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Decades after more than 100 countries agreed to ban the rhinoceros horn trade in 1979, poachers are killing record numbers of the endangered species. In just 2013 alone, they slaughtered some 1,000 rhinos in South Africa, up from 668 in 2012. If the hunting continues at current rates, one of the conservation movement’s most famous mascots could be extinct within the next two decades. And rhinos are not alone. Many other animals -- including elephants and tigers -- are also facing the prospect of extinction, all in spite of long-standing trade bans.
In South Africa, police and national defense forces have become increasingly engaged in efforts to protect threatened wildlife, and the government has earmarked roughly $7 million in extra funding to ramp up security in its national parks. Yet poaching there has continued, just as it has throughout the continent. Last year alone, poachers killed a total of 22,000 elephants, the majority for tusks that were sold to feed rising demand in Asia.
Through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES), an international agreement among 179 countries, governments can vote to ban the trade of products from species threatened with extinction. But such trade bans are failing in large part because they have run into the same basic problem as the war on drugs. Prohibitions on trading wildlife products such as tusks and timber have ultimately made them more valuable. And criminal organizations have moved in and taken over the market, imposing high costs -- through violence and corruption -- on weak societies.
In some ways, this is an old story. As the American economist Thomas Schelling has argued, the United States’ prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s advantaged criminals by giving them “the same kind of protection that a tariff gives to a domestic monopoly.” As the demand for alcohol increased, prohibition guaranteed “the absence of competition from people who are unwilling to be criminal, and an advantage to those whose skill is evading the law.” Today, the United States spends an estimated $30 billion annually to combat the drug trade, yet illegal narcotics remain readily available on American streets.
Both the illegal wildlife and drug trades are now worth huge sums, the bulk of which ends up lining the pockets of criminal organizations, corrupt officials, and even terrorist groups. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the global policing organization Interpol, the illegal drug trade was worth an estimated $435 billion in 2013. Estimates suggest that the illicit wildlife trade, including logging and fishing, is worth around $130 billion -- more than three times the size of Kenya’s entire GDP. And the profits have been substantial. Last year, Vixay Keosavang, a wildlife trader from Laos, sold rhino horn at $65,000 per kilo. He bought the horn in southern Africa for one-tenth of that price.
As the money has rolled in, poachers and smugglers have grown more sophisticated, investing in miniature armies. All across Africa, it is increasingly common for park rangers to skirmish with poachers. According to the charity Thin Green Line, poachers in Africa kill some 1,000 park rangers each year. And the fight is far from fair: The U.S. Congressional Research Service has reported that many poachers now use “night vision goggles, military-grade weapons, and helicopters.” By comparison, the rangers are often poorly equipped. And that makes trading in wildlife all the more attractive.
Conservation groups such as the World Wildlife Fund have long advocated for stiffer sentences and fines to deter poachers and traders. They are right that penalties could be tougher. Last year, an Irish court fined two traffickers just 500 euros ($676) for smuggling rhino horn worth 500,000 euros ($676,600). However, even high penalties do not necessarily deter all types of crime. Drug runners can face the death penalty in Southeast Asia, yet a seemingly endless stream of impoverished people sign up to act as drug mules anyway.
The appetite for illegal wildlife goods, meanwhile, shows no signs of abating. Ever since Asia's economies took off in the 1990s, demand has soared. The prices of such items as rhino horns have followed, rising from roughly $1,000 per kilo in 1990 to around $65,000 per kilo today. Many Asian consumers believe that when used as a medicine, the horns can help cure cancer and detoxify the body. It does not matter how scientifically dubious such claims may be; they are simply a matter of faith. Just as drug addicts will go to any length for a fix, no matter the cost, those who believe that rhino horn can cure cancer will go to nearly any length to get their medicine. Never mind that such horns are made of the same material as human toenails.
Many buyers in Asia are motivated by prestige as well. In Vietnam and elsewhere, serving bush meat caught in the wild is a status symbol -- as is owning elephant tusks, shahtoosh shawls made from endangered Tibetan antelope, and live orangutans as household pets. And such goods derive much of their appeal from being scarce and expensive -- making demand for them insensitive to price hikes.
Outright bans, then, are not the answer. For this reason, the South African government plans to propose lifting the ban on trading rhino horn at the next CITES meeting in 2016. South African officials argue that a legal trade would take profits away from criminal syndicates. Just as taxes on cigarettes fund education and health programs in the United States, similar levies would also provide ample funds for campaigns to combat poaching and reduce demand. Meanwhile, regular de-horning of the animals would increase the global horn supply, lowering prices and the attraction of poaching. Rhinos produce nearly one kilogram of horn each year, which can easily be harvested through a simple veterinary procedure. Farming the animals ethically, moreover, would allow consumers to demand horn products from sustainably managed sources.
To legalize the rhino trade, South Africa will need a two-thirds majority among CITES members. It can expect to run into stiff opposition from a group that will likely include the United States, Kenya, and a number of European countries. Animal welfare groups will also push hard against legalization. That said, CITES already permits the trading of live rhinos and some limited hunting. In January, the Dallas Safari Club auctioned the right to hunt an old rhino in Namibia for $350,000. (One bidder withdrew his offer of $1 million -- money that could have gone toward protecting rhinos -- after receiving a death threat from an animal welfare extremist.) Such hunting fees can provide a critical source of revenue; in Namibia, they finance one-third of the government’s wildlife protection budget.
Peru embarked on a similar legalization process in 1979. To save the vicuña -- a camelid that resembles a small llama -- from extinction at the hands of hunters who prized its fine wool, the Peruvian government gave local communities the right to shear and market the animal’s wool. Now local herders protect the animals and also earn money from sale of their wool. Since then, the country’s vicuña population has grown from 5,000 animals -- on the verge of extinction -- to more than 200,000 today. CITES approved the policy in 1994.
Such a process of legalization, however, would not necessarily be a magic bullet. For a legal trade to work, governments would have to enforce a tight system of export permits and harvest quotas. Policing would still be needed to protect animals and forests. The success of a legal trade would also hinge on animal reproductive rates and the level of poverty in rural areas where the incentives to poach are high. But policymakers should heed the lessons of the drug wars. Bans fail because borders remain porous and officials corrupt. There is no wall high enough to counteract enormous financial rewards for breaking the rules to feed a voracious market.
Like the drug wars, restrictions on the animal trade reflect not only policy positions but also certain moral beliefs. Yet moralizing conservation organizations are typically based in wealthy countries and overlook the huge financial burdens that enforcement imposes on poor countries with already scarce resources. Such groups also minimize the potential benefits of taxing the wildlife trade, in the form of precious funds that would otherwise go to criminal outfits. Individual countries, then, will have to make some informed decisions on their own. They would do well to consider what the United States has achieved in its war on drugs -- now in its fourth decade.