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On the horns

Might legalising the rhino-horn trade actually help the rhino?

Just as likely, it would spur demand, further endangering the creature

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Is the rhino horn any sort of medicine? As a Kenyan in a country with the poaching menace, I'm yet to understand why middle aged men in the Far East want to ingest rhino horn powder, whatever.


The increase in Rhinos killed in South Africa from 13 in 2007 to 1054 in 2016 is a shocking statistic, but perhaps an appropriate analogy for the decline in the country over this period. Removing a domestic ban when enforcement of the existing ban on illegal trading of Rhino horn is at an all time low is a ludicrous decision - and perhaps influenced by certain business interests. Unfortunately the future for this magnificient animal in South Africa is not a bright one.


Its really refreshing to read a well-balanced article on this topic, with interviews with actual conservationists rather than animal rights/welfare groups, which typically get reported as the voice of "conservationists" on these issues.

liberty lee

Rhinos could be saved by eliminating the ban. The ban causes the price of rhino horn to increase which, in turn, further incentivizes poachers to go to ever more elaborate schemes to harvest the product which, in turn, will result in the extinction of the species in the extinction death spiral. The tougher and more well enforced the ban, the faster the rhino will become extinct.
Legalization would allow locals to ranch rhinos and sell their shaved rhino horn to whomever is foolish enough to want it. I believe that, over time, people will be come more educated about what a truly useless medicine it is but increasing the supply of rhino horn can only speed up the educational process -- people who are not cured will eventually spread the word.
The only objection to legalization presented in this article is that demand for rhino horn would increase. This is undoubtedly true but I fail to see why that would be a objection to the plan. An increase in demand for cheaper legal rhino horn would only encourage locals to start ranching them and preserving them instead of helping poachers kill rhinos who are currently viewed as environmental pests which should best be eliminated. With legalization, locals could start to see them as a source of financial security and start to protect them -- something that would be very, very good for both locals and rhinos.
Lee Nason
New Bedford, Massachusetts


Rhinos can be saved by hybrid approach, similar to legal delivering heroin to addicts in Switzerland. Reserves can deliver legal rhino horns directly to the few places in Asia which still recommend rhino horn as the last resort. The condition would be that alternatives must be used together with the horn. This both reduces demand and destroys jobs for criminal middlemen. At the same time, customers get more evidence that rhino horn is scam.

Another action should be PR campaign targeting rich middle-aged men in Asia. The current generation of rhino-horn users will die out in a decade and rhinos could get a reprieve then. New generation of rich Asian males should believe that a status symbol is a photo of live rhino from African safari, not buying its horn or eating endangered species.

Rik Everaert

Rhino-farms should be created, together with 3-D-Printing of Rhino horns (choose the substances in it).
They know very well in South Africa how a diamond-monopoly can work (De Beers) : same can be done for a rhino-horn market. Finally Shipping of entire rhino-horns to the South-East-Asian believers.

guest-ajnoslwn in reply to Rik Everaert

Rhino farms are impossible, because rhinos breed too slowly for profit, and security is too costly (poachers would raid the farms). For the last 30 years at least, various people imagined opening a farm breeding rhinos for their horns somewhere in Africa or Asia, but none ever opened. However, flooding the black market with counterfeit 3-D printed rhino horns might be a good idea. The advantage is that it does not interfere with other approaches to conservation.

liberty lee in reply to guest-ajnoslwn

You err. John Hume in South Africa has been ranching 1300 rhinos. He currently has an inventory of 10,000 pounds of rhino horn which he is prevented from selling because of the ban. He pays for security to keep the rhinos safe from poachers but is prevented from recovering his costs by the ban. He has been lobbying to legalize the trade. A recent news report noted, "In order to protect his animals, Hume spends more than $200,000 a month in security. 'I will run out of money. I will run out of protection of my rhinos,' he says. 'I will not indefinitely be able to afford the helicopters, the soldiers, the radars.'”
Because rhino horns grow continuously, like human hair and nails, the horn can be shaved without harming the animals so harvesting the horn could be quite lucrative for ranchers if the trade could be legalized. And not only would some Africans be able to lift themselves economically, legalization would have the benefit of protecting and saving rhinos from extinction.
Prohibition of products that human beings want will always bring disaster -- we should have learned this lesson from our counterproductive alcohol prohibition experiment and our current war on drugs. It is always better to legalize the product and eliminate the crime (think smuggling, gang warfare, users robbing innocents to get money for their habits, etc.) , the poor quality (think bootlegging, impure illegal drugs causing overdose deaths, product scarcity, fake rhino horn) of the product, product scarcity (which only makes criminal activity more profitable), and the vast consumer costs of illegality imposed on users.
Even The Economist sometimes seems to be unable to learn this basic lesson in supply and demand.
Lee Nason
New Bedford, Massachusetts


The answer to the question posed by the headline is a resounding "No". Not only does legalization make the job of law enforcement considerably more difficult as a result of tandem 'legal' and 'illegal' rhino horn, it also massively undermines decades of work in arresting consumer demand for rhino horn. It is difficult to see the win here for the rhinos. Rhino owners, yes.

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guest-ajnnjisw in reply to ENV-WCT

Can you provide any evidence that those decades of work on consumer demand have made any difference at all? It simply does not make any sense to go on advocating failed strategies in the hope that at some point they just might work. It is a kind of magical thinking that characterises much of the animal protection movement, as distinct from the conservation world.

African Recycler 2

Still waiting for someone to work out how to make horn and hair into rhino horn substitute, can't be that hard surely? Flood the market, drop the price and poaching much less attractive?

There are substitutes already, but apparently using real rhino horn in Asia is seen as a luxury item akin to buying a necklace of real diamonds. However, with the new 3D printing techniques it might be possible to make a fake rhino horn unrecognizable for customers and destroy the value.


Right, when the demand of illegal goods is from whitemen, the traffickers are bad guys; when it is from yellowmen, the users are bad guys. Don't you just hate those sanctimonious NGO trash?

Petyr Baelish

Great article - provides both sides we'd expect to read about, and the interesting third option South Africa created.