Over the weekend, I went to a “Save The Rhino” picnic. It was magnificently situated: a small rivered valley in the rolling foothills along the Mutoko road; which slowly wends its way eastward toward the smallholdings and orchards that shelter beneath the rock-faced Nyanga mountains. Those mountains that form the border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique, that blush rose in the pale dawn and ripple purple in the early evening, also mark the line between a country that continues to have a rhino population, and one that had a rhino population until the beginning of last month.

Is There Any Hope For The Rhino?

Forgive me for sounding callous – but my answer to that question is “no”. Here is a graph:

Here’s another one:

Those are not numbers that demonstrate a win against the fight.

Where has this sudden spike in rhino horn demand come from?

Well this is actually quite interesting (I think). In terms of the CITES convention covering the trade in rhino horn, “rhino trophy” hunting is permitted once the rhino population exceeds a certain level. Which makes sense – because at some point, you’re going to get too many male rhinos in a given area, and there’s just not enough territory, so those kids are going to be wasted genetic material. Therefore: issue a few permits to hunters, bring in funds for the continuation of conservation programs, and make money off the culling that you would have had to do anyway.

From what I understand – the allocation of permits is at the discretion of some ministry officials, and the issue of these permits began in 2003, after the white rhino population in South Africa hit the required levels (90% of all rhino are found in SA).

Then, at around the same time in the mid-2000s, a rumour swept through Vietnam claiming that rhino horn had cured a politician’s cancer.

Vietnam’s Cancer Problems

Vietnam has been rapidly growing in the last decade. It has more than doubled its number of millionaires in the last five years, so it’s not surprising that their average annual spending has been increasing as well.

But according to this report from 2010, the standard of medical care has not kept pace with that economic growth. Oh – doctors are now better able to diagnose conditions as more people can afford to visit them… But treatment is an entirely different story. Even in our own lives – it’s easy enough (and relatively affordable) to visit your GP. But if we didn’t have reliable medical aid schemes and treatment facilities, then any treatment that’s more complicated than a drug prescription would be out of reach.

So with cancer cases in Vietnam, doctors are diagnosing 150,000 new cases every year. But there are only about 25 radiation machines to treat a country of 87 million people. The waiting list for radiotherapy is long even if the family can afford to pay for it.

Which means that people are dying and desperate.

Cue: that rumour above, where a prominent public figure goes into remission after a treatment regime of ground rhino horn mixed with water (it turns into a milkshake that smells like burned hair, apparently).

A Sudden Demand for a Cancer Treatment

People are willing to do many things when death beckons. There also seems to be a general consensus about a cure at any price.

So there was a sudden spike in the number of rhino trophy permits being issued to Vietnamese nationals – a country that’s not exactly famous for its obsession with hunting as a pastime. In 2008, alarmed officials decided to limit the permits to one per person per year.¬†This seems to have resulted in a significant supply contraction in the market for rhino horn in Vietnam. At which point, the price of rhino horn sky-rocketed, and the veneer of legitimacy left the building.

The Extraordinary Price

If I was to put this in economic terms:

  • Demand for rhino horn increased because of the rumoured cancer cure; and
  • Supply for rhino horn briefly contracted
  • But because cancer victims will pay for a cure at any price, the suppliers discovered that they could keep the price high
  • Meaning that rhino hunting just became very very attractive.

Estimates of the price of rhino horn hit as high as $100,000 per kg. And given that the weight of horn carried by a good-sized rhinoceros is anything between 3kg and 4kg, we’re talking about a single kill potentially offering a >$300,000 return.

So the poachers have turned into organised crime units – with helicopters and tranquilliser darts and satellite tracking systems. Organised crime units don’t leave loose ends, so they approach the park rangers and buy them off (with potential revenue of $300,000 per rhino to play with – they can offer a warden far more than he can ever earn off his National Parks stipend). And it’s not just poaching: there have been over 40 thefts from European museums with collections of rhino horns (at least – they used to have collections!).

Also, because organised crime units attract highly intelligent criminal minds, the rhino product range has begun to extend to meat and ears and other body parts.

In short, the syndicates are here, and they’re highly entrepreneurial about what they do to their market. Competition rules be damned – it’s all already illegal.

Conclusion

The fewer rhinos there are, the more expensive the horn will become. To me, it looks like a race to the finish line. Because there is not a conservation team out there that can match the pay-off.

My opinion is that the money would be better spent finding a cure for cancer. And providing the poor Vietnamese with more radiotherapy machines.

Because then maybe, just maybe, the bottom of the rhino horn market will fall out.

But if that doesn’t happen…everywhere will have a story like Mozambique’s.

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