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Legalising the rhino horn trade: A debate leaving conservationists unsure


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The number of rhinos poached in South Africa has worryingly increased over the last decade, rising from 13 in 2007, to 1,175 in 2015.

The reason behind this surge is twofold: first, traditional Chinese medicine believes that the horns have aphrodisiac and curing properties that can help against fevers, hangovers, and even cancer. So far, no scientific data supports this claim.

Secondly, the rise of Asia’s middle class and elite has made “trophy hunting” a popular activity amongst the wealthier, and rhino horns are exposed in people’s house as a symbol of wealth and social status. This is especially true in Vietnam, the biggest consumer of rhino horns.

Last April, South Africa announced it would not be proposing ending the four-decade old ban on the international rhino horn trade at September’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the body that regulates the worldwide wildlife trade. This decision was met with both relief and criticism, and shone a light on the issue at hand.

On the 3rd of August, I attended a debate on the legalisation of rhino horn trade, at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Moderated by environmentalist and TV Star Craig Parker, the debate was between John Hume, the world's largest private rhino breeder and an advocate for legalising horn trade, and Will Travers of the Born Free Foundation, against the legalisation of horn trade.

Should the global trade of rhino horn be legalised? At first, answering “no” to this question seems apparent. However, before giving any rash answers, some key factors should be taken into account:

- A Rhino horn is similar to a fingernail for a rhino. It is largely made of the same protein (keratin) and grows back. Furthermore, the horns have not been observed to be of any valuable use to the rhinos.

- Even though the horns can be removed without hurting and certainly not killing the rhinos, poachers simply murder the animals as this proves an easier and faster option for them.

The main argument for those pro-legalisation is that by creating rhino horn farms, similar to Alpaca farms where animals are shaved every year in order to sell their hair, rhino poaching will decrease. Indeed, the legalisation will mean that strict rules and regulations regarding dehorning will be put in place, which will reduce illegal activities and ensure the rhinos’ well being.

Moreover, a 2014 study found that the legal trade of rhino horns could generate up to $717m (£476m) profit each year. This income could be used to further conservation work by, for example, securing higher protection for rhinos and other endangered species against poachers (by assigning a bigger number of guards for the animals).

However, those against the legalisation argue this is a too simple and naïve reasoning, which does not take into account the numerous things that could go wrong with legalising the trade of rhino horns. They see the legalisation as more of a Pandora’s box than anything else; indeed, a common worry is that by legalising the trade, the demand for the horns will greatly increase and become overwhelming. From this will arise illegal trades, more poaching, theft, and all around even more illegal activities than before.

Those anti-legalisation believe that the focus should not be on regulating the horn trade but rather reducing the demand in Asia, either by installing rules there or debunking the myth of the curing properties of the rhino horns.

There is also an argument that should not be undervalued against the legalisation of the trade. It is the one that it simply seems wrong to legalise the trade, and start farming rhinos for their horns. I am using a bit of Kantian and deontological ethics here, which is that an action should be judged moral in itself, without taking into account its consequences. This is opposed to Utilitarianism, which states that the morally good thing to do is always the thing that will have the best consequences for the higher number of people.

If we take a Kantian approach to the issue, than it becomes clear that legalising the dehorning of rhinos is immoral, because it is not an action that is good in itself, but rather selfish and corrupt. If we do take into account the consequences of the action, and hence take a utilitarian approach to the matter, then this claim can be challenged. However, since the consequences of the legalisation of the trade are unsure, then it seems like a Kantian approach to the issue is the appropriate one.

At the debate, I was surprised by the number of people who showed up. We must have been about 300, on a Wednesday evening, all here to inform ourselves on the issue. I was even more surprised by how passionate the audience was: people were interrupting the speakers, which would result in outbursts of fervent talks between the audience. The Q&A session at the end saw countless raised hands, all wanting to give their opinions and challenge others, which would once again always end up in eager responses and hubbub, punctuated by some insults thrown from both sides of the debate.

At the end of the event, I left unsure on what the right approach to save the rhinos should be. An increasing number of conservations and centres have decided to dehorn their own rhinos in order to protect them from poachers, including the one where I will be spending a month as a volunteer next summer. What I am sure about is that it is reassuring to know that this is an issue many people are fervent and caring about.

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