A lot is being done to save the rhino, yet poaching levels continue to increase and demand for rhino horn shows no signs of abating soon. With all the money going into protecting the species from possible extinction within the next 10 years, why aren’t we making inroads? From Breaking The Brand’s perspective there is a misalignment in funding between the strategies that are most likely to save the rhino if used in the right combination.

To understand why this is happening and how it can be corrected, let’s begin by outlining the three strategies that we feel could work well together:

  1. Anti-poaching and security measures in Africa and Asia
  2. (Physical) Horn devaluation measures (toxin infusion) in Africa and Asia
  3. Demand reduction (psychological devaluation) in primary user countries (in the main Viet Nam, then China and other Asian countries)

3 pronged apprach diagram 600

The reality today is that over 90% of the money is going into anti-poaching and security measures. Since poaching escalated, from around 2007, large investments have been made in hiring, training and equipping anti-poaching teams, enabling conservancies to reduce their rhino poaching losses. All the evidence shows that when a well trained and equipped anti-poaching team is deployed into a conservancy they can be hugely effective in reducing animal losses for that conservancy. At the same time, given the escalation in poaching methods, this means the funds needed grow every year. Over the last 18 months conservancy owners have stated that:

  1. Security and anti-poaching takes 50% of my maintenance budget and rising
  2. If I didn’t have rhinos I would have made a $2Million dollar profit this year
  3. It cost about $500,000 to secure a population of 25 rhinos, and most worryingly,
  4. I don’t know that I can continue to save my rhinos when it is costing me so much

Yet despite tens of millions of dollars being spent on security, the rate of poaching is still increasing.

The second strategy needs to be physical horn devaluation but the devaluation must be from a user’s perspective, not from a poacher’s perspective. Specifically, from a poacher’s perspective de-horning the rhino may work, even though there is a lot of evidence of rhinos being killed for the stump of their horn given the value of even such a small amount. Instead, it is much more effective to devalue the horn in the eyes of the user.

The only way to devalue the horn from a user’s perspective is through the high-pressure infusion of toxins. Even though the cells in a rhino’s horn are dead (keratin), liquid can be squeezed into the space in-between the cells using high enough pressure. This liquid is retained in the horn for up to 4 years and does not enter the bloodstream of the animal. Many different toxins and dyes can be used, the main aim is to make the user sick when they consume rhino horn, without seriously injuring them.

Currently the number of animals that have undergone this infusion treatment is growing, but too low to matter. Only about 300 rhinos have been treated to date. An investment of $2million would enable over 2,000 animals to be treated within 3-6 months, which is nearly 15% of the wild population in South Africa. Once we can tell the users that there is a one-in-seven chance of getting sick from consuming rhino horn, usage will drop very quickly, especially since rhino horn is regarded by many as a health-supplement and medicine.

It seemed like a significant investment would be made into horn infusion with funds obtained from the Dutch and Swedish Lottery Fund, but this has been stalled by the pro-trade agenda of the SA government, see HERE.

The third strategy is demand reduction, which is what Breaking The Brand, TRAFFIC and WildAid are working on in Viet Nam. Yet the amounts currently allocated to demand reduction are miniscule. To illustrate the under investment – in a recent discussion with a key rhino conservation body from then US they disclosed that only 2% of their funds are allocated to demand reduction. And much of what they term as demand reduction could be more correctly defined as awareness-raising or education.

The result is a significant underinvestment in 2 of the 3 strategic areas that we need to have working in unison if we want to achieve a significant and immediate impact on poaching levels.

Compare the amounts:

  1. Strategy 1: Requires of the order of USD $2m per year to protect a herd of 150 rhino in a large conservancy
  2. Strategy 2: Costs less than USD $1,000 per rhino and lasts 4 years. With USD $2m over 2,000 rhinos or 15% of the SA population could be infused
  3. Strategy 3: Spending USD $2m pa would mean blanket coverage in magazines, airports, golf clubs and TV in Viet Nam for a whole year

We sincerely hope that the hold-up around horn devaluation is cleared up soon and that SANParks become a partner for infusion treatment, since they house the largest number of rhinos.

Beyond that, all agencies need to work together to align their strategies around getting the best result for the survival of the species, not what feels right emotionally. Anti-poaching measures seem to be ‘doing the right thing’, but are expensive and only escalate costs as criminal syndicates adjust. All three strategies need to be pursued in parallel with the right amounts of investment. Funds need to be spent smartly. Viet Nam’s wealthy elite is growing fast and demand will continue to increase unless the fad can be broken in the next 12 to 24 months.

It would be foolish in the extreme to jump straight to the most risky strategy of them all, the legalisation of trade, with all its associated risks when we have not yet tested – let alone exhausted – an effective combination of strategies that has a chance to actually work.

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