The Horn Dilemma: Adam’s Africa Diary

They say the longest journey starts with a single step but my journeys normally start with a cab ride to the airport. Today is no exception as I find myself heading off to Heathrow Airport for the overnight flight to Johannesburg, South Africa….

My mission is to investigate the arguments for and against the legalisation of rhino horn trade for an upcoming BBC Radio 4 documentary. I will be updating this diary blog as often as I can over the next 6 days but to start things off it I think some background would be useful…

There are five extant species of rhino but the most abundant are the white and black rhinos of Africa, and the majority of those are to be found in South Africa – I’ll be filling in some numbers in future posts. A critical factor in the story I will be telling is that around a fifth or so of these rhino are in private hands, owned by wildlife ranchers.

Rhino horn has long been valued. There are a number of reasons for this including traditional Chinese medicine (including in countries bordering China), the making of dagger handles in Yemen (now much reduced) and, increasingly, as a status symbol among the wealthy of Vietnam, who snort and drink rhino horn to reduce hangovers, display their wealth and, according to some, to act as an aphrodisiac.

Trading in rhino horn is illegal and has been for some time – a ban imposed by CITES. The consumption we are seeing now is fuelled by an illegal trade in poached rhino horn, the majority of which comes from South Africa, and most of that from Kruger National Park.

Rhino poaching is a savage, barbaric business and a clear threat to rhino survival into the future. But according to some, there is a solution. It’s a surprising, controversial, downright troublesome solution perhaps, but for many private rhino owners it is the only way to safeguard the future of rhino. Their argument goes like this:

Rhino horn can be harvested humanely from living rhino. In fact, rhino can be bred relatively easily and used for “horn farming”. Dead rhinos’ horn could also be collected. Using such sources, they say, we could supply the trade legally and gain income from doing so. Horn could be sold by a central, fair and non-corrupt trading organisation at a fixed price to registered dealers in countries that use horn. This income could be re-invested in conservation; a “utilisation of wildlife” position that works well for wildlife ranchers of South Africa with many other species.

These are the arguments put forward by private rhino owners in South Africa, and other interested parties, who would like to petition CITES to allow international trade in rhino horn. Two of those owners (one of whom I’ll be meeting on Tuesday) have recently won a court case to overturn a moratorium imposed by the South Africa government on the internal trading of rhino horn (more of that later too). This feels like an important step on the path to their final goal of legal international trade.

The flip side of that argument is complex but it breaks down into a few reasonably straightforward points. First, we don’t understand the market and consequently legal trade could stimulate demand beyond the point that legal horn could satisfy that demand. The shortfall would be fuelled by poaching, possibly in range states outside of South Africa (a classic case of “unintended consequences”). Second, they say that there is no economic model whereby poachers couldn’t undercut the official trading price, leading to more poaching. Third, at the moment there are no recognised “horn traders” so to whom would they sell their horn – illegal organisations currently trading in poached horn? Fourth, for trade to be legalised, two thirds of the countries signed up to CITES would need to support it, although countries can abstain from voting. Currently, no country has suggested that they would support trade and many would certainly vote against it. Fifth, setting up legal trade would take, they say, around 5 years (which seems realistic to me)  and in that time we would likely see an increase in poaching as criminal syndicates race to gather as much horn as possible.

Those against trade favour education on the ground in end-user countries to reduce demand, and increased protection of rhino on the ground.

Those for trade claim that education isn’t working (and certainly poaching is still rampant indicating a healthy demand) and that it would take too long to make a difference. Another twist here is that private rhino owners get no financial support to protect their rhino –one reserve I’ll be visiting spends 60% of their income solely on anti-poaching measures to protect their rhino.

So, could a trade in rhino horn be the answer to the current poaching pressure or would such trade in fact make the situation far worse and drive these animals closer to extinction? There seems little scope for a middle ground argument here!

At the moment I am very much undecided. I can see the argument for trade and I’ve seen first-hand how successful the “wildlife must pay its way” model can be. However, what works for biltong and trophy hunters after kudu and eland might not work for rhino. That trade could stimulate demand coupled with the inevitable lag time to any trading becoming a reality, are both difficult arguments to ignore.

Education of end-users can certainly work – proponents point out the success with smoking. However, all around the world there are countries with the most graphic health warnings imaginable on cigarettes and huge numbers of people smoking them. Education might “work”, but as we’ve also seen with illegal drugs it certainly doesn’t reduce demand quickly or to a level where the problem can be said to be “fixed”.

Protection on the ground is most certainly preventing far more rhino being poached, but with over a thousand gone last year and plenty being poached already this year, protection can only go so far. Kruger National Park is enormous and has a more-or-less open border with Mozambique. Expensive anti-poaching efforts there are “working” but only if you define working as “fewer poached than would happen without”. They are still losing around 2 rhino a day to poachers. Other national parks and private owners have also experienced losses this year. This problem is not going away.

I’ve already spoken to people in both camps in this debate and two things are clear:

1)      Both sides want the same thing – the sustainable future survival of rhino across the world

2)      No one can predict the future. The simple fact is that we neither know whether legalisation will work nor what is going to happen to the illegal trade in the face of demand-reducing education.

At the end of last summer I made a documentary for Radio 4 on trophy hunting following the “Cecil the Lion” story. For me that wasn’t a hard story – trophy hunting can and does work for some species in some parts of Africa although it clearly hasn’t been a success everywhere. This complexity gives me somewhere to hide! I can occupy the middle ground easily, in part because I firmly think that it is intellectually the right position to adopt. [Please don’t email me or tweet me about trophy hunting – listen to the program (Google Big Game Theory Radio 4), read the blog, feel free to disagree]. This “horn dilemma” lacks that middle ground, or at least it seems to sitting here at Heathrow. Maybe things will become clearer in Africa…

Day 2 – Sunday

Night flights always seem like a good idea but unless you get very lucky you are unlikely to get a night’s sleep cramped into an airline seat. I did not get lucky last night. Erratic air conditioning, a pair of snorers in front of me and a pair of long femurs inside my legs conspired against me. However, while I only deposited 20 minutes in the sleep bank I did at least catch up on Game of Thrones season 5.

No matter. I can cope with a sleepless night; it’s not the first and won’t be the last. After the usual immigration chaos and luggage collection the first thing to do was to pick up the hire “4X4”, an essential choice given some of the properties I’ll be visiting. The hire firm’s opinion and mine differ on the off-road capabilities of the Ford Kuga but the aircon is fantastic. Watching the outside-temperature creep up to 32 degrees at 9am I think that might be more useful in the long run than power at each corner and some clearance.

A swift 200km drive on progressively smaller roads took me to the wildlife reserve of Pelham Jones, the president of the Private Rhino Owners’ Association. Around 5000 rhino are in private hands in South Africa as part of the extensive private wildlife game ranching industry. The rest are in National Parks (mostly Kruger) and Provincial Parks around the country. It is the private rhino owners who are most vocal in supporting trade in rhino horn.

Pelham is a fascinating man to talk to. He is hugely experienced in wildlife and passionate about the conservation of rhino. He explained, very clearly and articulately, the tremendous costs of rhino ownership. He sleeps armed. He drives around his property armed. He must employ armed security. At any time he can be called out to a poaching incident, a shooting, a wounding. He is at war, figuratively and, frankly, literally. The human cost is great, the financial burden considerable. He must fund the protection the rhino need from his eco-tourism business. At best it is tough, at worst crippling. Seventy private rhino owners have already thrown in the towel. After the next interviews I did, I can’t blame them.

From Pelham’s I drove to another game reserve to meet some more private rhino owners. These three, Lynne, Dougal and Charles are familiar to some of our students because their reserve is where we take our May field course.

Here, they told their heart-breaking stories of rhino poaching. Five rhino dead following a poaching incident last October. One was poached, the others were “collateral damage” of one sort or another.

Charles, a reserve manager, a hunter, a pragmatic man of the bush drove me out to the site of one of the bodies. The bones were still there in the bush along with some sections of hide, dried into solid sheets in the intense African sun. Standing around the bones Charles, voice cracking and on the verge of breaking down, described finding the carcass of Cheeky Cow. It is the most moving interview I’ve ever been privileged to be part of.

I have been stalking the rhino trade debate on social media for a while now. There is a huge misconception among many people about the motivations of private rhino owners, much of it fuelled by the activities of a man I will be interviewing tomorrow. And like most social media ranting it is also driven by ignorance and naivety. Most rhino owners are certainly not motivated by greed. They will not become millionaires through the sale of horn. The ones I have met are spurred only by a consuming passion to conserve rhino.

Eighty-five percent of rhino owners believe that legalising horn trade is the lifeline they need. Keeping animals safe in the face of hostile armed men is neither cheap nor risk-free. They see the situation in clear terms. There is a demand for rhino horn – they have rhino horn kept at great expense in highly regulated bank vaults. They have a sustainable, humane way of harvesting more. Rhino horn can be sold for money – they need money to keep rhino safe. Without money rhino die from poaching. That poaching supplies the illegal horn trade. The spiralling logic drives a frustration that is as obvious to me as the solution is to them…

Today is a travel day. Tomorrow I meet the man at the centre of legal horn trade debate, John Hume. It promises to be an interesting day.

Day 3 Tuesday

One of the most, if not the most, controversial figure in the debate surrounding the legalisation of rhino horn is John Hume. John was a property developer who made a lot of money from building resorts. He now runs a rhino breeding centre (some might call it a rhino farm) in South Africa, which has in excess of 1100 rhino. As the custodian of close to 5% of the total number of African rhino John is an important figure in this story. However, many fundamentally disagree with what he does. If you Google “John Hume rhino” you’ll get a feel for the vitriol that he attracts online.

However, unlike many of the people talking about John online I have visited his property and spoken at length to him about what he does. I think I have a have a better-informed opinion of his position than most and I’d like to share my impressions and thoughts of this visit.

First, many criticise John for having high stocking densities. This is nonsense. I saw a number of his “camps”, which in reality are very large areas of natural bush and grassland. We drove around for some time and yes, we saw rhino, but they were very far from being overcrowded. Of course, the density is higher than would naturally be the case, but that does not automatically imply “overcrowding”. I would judge than in two hours of driving around we saw perhaps 20 of the 110 rhino in one such area. I took a number of panorama shots of extensive areas of bush with not a single rhino in view. I actually saw more rhino in the Pilanesberg National Park during a similar time. On the way out I examined his property map and I passed several camps with the same story. These animals are not overcrowded and the impression that they are seems largely to be down to the circulation of a photograph of rhinos being fed during a drought (see later).

People say his rhino are in poor condition. Again, this is nonsense. It is relatively easy to judge the condition of a rhino in the field based on its appearance – see this reference for the scores usually used I have used this condition index before on field courses and from my experience John’s rhino are in excellent condition, best evidenced perhaps by the fact that they are breeding. I saw a lot of calves. He has full-time specialist veterinarian support on-site and I met the vet nurse in charge of his rhino orphanage, as well as some of the waifs and strays that he takes in. The evidence that they are successful at raising these and in integrating them into rhino groups was pretty overwhelming. Our orphanage visit by the way, and our drive-around, were both at my request. John would have happily done the interview in his office – this wasn’t a “fresh paint on the walls to impress the queen” visit.

John is also criticised in some quarters for feeding his rhino, with the suggestion being that the need for artificial feed is evidence that the land cannot support the densities of rhino he keeps. Some of the photographs online of large numbers of rhino around feeding pans certainly make it look as if rhino are overcrowded and kept in very artificial conditions. However, I saw these feeding pans first hand and they weren’t being used because there was plenty of forage for them despite an on-gong drought in South Africa. He does feed his rhino when natural forage is limited but naturally during droughts animals lose condition, stop breeding and can potentially die. His rhino don’t.

Despite this, John clearly isn’t keeping rhino “naturally” but neither does he claim to. He operates what he terms, correctly in my opinion, a captive breeding programme. Perceived husbandry issues of such captive programmes, such as artificial conditions, unnatural densities and artificial feeding could be levelled at many zoo-based programmes but I think in this case they are actually a red herring. The real reason underlying the criticism he faces is his stance on the legalisation of rhino horn trade. John is a proponent of legal trade especially within SA. Indeed, he has taken the SA government to court, successfully, to reverse the moratorium on internal trade imposed in 2009 and has recently won the appeal that the SA government lodged.

Keeping rhino in the current climate is very expensive. The security alone on his farm costs him a self-declared 3 million rand a month. That is around 135,000 pounds every single month to keep the rhino safe from poachers. This is a very high security overhead but he is running what can best be termed a private army. He has constant helicopter coverage at night and is just installing a radar system. Hiss fence is upgraded with intruder detection. This isn’t a few guys with grandad’s shotgun sitting on the front steps just in case.

John has considerable private wealth (another reason why I suspect he attracts criticism) and this is how he is funding the project but it is not sustainable. He needs to be able get income to keep the project running. He has a stockpile of horn as any private owner does and the means to gather considerable quantities of horn through the dehorning programme he has to run to help safeguard the animals. Since there is a demand for horn, the solution is obvious to John – sell the horn legally and use the money to protect the rhino from those seeking to gain horn illegally.

No one wants to buy rhino (they are too expensive to protect) and he can’t currently trade in their horn. His rhino are not a business asset in any sensible interpretation of that term. Of course, they would be were horn trade to be made legal and many have suggested that he is biding his time for that moment, betting on the future trade status of horn. If someone could explain to me how he can even hope to recoup his current losses, let alone make the millions suggested by some, based on this business model then please email me because I am struggling to make the maths work. Figures bandied about on the value of horn seem to be based on the classic “end user price” myth that you see in other illegal markets. If you came across a tonne of cocaine, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you could sell it at the gram street-price.

Given there is a demand for horn, John wants to be able to sell his horn to fund his project. People have called him the “greediest man alive” but in my opinion this is grossly unfair. He very clearly loves rhino. I have spoken to many rhino-lovers this week and either John is a superb actor or he can stand with the rest of those fighting for these charismatic animals. He has undoubtedly increased the number of rhino alive today and even his most fervent detractors cannot deny that fact.

If a zoo markets a captive breeding programme to visitors then it gains income from those animals that notionally goes back into their protection. John basically wants to do the same. I urge you to visit your nearest zoo with a captive breeding programme and convince yourself that these animals, often struggling to breed in small enclosures being gawped at by visitors are any better off.  Ah, but you say, rhino have to be dehorned to profit from them – this is abhorrent, they are not being kept naturally and so on. These are entirely fair points and in the ideal world we would not be pursuing this type of conservation model. But we don’t live in such a world. John himself said to me, in an ideal world what he does would not be necessary. Rhino would be roaming free with their horns proudly displayed. He could put his feet up and enjoy retirement rather than managing what amounts to a private army to keep these animals safe. But the world in which we live in has armed men shooting rhino and hacking off their horns. Where rhino do roam free, like in Kruger, they are subjected to horrendous poaching pressure and many here on the ground feel that we are losing the battle.

If rhino continue to be poached at high levels we will need breeding programmes like John’s and the experience he has built up. I think if many of his detractors actually visited his project and talked to the man rather than simply shouting about the “evils” of profiting from wildlife they would be surprised.