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Rhino redux: Legalize the horn trade

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  March 7, 2013 11:07 AM

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rhino.jpegIn December I blogged about a proposal to deploy unarmed drone airplanes to deter rhino poachers in Africa. In the most recent issue of Science, however, a quartet of conservationists says that even that dramatic step isn’t likely to stop the rhino slaughter—instead, they argue, the international community should pull the rug out from underneath poachers by legalizing the trade of rhino horns.

We’re used to hearing calls for legalized markets in the context of illegal drugs: Proponents of legalizing marijuana, say, argue that the step would allow the government to gain regulatory control over a trade that’s going to happen anyway; opponents argue that legalization would encourage greater drug use and condone undesirable behavior.

Similar arguments hold in the trade for rhino horn—which has exploded to unsustainable levels over the last six years in response to rising demand from China and Southeast Asia. The conservationists’ reply in Science is simple: Rangers are hopelessly overmatched by sophisticated poaching syndicates; Africa’s remaining rhino populations will be extinct within 20 years unless something changes; and all available evidence suggests that legalization actually promotes conservation. On this last point, the conservationists cite the positive example of crocodiles, who were hunted close to extinction in the 1970s. Today crocodile populations are much stronger thanks to legal markets for their hides established in the 1980s.

The Science editorial argues that the current demand for rhino horn could be met “by the 5000 white rhinos on private conservation land in South Africa.” The rhinos would have their horns humanely shaved periodically. And each horn would be embedded with a “traceable transponder” and would have a “recorded DNA signature” that would make it harder for poachers to launder illegally harvested horns through the legal market.

The authors acknowledge that this proposal may be “morally repugnant to some.” But regulated horn farms, should they work, would certainly beat the current situation—where poached rhinos have their horns cut just once, and are left to bleed to death on the savannah.

Image of Ugandan white rhino via Wikimedia Commons.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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