Can You Wage a War on Poaching?

But as Patrick Tucker reported at Defense One, all these airborne bells-and-whistles, including the new models that WWF are developing, might not do much to actually stop poaching on the ground. The main bulwark against poaching remains rangers, many of whom are poorly compensated and overworked. 

If the real enemy is market incentives outside Africa, the logical step would be to cut off the source of those incentives. To some extent, the United States is trying to do this—but again, it’s basing its model off the War on Drugs. Last year, Washington, “taking a page from the battle against international drug cartels,” in the words of The New York Times, offered a $1-million reward for information on Vixay Keosavang, a Laotian man who has been called the “Pablo Escobar of wildlife trafficking.” Vixay is the head of the Xaysavang Network, which allegedly, in one incident, had Thai prostitutes pose as legal hunters to bring rhino horn into the East Asian market. Vixay is also one of the main subjects of the book-length investigation Killing for Profit: Exposing the Illegal Rhino Horn Trade, a grisly report by the journalist Julian Rademeyer.

Capturing Vixay would no doubt strike a blow against the illegal trade. But ultimately, Vixay is just the facilitator of a demand. Taking him out would do no more to stop the flow of rhino horn into East Asia than killing Pablo Escobar did to stop the flow of cocaine into the U.S.

So if a war on poaching is not the solution, what is?

One possible solution, which was not discussed at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, is legalization. In 2013, South Africa’s Environmental Minister Edna Molewa suggested that the country could reduce black-market demand for poaching by producing legally harvested rhino horns. Others, including investment analyst Michael Eustace and sustainability economist Michael 't' Sas-Rolfes, have also championed the approach. The plan would involve the non-lethal removal of rhino horns, which rhinos have the capacity to regrow. Eustace has estimated that roughly 1,200 horns per year could be sustainably obtained from live rhinos, while 400 additional horns could be collected from rhinos who die of natural causes. The collective output from these "harvests" would be enough to squash the illegal market. 

There is no long ideological war being waged against Africa’s charismatic megafauna.

There are several barriers to this plan’s success—the main one being that the legal sale of such products would be difficult to regulate and could potentially expand the market for an illegal trade that would operate in tandem with the legal one. Such an initiative also couldn’t be put into effect until 2016, the date of the next convention on international trade in endangered species, or CITES.

There are also moral objections to sale of legalized rhino horn in much the same way that there are objections to the legal sale of drugs. "I wouldn’t go to sleep at night," writes Will Travers, CEO of the Born Free Foundation, "if I thought I was selling something like that to a Vietnamese family who have scrimped and saved every cent to buy rhino horn for their dying grandmother, who then goes and dies."

Another option would be to focus on education and public-awareness campaigns. This may seem like an obvious point, but rhino horn neither cures cancer nor revives a weak libido. Rhino horn is formed primarily from keratin, the same substance found in human nails. Studies demonstrating the horn’s lack of medicinal value, combined with the threat of economic sanctions, have helped deter rhino-horn production and consumption in countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. (Some rangers in South Africa have gone so far as to inject a non-lethal toxic dye into living rhinos, in an effort to deter consumers from ingesting rhino-horn powder that could make them sick. The dye is also visible to airport scanners.)

These options do not, necessarily, discount a militarized anti-poaching campaign. It may still be the case that South Africa could benefit from drones, Namibia from helicopters, Tanzania from night-vision goggles, and so on. But the wars on drugs and terror are distressingly inaccurate models. There is no long ideological war being waged against Africa’s charismatic megafauna. Nor is there any physical addiction fueling the desire for rhino horn or elephant ivory in East Asia. The fundamental idea keeping this problem alive is the perception that these objects hold value. If that value is stripped away, so too is the problem.

Gabon’s president said it best: kill the market, save the animals.
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Zach Goldhammer is an editorial fellow with The Atlantic​.

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