in. So if the belief system can be dismantled, then the demand will fall away. This has happened many times before, usually with medicines or medical treatments.
In addition, rhino horn is used to convey status within the peer group. Again, this is something that can be overcome with the right strategy – either by government decree like the Chinese government choosing not to have shark fin soup at any government function (demand fell 30% almost instantly) or using a subversive advertising strategy like with the anti-fur campaign in the 80s.
So for a product where the consumer group is known and the demand can be broken, this is by far the most cost-effective strategy and also the only strategy that can ensure long-term success.