With one day to go before the start of CoP17, below is a reflection and comment on some of the articles and submissions I have read leading up to the CITES meeting.

time-magazine-articleWhile there is much in the Time Magazine article (featured on the left) to like – it is one of the best I have seen – it also misses a couple of critical points about why Viet Nam’s (illegal) trade in rhino horn hasn’t been closed down sooner.

The Vietnamese Government’s demonstrated lack of commitment to close down the demand for and the trafficking of rhino horn cannot be decoupled from the fact that a future legalised international trade has not been decisively ruled out.

Yes, Viet Nam already has a legal obligation to seek out and prosecute traffickers and consumers. And, at the same time, over the years people in Viet Nam have told me that the South African Government’s pro-trade agenda plays a key role in slowing the Vietnamese Government’s response to tackling the trade and consumption on the demand side.

Like it or not, this should not be a surprise; why would any government target its high net worth citizens, who are the primary users of rhino horn, when:

  1. These are the business people and entrepreneurs driving Viet Nam’s rapid economic growth and
  2. What they are doing could be made legal if the South African Government can keep the possibility of trade on the table.

In addition, there has been no ground swell against trade from many of the institutions CITES and world governments turn to for advice on these matters.

A submission to CITES from key players in the rhino conservation space highlights that while a consumer analysis has been undertaken, a couple of things are conspicuous in their absence:

  1. When the analysis was done, surely they could have asked the customers if they were interested in a farmed product or not, to get a definitive yes/no? Surely, finding out if there is or isn’t a business case for a legalised trade would be a good idea?
  2. In the Recommendations and Final Comments, many areas are covered, demand reduction is not mentioned at all.

Though demand reduction has an increased focus and some of the larger players have carried out user research, they have never made a statement about the fact that the elite Vietnamese users driving the demand don’s see a farmed product as a substitute product for wild rhino horn. I have commented on this before: http://breakingthebrand.org/farmed-rhino-horn-not-seen-as-substitute-product/

When I have discussed this preference for wild horn with individuals working with some of the large conservation organisations I was told that an opinion on an trade legalisation is not within their mandate, so they don’t comment. Surely, what is right for the animal should be the priority, not the scope of an organisations mandate?

In addition, this maybe because some of the key individuals in these organisations are pro-trade, but they are only looking at it from the supply side economics, which are flawed as I mention in: http://breakingthebrand.org/smart-trade-no-foolish-assumptions-yes/.

In one article published in recent days  I was concerned to see the statement ‘Furthermore, the best information and analysis available to date on whether a legalised trade is workable has not yet been published. Some two years ago, the South African government tasked some of the finest minds in conservation, a Committee of Inquiry, with putting their heads together to consider whether the right conditions were in place to legalise the international horn trade. After 18 months of research and deliberation, the Committee advised Cabinet that the requirements for a legal horn trade have not been met, and Cabinet announced that it would not be tabling a South African proposal. But it hasn’t – yet – published the Committee of Inquiry’s findings.’ I would say many people I have spoken to have grave concerns about the make up of this committee and certainly didn’t see it was populated by the ‘finest minds’ to analyse the conditions for a legalised trade. For a start, there was no representation from the demand side, despite the obvious fact that neither Viet Nam nor China have requested a legalised trade! And no one from the demand side counties who could give an insight in to the buyers motivations.

More likely the reason why legalising trade is not challenged is that a sustainable trade model, to minimize human-wildlife conflict, has for decades now been a primary strategy for many large conservation organisations to stop poaching. Whether or not you believe in this approach, it certainly should not be generalised across all species, but looked at on case by case basis. When there is no basis for trade, because the consumers driving the poaching don’t see a farmed product as a substitute product and as a result a legal trade won’t stop poaching, then it should be off the agenda.

In addition, these organisations are not taking into account public opinion when they are trying to stay out of the pro-trade / no-trade debate. In the major donor countries, residents overwhelmingly believe that:

  1. Trade is already illegal, including domestically, and
  2. When told it is legal think it should be banned


Why aren’t the large conservation groups using this case of mistaken assumptions to mount a stronger case for outlawing all trade in species where legal trade is not going to work – either because of consumer preferences or because the level of corruption in range or destination countries makes an iron-clad legal framework impossible?

To return to the Times article, the final point I think is missing is that the consumers are not intrinsically motivated to stop using rhino horn; they can’t be inspired to take up a higher set of (conservation) values and give up rhino horn. This is wishful thinking on behalf of so many of the conservation bodies working in the rhino horn space and explains why so many campaigns target children.

In interviewing the primary users of rhino horn in Viet Nam, I haven’t found one male user who is intrinsically motivated to stop using rhino horn. Users will only give up rhino horn if using it causes them loss of status or other discomfort. I discuss this in: http://breakingthebrand.org/it-is-time-for-large-conservation-donors-to-take-demand-reduction-seriously/ and http://breakingthebrand.org/discomfort-triggers-behaviour-change/

As a result, very little has been spent of genuine demand reduction campaigns, when you define demand reduction vs. education vs awareness-raising as:


I discuss just how little is being spent on genuine demand reduction for rhino horn in: http://breakingthebrand.org/how-much-is-spent-on-rhino-horn-demand-reduction-campaigns/

To summarise, whilst the reporting in the mainstream media is slowly moving away from its focus on anti-poaching efforts and talking about ancient practices of medicinal use of rhino horn in Viet Nam and China, we are still not talking about the full picture and the large conservation agencies are complicit in this failure to define the problem correctly.

The poaching is primarily driven by demand for wild horn from Viet Nam and consumption there is driven by desire for status and prestige. The users don’t care about dead rhinos, dead rangers or laws prohibiting the consumption of rhino horn. They only care about being part of the elite which consumes horn to showcase their status and prestige. They have no interest in farmed horn, as it is seen of lesser value in relation of its ‘chi’ energy and rarity.

Hence reducing demand means making the consumption of horn the opposite of status-enhancing – real demand reduction campaigns need to show that the current fad of consuming horn is just that – a fad – and show the users as needy, weak and incapable of real leadership.

While this full-picture is not out in the public domain, we are in a position as outlined in a recent Special Investigation for the National Geographic which states ‘Here’s how a pair of South Africans [Dawie Groenewald and John Hume] could undermine the international efforts to protect the vulnerable animals’. Are we really going to accept a situation where the survival of this  iconic animal is left to two people motivated entirely by self-interest?

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