Today I find myself reading yet another article supposedly exploring the case for a legal trade in rhino horn. Over the last 3 years I have lost count of how many of these I have read, with titles such as: Would a legal trade in rhino horn save the rhino?

I decided to undertake an analysis of media articles that covered the trade topic, focusing on the just last 18 months. Of the 40 news articles I read, just one made mention of the user’s preference for a wild product over a farmed horn. The reality is, a fundamental question appears to have been forgotten! How is the media missing this? On purpose?

This comes at an interesting time as journalists and commentators ask themselves:

  1. How did we get the USA election result soooo wrong?
  2. What did we miss in the lead up to Brexit?

Similarly, if they don’t start asking basic business questions, such as ‘Does the customer want a farmed rhino horn product?’ they could be posing the same type of question about the rhinos demise, if an international trade becomes legal in the future. ‘How did we miss that a legal trade in rhino horn would drive wild rhinos to the brink of extinction?’.

Now, I am not saying that all these articles are pro-trade, some are not. Many cover some of the points against trade such as:

  • Legalising trade will drive up demand given the ability to create marketing and advertising campaigns for the legal product.
  • Legalising trade will activate latent demand from potential consumers who won’t buy an illegal product
  • It will be easy to launder illegally sourced horn in to a legal market place, as this is extremely difficult to police.

Again, only one of these 40 articles asks the right question ‘Is the wealthy buyer of rhino horn, who is driving the current rhino killing spree, interested in a horn from a farmed, domesticated rhino?’ All Breaking The Brand’s research with these users says the answer to this question is ‘No’. During interviews with the primary users of rhino horn, Breaking The Brand found that rhino horn users do not see farmed horn as a substitute for wild horn. Why is this the case? The horn of a wild rhino is considered to have more status and strength as it has come from an animal that has had to fight for its own survival in the wild and is more pure because its food source is wild. In the end we wrote about this in a September 2015 blog: Before I write more, let me answer the first question people ask: ‘How will the buyers know that the horn comes from a farmed or wild rhino?’. The buyers in Viet Nam are asking for the tail and/or ears of the rhino to be presented with the horn, so they know it is very likely to have been killed in the wild.

Since 2013, Breaking The Brand has periodically contacted journalists about these findings. Though we may get a ‘This is an interesting point’ email response, we are still waiting to see something about this critical factor in the press.

Pushing Sustainable Use Agenda

Now in fairness to journalists, I must say that, in the main, they will go to large conservation bodies for information on this issue and many of these organisations if they are not pro-trade then they sit on the fence on trade issues, because they agree with the sustainable use model for wildlife.

Large conservation has been pushing a sustainable use model for decades. As highlighted in a recent World Bank report: ANALYSIS OF INTERNATIONAL FUNDING TO TACKLE ILLEGAL WILDLIFE TRADE of the over US$1.3 billion given by ‘significant international donors’ to large conservation groups to tackle the illegal wildlife trade since 2010, approximately 15% (nearly US$200 Million) was spent promoting sustainable use and alternative livelihood. See more detail on page 19 of the report:

So we are seeing compounded echo chambers:

Level 1 echo chamber: Belief that neo-liberal, free markets will solve everything (the belief of governments, who are the big donors)
Level 2 echo chamber: Over generalisation of the use and benefits of the sustainable use model (to please big donors???)
Level 3 echo chamber: Mainstream media

Supply Side (Pseudo) Economics

Another pattern that is seen in the not for profit sector is that the economic models for trade are in the main based on supply side economics. This has given the pro-trade lobby a mandate to do the same: ‘can these animals be farmed easily and cost effectively?’, rather than looking at the customers to see if there was a real business case for a farmed product that would solve the poaching problem.

As Breaking The Brand has commented on in the past, the pro-trade so called Smart Trade model is so full of assumptions that they are not being challenged on to explain: It would be good to see some of these gaping assumptions questioned by the media.

Business 101

The need for products to be centred on consumer wants is business 101. A great article about this was shared by Forbes this year regarding Nike’s focus on their customers. In the article, Nike’s President of Direct-to-Consumer Christiana Shi is quoted on highlighting the role consumers play in their decision-making stating “The art and science of choice is to find out what the consumer values”. This same principle applies to the supply of rhino horn to the user market. Rhino horn users value the status and strength associated with the horn of a wild rhino, which can’t be met from the horn of a farmed animal. This is the most critical factor in their consumption decisions. Therefore, supplying farmed rhino horn to the market will not stop poaching activities. Farmed horn cannot satisfy the demand for wild horn, but it could and will create a new market and new demand.

Who is considering the issue from the perspective of what the users want if only 1 in 40 articles covering the legalisation of a trade in rhino horn asks this question and conservation has a history of making trade decisions on supply side factors?

Asia’s desire for wild ‘products’

The demand for wild products over farmed is not new in Asian cultures and there have been many research papers published highlighting this:

Wild tiger parts in China

Wild meat in VietNam

 Bear bile in China

 In conclusion

The amount of time and resources being spent on deciding whether to legalise a trade in rhino horn could be re-directed to more valuable initiatives that could impact on the survival of these magnificent animals. While we continue with the back and forth of the trade issue, we lose more of our rhinos every day. The topic could be taken off the table once and for all if we started with asking ourselves ‘what does the customer want’? Given that the customer driving the demand doesn’t see a farmed product as a substitute product, while the desire for rhino horn continues the poaching of rhinos will continue.

Even though the pro-trade groups have had a lot of ‘help’ from the mainstream media, given the right question hasn’t been asked, they were still not able to tip the CoP 17 rhino horn trade outcomes in their favour. So you have to ask ‘If I was to put myself in to the shoes of a pro-trader, what would I do next in preparing for the 2019 CITES meeting?’. Well if it was me, I would be commissioning and funding research, to be done at some of the top universities around the world, on the trade question. This has already started, one university conducted research on traditional Asian medicine users in Viet Nam and concluded that their responses may indicate a basis for a legalised trade. I am not sure how they came to that conclusion given the average income of the people interviewed was less than USD $300 per month (median reported monthly income falls into the 3-to-5 million VND range, with the average monthly income being 6.5 million VND) whilst at the same time the paper stated that the cost of rhino horn is USD $28,000-100,000/kg.

Again, I hope the media writing about the trade debate questions the relevance of research conclusions that, at worst, are biased towards trade and, at best, are irrelevant given the conclusion was drawn from a consumer sample that cannot afford to buy genuine rhino horn.

In recent weeks we have been hearing about the need to crack down on ‘fake news’. Maybe we should also be asking if the ‘real’ news is as real as it makes out to be? If the mainstream media continue to publish PR pieces from self-interested parties as ‘news’ rather than a genuine investigative piece of journalism, then we have to ask: Is mainstream media contributing to the demise of the rhino, given its echo chamber approach?

These are the views of the author: Dr. Lynn Johnson, Founder, Breaking the Brand