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