Anton Crone
10 July 2015

Recently I attended a series of seminars on wildlife crime. The information presented at these events was so staggering (for my mind at least), and often so sad, that whenever I set about writing on the subject I found myself staring blindly at the screen. The reality is that African wildlife on a whole is in dire straits, but our focus on one species, rhinos, is distorting our vision.
   There are many voices on the subject of legalising trade in rhino horn, but I found hearing these four brought some clarity to me. The two first voices are not conservationists, which lends them an impartiality. The following two are conservationists on opposite sides of the fence. My hope is that their combined analysis will help us come to a conclusion that moves us beyond the question of legalising trade so we can focus on a much broader conservation picture.

The Cop

Tackling the criminal elements in poaching and wildlife trafficking is paramount to preserving endangered species, but, as anti-smuggling, fraud and organised crime consultant John M. Sellar said, “a lot of money is spent bringing the wrong people to wildlife crime conferences.”
Sellar has been engaged in law enforcement for almost four decades. Initially in the Scottish Police Service and then the United Nations, most recently Sellar spent 14 years focused on anti-smuggling, fraud and organised crime for the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

John M. Sellar OBE was previously a detective with the Scottish Police Services before transferring to the UN and CITES.
The core business of national park agencies is not law enforcement

Speaking at two recent seminars in Cape Town, Sellar stressed that people in conservation roles are not necessarily the best people to tackle sophisticated and experienced crime networks that deal not only in wildlife, but also in a variety of other contraband.
“The core business of wildlife, game, forest and national park agencies around the world is not law enforcement,” said Sellar. He pointed out that many senior managers of these agencies have limited, if any, experience of law enforcement activities, particularly with regard to intelligence and investigations. “Consequently, they may not be best-placed to direct enforcement matters, determine enforcement policies or even appreciate the needs associated with such work. Few of them will have regular contact, or close working relationships, with their peers in, for instance, Customs, Police, Public Prosecution Departments or Financial Crime Agencies.”
Sellar said that some governments choose to place senior military figures in charge or in positions of coordination, which is understandable given the characteristics of much of today’s poaching, but he added: “the cop in me makes me believe that such strategies should always be temporary. A militaristic answer may stop the killing, but it will not stop the trafficking.”


His certainty is that wildlife trafficking will go on relentlessly “until we either bring the people controlling it to justice or we make it too risky to be profitable for them. To do that, we need to engage with the senior managers and policy-makers of those agencies around the world whose job it is to target organised crime, and get them onboard. We need them to deploy their investigators. Following that, we need to support those investigators.”
Sellar added that we need to stop talking about legalising trade in rhino horn as a solution to rhino poaching, and start talking about trafficking as the criminal issue that it is.
Many favour legalising horn trade as a means to saving rhinos, reducing wildlife crime, and funding conservation efforts. Backed by private rhino owners and conservationists alike, the South African government is working on a proposal for the legalisation of rhino horn trade at the CITES Convention of the Parties in South African in 2016. Their proposal hinges on economic studies that recommend legal trade as the best possible conservation solution.

Men arrested on suspicion of poaching in Malawi. ©Jamie Unwin

The Economist

Mexico University professor of economics Alejandro Nadal asked how we can accurately evaluate a conservation policy that relies on a deregulated market for rhino horn when we don’t know how such markets behave. “There simply are no such studies for anything similar to a rhino horn or ivory market,” he said.

After doing a comprehensive review of the pro-trade economic literature, Nadal described what he saw as their key arguments:
– That a ban on trade causes prices to increase, generating incentives for illegal trade and poaching.
– That the profits of illegal trade go to crime syndicates.

He says that pro-traders propose that a legalised trade with a stable supply of rhino horn will:
– Bring prices down
– Put illegal traders out of business by outcompeting them.
– Return profits to lawful rhino owners or custodians and be reinvested in conservation.

Alejandro Nadal is a Professor of Economics at the Centre for Economic Studies, El Colegio de Mexico.
Legalising trade may find us locked in to a runaway expanding market

Rhino horn is today estimated at between US$60,000 and US$100,000 per kilogram. But Nadal questions why pro-traders think prices will drop as a stable supply flows into the market.
“If you say that the prices will go down, I will ask you, what will that do to demand? Because textbook economics will tell you – on page two very rapidly – that when you decrease prices demand will expand,” Nadal said.
Nadal emphasised that we know very little about the firms operating in this market: nothing about their ownership structures, size, vertical integration, cost and pricing structures; whether these firms are diversified or how much product diversification they engage in; their relation to money-lenders or big traders, the debt equity ratio and so on.
In terms of the market, he said we know little about the size of demand and response to price changes, pointing out that we don’t have the capacity or finance to study the evolution of demand.


“We have been blinded by this veil of ignorance of how this market looks. We don’t even have an approximation of an idea as to the structure of this market,” Nadal said, warning that, ultimately, legalising trade may find us locked in to a runaway expanding market without any idea of the end.
“The banalisation of the policy debate is dangerous and is not the way forward. Everyone stands to lose, including rhino owners and rhino custodians.”
In conclusion Nadal said, “Many economists propose a conservation policy based on an easy slogan that says ‘what pays, stays.’ I think the world they think that they understand does not exist.”

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The Pro-Trader

Dr John Hanks’ past roles include: Director of the Africa Programme at WWF-International and First Executive Director of the Peace Parks Foundation. ©Born Free Foundation
Emphasis on rhinos and elephants means we neglect the full spectrum of biodiversity

Two leading conservationists followed Professor Nadal. Conservation consultant and proponent of legal rhino trade, Dr John Hanks, began his address by saying, “that’s a tough act to follow”.
Hanks put arguments forward that focused on the advantage of returning the profits from horn trade into conservation. He explained that there is not one protected area in Africa that has sufficient funding, and that in the case of rhinos, the private owners are baring a large burden.
“25 % of white rhino are on private land and they get no support from government and very little from NGOs,” he said. “Some such private areas are spending ZAR150,000 monthly on rhino security. That’s just not sustainable.”
Hanks also emphasised that the ever expanding communities on the periphery of wildlife areas are resorting to poaching as means of survival. He and many others believe that one of the keys to conserving wildlife lies in community benefaction. He cited a recent study which found that a 16km squared community rhino farm could hold at least 60 rhino, create 100 full-time jobs and generate income of at least R12-million a year.

©Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department

According to Hanks, the proposed advantages of a legal trade are:
– That rhino horn can be supplied without killing a single animal (rhino horn regrows after it has been harvested; in males at a rate of about 1kg a year and in females at about 600 grams a year).
– That horn stockpiles in government and private hands can be fed into the market, removing the high costs and security risks of keeping them.
– That state reserves and private owners can generate substantial income from these animals which at present are a massive burden.
– That controlled legal trade would encourage other private rhino owners and local communities to buy more rhinos and breed with them.

Hanks says that no serious proponents of a legal trade have made the following claims:
– It will put a stop to poaching.
– It would operate without giving attention to enhancing field security, closing down the illegal traders, addressing corruption, etc.
– All remaining rhinos would be farmed like cattle – Hanks proposes that South Africa can supply 1,500 horns without the need to kill one rhino. 500 can come from stocks (on a sustainable basis), 400 from natural deaths and the equivalent of 600 from farmed horn.
– Rhino horn use would be promoted for its therapeutic properties.

One of his more curious claims is that if opening up a legal trade led to an increase in poaching, the trade could either be closed down or restructured.
Hank’s also lamented “the emphasis on rhinos and elephants and that we should conserve the full spectrum of biodiversity – that we look beyond one single species and concentrate on supporting our ecosystems.”

A poached rhino and calf. ©Born Free Foundation

The Anti-Trader

Will Travers OBE is President of The Born Free Foundation, Born Free USA and The Species Survival Network. ©Born Free Foundation
Legalising trade will potentially increase poaching

Will Travers, president of the Born free Foundation, agreed with Hanks that legalising trade will not stop poaching, but in his view “it will potentially increase poaching as criminals launder rhino horn into the now legal market and undercut the prices established by the CSO or whatever mechanism is dreamed up. And as for a trial period – the genie will be out of the bottle,” Travers said, challenging Hanks’ claim that the trade could either be closed down or restructured if it led to an increase in poaching.
Travers has attended every CITES Conference of the Parties since 1989. He was critical of some of the Conference results, highlighting “the highly intimidating atmosphere of the Harare meeting in 1997 where the President of Zimbabwe intoned that fateful phrase ‘if it pays it stays’. It was at that meeting that the fateful decision was taken to permit the first ‘one-off’ ivory stockpile sale.” Travers also mentioned the Bangkok 2004 Conference where the decision was made to approve a second one-off ivory sale that took place in 2008.

©Diana Robinson
One-off ivory sales are the reason for today’s scourge of elephant poaching

Travers and many others believe these one off ivory sales were the reason for the scourge of elephant poaching that we find today. “The issue, just as it is today, was the market, China,” said Travers. He echoed Professor Nadal by saying: “No one, as far as I am aware, had done any really serious analysis of the market, the drivers of the market, the size of the market, the desire of the market. What we found, after the event, was that the market was and is enormous and that the 60 or so tonnes of ivory that was legally imported into China did little more than whet the appetite.”
The potential for rhinos is that, given the apparent demand for rhino horn in Asia, legalising trade would be even more catastrophic for rhinos.
Ultimately Travers upholds CITES as a vital body in preserving endangered species. Describing his extensive experience of the Convention of Parties, he is firm in the belief that trade in rhino horn will not be supported. “Let us say that 160 countries turn up with appropriate credentials. For a motion to pass would need the support of 107 countries. By the same token, for a motion to fail in this scenario it needs to be opposed by just 54 States,” he explained. “In order for a proposal to succeed it needs the support of more than two thirds of parties voting. My understanding is that the EU – 28 votes – has already, as I understand it, made it clear that it will not support a pro-trade proposal. That leaves only 26 more votes to find and, believe me, based on experience, I can already identify them and many more.”
Travers concluded by saying there is no silver bullet or one thing that will be a game changer. “But if we could clear the field by removing the spectre of legalised trade from the agenda then I can tell you one thing. It will allow us all, from all our different backgrounds, with all our different skills and energies and resources and enthusiasm and commitment to come together and end the scourge of poaching – for rhino, and maybe for elephants, for lions, abalone, cheetah – for the many species threatened by wildlife crime – for good.”africa-geographic-logo

©Jamie Unwin

“The International Politics of Illegal Trade in Wildlife” seminar was hosted by the South African Institute of International Affairs in partnership with Conservation Action Trust.

The “Wildlife in Crisis” seminar was hosted by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime in partnership with University of Cape Town Centre of Criminology and Conservation Action Trust.


About the author

Anton Crone (right) in Naboisho, Kenya

ANTON CRONE quit the crazy-wonderful world of advertising to travel the world, sometimes working, sometimes drifting. Along the way he unearthed a passion for Africa’s stories – not the sometimes hysterical news agency headlines we all feed off, but the real stories. Anton has a strong empathy with Africa’s people and their need to meet daily requirements, often in remote environmentally hostile areas co-habitated by Africa’s free-roaming animals. His journey brought him to Africa Geographic where he is now Editor in Chief, and custodian of Africa Geographic online magazine.

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  • Rael Loon

    Mr. John Sellar emphasizes how the rhino poaching crisis has moved from the ambit of conservation biology and protection to one of organized crime. The emphasis should be on protecting and consolidating existing key and important populations before any future incursions, rather than focusing on legalization per se.

    Professor Nadal is correct that the markets and demand for rhino horn is not clear which poses a risk that legalization may stimulate demand. However the reality is that economics is the major driver in the illegal trade and that understanding these mechanisms is crucial in the fight against poaching. He is incorrect in thwarting sustainable utilization which has indeed acted as a positive tenet which has led to the thriving game ranching industry that exists in South Africa.

    Professor John Hanks demonstrates how sustainable utilization could theoretically rescue rhinos from poaching especially in the private sector which supports 25-30% of remaining rhino populations, especially by creating jobs and generating revenues. If this justification and such a provision could somehow be incorporated in South Africa’s bid to CITES (i.e. endorsing the efforts of the Private Sector while complying with overall policy), then there is a favorable chance that intensive rhino populations would be better protected and help subsidize extensive populations (which represent 70-75% of rhino numbers).

    Mr. Will Travers should be supported in his plea for all parties to come together to end the scourge of poaching and wildlife crime. If South Africa’s bid for overall legalization is unlikely to be passed at CITES, then there should be an impassioned effort for such NGOs and the donor community to channel funding into realistic efforts that have the potential of protecting rhinos. In this way the opportunity leading up to and hosting CITES in 2016 and present the realities of the rhino poaching crisis on the ground will not be lost.

    Rather it could lead to decisions and actions which may realistically support rhinos in the future.

  • Rhino Man

    Where is Mary Rice, she has one of the most respected long term perspectives on the subject.

    • Anton Crone

      Hi Rhino Man,

      Mary Rice was not speaking at the conference.

  • Bugs van Heerden

    The assumptions that the once off ivory sale was the reason why there is a poaching epidemic today show a lack of understanding of the complex issue surrounding this sale and shortfall of intermittent supply.

    I suggest that you read Daniel Stiles article on the subject where he explains that the uncertainty of supply has made room for speculators, and not the ivory auction as such. Illegal ivory trade actually decreased in Japan after the 1999 sale and again after the 2008 sale. In fact he claims, (quite correctly) that ivory consumption is less than supply, and gives good reason for this – being that speculators control the market price, by withholding supply. http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2014/09/15/opinion-can-elephants-survive-a-continued-ivory-trade-ban/

    The above argument highlights the importance of price when determining demand…. As Speculators are seen as Suppliers and they are controlling demand by price. We should look at upsetting the speculators – as the trade ban works in their favour. In fact the trade ban works in favour of the syndicates and the poachers as well.

    On the subject of Nadal, and with the greatest respect, – its a bit like an orthopaedic surgeon giving advice on heart transplants. The paper sets out to prove that Sustainable Use doesn’t work, and that is like proving that the bumblebee can’t fly. While we have access to excellent local practitioners and wildlife economists – one has to ask why they were not approached to give a presentation.

    With respect to all the anti arguments – there isn’t a single new development that will change the way we are doing things right now and what is resulting in repetitive failure to stop the poaching. The other point is that there isn’t a single intervention that has not already been tried that cannot run concurrent with a controlled trade model.

  • Becca Bryan

    A larger and more urgent concern is how poaching criteria is reported. Is rhino maimed in a poaching attempt counted as part of the poaching stats? Are orphaned calves counted? What if the rhino is shot and later dies from a poaching attempt? Does that count? De-horning should be a last resort, not a possible solution to rhino poaching. Rhinos need their horns like humans needs their fingers and fingernails.

  • Rael Loon

    It is plausible that the supply can be controlled, but the demand is stochastic and unpredictable. If the long-term strategy is demand reduction through educational awareness, there needs to be a very clear argument as to how sustainable supply (which is SA’s strongest case) can generate revenues for the conservation and protection of rhinos. Such a justification needs to be placed in the context of the relevant stakeholder institutional ownership/custodianship framework and may not necessarily be applied across the board.

  • Jeremy Taylor

    In honor of my upcoming 40th birthday, I am raising money for rhinos! I
    have 10-12 organizations that I hope to make donations to, including Ol
    Pejeta Conservancy, Lewa Conservancy, Saving the Survivors, Thula Thula
    Rhino Orphanage, Black Mambas Anti-Poaching Unit, and more. The more I
    raise, the more I will be able to give each organization! Find out more
    and donate at http://www.crowdrise.com/jeremysrhinowish

  • Stephen Palos

    Pro-traders, myself included, are AGAINST once off sales of any sort. This only exacerbates the problem….

  • Rael


    Happy birthday Jeremy. I’ve read that Ol Pejeta is doing a great job and is being supported by Fauna and Flora International (see http://www.fauna-flora.org/rhinoappeal)

  • Lori

    Very enlightening story Anton. I appreciate you reporting both sides of the issue and it has given me food for thought. I have typically leaned on the side of no legal trade and often write on my blog SavingWild.com to that effect. I am not convinced otherwise but you opened up my mind a little. Thanks. Lori Robinson, blogger and writer for Africa Geo and my own site.

  • SavingWild

    Isn’t one of the main issues due to the misbelief that rhino horn is the same substance as our fingernails? Once the market really realizes that, then we will all have to be worried about protecting our fingers from poachers, or the market will see the stupidity in their healing properties belief. No one you mention above seemed to address the lack of education on this issue. If the horn is useless, then there will be no demand.

  • John Frederik Hume

    I am a rhino breeder and as of today I have 1157 rhino. Last year I bred 131 rhinos and my life’s
    ambition is to breed 200 rhinos per year. In the last three years my security
    costs (anti-poaching) have gone from R100 000.00 per month to currently R3 000
    000.00 per month. This is completely unsustainable. During the last three years
    I have lost 36 rhinos to poachers.

    I dehorn my rhino anyway as a way of making it less
    profitable for the poachers. The rhinos
    are sedated for about 20 min for this painless procedure and we have stress
    studies confirming the animals experience no more stress than in wild
    rhinos. If I am not allowed to sell the
    natural sustainable product (as the horn grow back) from this procedure, all of
    my 1157 rhinos will be dead in 10 years as I will run out of money and the
    poachers will have a field day.

    If I sell all the progeny from my rhino I will still not be
    able to pay my running costs so the path to extinction may be a bid slower but
    still inevitable.

    Anyone who is keeping or fighting to keep me from selling
    this natural sustainable product will be responsible for killing my 1157 rhino.

    PERFECTLY SUITED to be released into our
    EXTENSIVE game reserves IF OR when we have removed the scOURGE of poaching.
    After three years you will not even know that they had been dehorned.

    • Richard Tate

      So why don’t you let sportsmen like me dart the large Bulls you can tag them take blood and whatever else u need to make sure the herd is in good shape and the money raised will help in your poaching efforts
      I would never want to kill a rhino
      but the thrill of getting close to dart
      a rhino would be a rush measure the horn wake it back up and watch it Run off ????

      • John Frederik Hume

        That would be a good idea but unfortunately the Veterinary council will not allow you to fire a dart only a qualified Vet. Even so I think the amount of money that that would bring in would be minimal because even if you were allowed to fire a dart, you would still have to have a qualified Vet on hand and all the back up you need when you dart a rhino.

  • Rael Loon

    Further to Anton Crone’s article on whether clarity on rhinos could help save other species, the following article from Wildlife Ranching SA places the forthcoming CITES agenda and issues in context:


    Of interest here are decisions on legal and illegal trade taken relating to rare, vulnerable and endangered species such as leopard, cheetah and tiger. Elephant conservation and the trade in ivory are invariably a major issue at CITES and given the escalating poaching rates across Africa is expected to be a big topic of debate at CoP17. An action plan on monitoring ivory trade will be tabled and will concern reports presented by the Monitoring of Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) programmes as well as the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS). Issued covered by the African Elephant Action Plan to reduce poaching relevant to respective member’s Biodiversity Action Plans may be eligible for support by the Global Environmental Facility.

    The general message that the South African delegation had brought to CITES CoP16 was supported by the government’s policy of sustainable utilization as a biodiversity conservation tool. It is because of adaptive management and sustainable utilization practices that South Africa has developed and maintained a proud conservation record, and communities have contributed to the conservation of species while benefiting from the restoration and protection of species.

    Cases in point include the bioprospecting rights of medicinal and valuable plants such as Hoodia, East African sandalwood listed on CITES Appendix II and in particular the success of sustainable harvesting practices with regards to Aloe Ferox by the Tyhefu Traditional Authority Community in the Eastern Cape. The latter project was heralded as a conservation success story which assisted in providing tangible financial benefits, reducing unemployment and decreasing levels of crime in this community.

    It is through projects such as these that it becomes clear that without conservation of a species, neither the species nor the communities living along side them will benefit or survive. Conservation has the potential to benefit the livelihoods of marginalized communities such that both the people and the respective wildlife can benefit from each other. Advancing this argument at the next CITES meeting on home soil where realistic and relevant may perhaps help bare sustainable fruit.

  • Buy No Rhino

    In the past the rhinos have faced similar crisis as today. As described on the homepage of SaveTheRhino.org (https://www.savetherhino.org/rhino_info/thorny_issues/tackling_the_demand_for_rhino_horn): “From the late 1970s through the mid 1990s, most rhino populations were ravaged by phases of intensive poaching to support the traditional rhino horn trade for medicine in Asia and jambiya dagger handles in Yemen.” Consumer countries then were Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. All three countries are no longer a problem to rhinos!

    Why are we not focusing on what where the success factors then? What were the levers in the past to cut demand? Can they be applied in today´s situation?

    Why are we not focusing on cutting the demand in countries such as Vietnam and China? How can this be done? International pressure?

    If both countries with the highest demand for rhino horn, namely China & Vietnam, are growing economically, how can one be sure, that the demand will not increase dramatically once the ban is lifted?

  • Julian Sturgeon

    This article points to an inescapable conclusion: if you wish to control an industry, the very worst thing you can do is to ban it. Despite the comments of two of the speakers, we must debate the trade/no trade issue,
    because the wildlife trade is a huge international industry.

    Here are the key points where we appear to have a consensus:

    The demand for rhino horn has dramatically increased
    in the past ten years, and currently shows no signs of decline.

    Enforcement and protection of rhinos is
    essential, with or without trade in horn.

    Trade in rhino horn is not a silver bullet, and it
    may bring unintended consequences.

    The White rhino population is now in absolute

    We have no consensus over the effectiveness of the trade ban imposed in 1977. Arguments for and against are routinely produced, but none are entirely persuasive. To my mind, this failure is the critical issue. Consensus cannot be reached because we have insufficient data to make a case one way or another. This problem was faced by the US Congress during prohibition – they could not decide if alcohol consumption had gone up or down. They knew that illicit liquor production was happening, that there was a loss of tax revenue, and that criminal gangs controlled the illicit trade, and were becoming rich and powerful. In our case, we are looking at the destruction of an entire species, major financial losses for private owners and huge costs for the state, international criminal beneficiaries getting rich, and local communities caught in the cross-fire. This is the reality, and the consequence of maintaining the ban on trade, which used to function well, until it was banned.

  • Mino

    The very last statement of the pro-trader was this…” Hank’s also lamented “the emphasis on rhinos and elephants and that we should conserve the full spectrum of biodiversity – that we look beyond one single species and concentrate on supporting our ecosystems.” Yep, that is some ecosystem those farms full of once-wild rhinos will be supporting. When all the rhino are on farms, all their knock-on benefits to biodiversity in the wild are gone, too.