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Shave the horn, save the rhino?

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Wild rhinoceros.

The rhinoceros, one of Africa’s iconic animals, is under threat from illegal hunting.
Image: Robert Kerton/CSIRO

Africa’s rhinoceros populations are under threat – only 5000 black rhinos and 20 000 white rhinos are left in the wild. A major cause in their decline is illegal hunting for their famous horns, used in ornamental weapons and traditional Chinese medicine.

The trade in rhino horn was banned back in 1977, but this has not slowed demand. Rhino horn is extremely valuable, attracting prices of up to $65 000 a kilogram. This makes it more valuable by weight than gold and diamonds. Poachers are therefore willing to take significant risks and make large investments in killing rhinos, due to the potential financial reward.

Of course, this is unsustainable. If current rates of poaching continue, one estimate has both species of African rhinos becoming extinct in the wild in 20 years. A group of scientists have proposed what might seem like a strange solution: remove the ban on rhino horn.

Rhino horn is made of a keratin, a protein also found in human hair and nails, and it grows back when cut. By sedating a rhino, some of the horn can be shaved off. This is a much cheaper way to get rhino horn and doesn’t require the rhino to be killed. Rhino horn could also be harvested from animals that die naturally. Money made from this highly regulated system could then be invested in other strategies to preserve rhino populations.

A similar system was introduced for crocodiles. Wild crocodile populations around the world were threatened with extinction due to hunting for their skins. A legal trading system based on farmed crocodiles was set up to supply demand. As a result, fewer poachers killed wild crocodiles, saving many populations.

Removing the ban on rhino horn trade may not be the whole solution. For example, making rhino horn legal might make it even more popular, driving up demand even more. There is also the risk of corruption in a trading system, undermining conservation efforts. Finally, there is the question of whether or not it is ethical to farm the horns of these iconic creatures.

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1 comments

  1. Sometimes you have to choose for the lesser evil. If shaving horns might save rhinoes, we should do that, because it is the alternative is much worse.

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