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Thursday, 17 May 2018   /   published in Rhinos

Why understanding demand for rhino horn will make or break their survival

20 APRIL 2018 - 05:58 TONY CARNIE Adapted


Security researchers say the emphasis on arresting poachers and enhancing protection for SA’s rhinos is unlikely to succeed without parallel efforts to research the demand for horn products in China and Vietnam.

Institute for Security Studies (ISS) researchers Ciara Aucoin and Sumien Deetlefs write that too little is being done to understand or reduce the demand for rhino horn in East Asia.

Based in Pretoria, these researchers advocate for a more thorough, market-based approach to tackling the organized transnational syndicates that coordinate the poaching and trafficking of rhino horns.

This would place more emphasis on the forces of supply and demand. Simply curbing the domestic supply of rhino horns was doomed to fail in the face of growing demand.

Much more demand-side research is necessary on what works and why, and how successful campaigns can be scaled up, adapted to changing market forces and better supported,

They suggest that rhino horn poaching has evolved from a conservation issue into a national security priority in several African nations.

In SA, more than 1,000 rhinos have been poached annually for the past five consecutive years.

“The supply-side emphasis translates into security measures that overwhelmingly fall on the departments responsible for maintaining national parks and reserves, which are rarely appropriately resourced for the task,” they write.

Aucoin and Deetlefs add that the Department of Environmental Affairs received only 1% of the national budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year.


The researchers support more concerted awareness and education campaigns in Vietnam and China.

Recent campaigns by conservation groups achieved some success in dispelling “misperceptions” about the supposed cancer-curing properties of rhino horn and raising awareness that the primary ingredient of rhino horn is keratin, like that in human hair and nails.


“Much more demand-side research is necessary on what works and why”.


Aucoin and Deetlefs argue that

“Legalizing the trade could increase demand, as it reduces stigma and signals to the market that consumption is, once again, completely legitimate…. Without further evidence on the extent of the demand for the product, it is difficult to know if legalization would in fact reduce demand as many pro-legalization bodies argue,” they write.

“Without more research into demand markets, myths or generalizations about the dominance of Chinese traditional medicine will continue to be overplayed. They will color understanding of what actually shapes the demand market and thus what demand-side campaigns should target to be most effective,” say the researchers.

John Hume, SA’s largest private rhino breeder, and other members of the Private Rhino Owners Association have argued that a legal trade in rhino horns would reduce poaching levels by meeting market demand, but Aucoin and Deetlefs note that private breeders face extremely high overhead costs, with nearly half the running costs going to securing their farms against poaching.

“Thus the incentive for them in legalizing the trade is to keep the price point for rhino horn high.” It is in their interest to not supply the product at levels that would drive the price down. Profit drives them.

“Rhino poaching can only be fully addressed when governments prioritize wildlife crime and implement integrated and innovative policy responses that include community-led initiatives,” researchers claim.

Clearly,  prison sentences for convicted rhino poachers are too weak.

Based on an analysis of 15 recent poaching prosecutions, the sentences – on average just 4.3 years each – reflect a weakness in SA’s approach.

“Too few cases make it to court, and while those that do are most likely to result in convictions, the sentencing regime does not match the seriousness of the issue.”