Menus Subscribe Search
The African White Rhino (PHOTO: JASON PRINCE/SHUTTERSTOCK)

The African White Rhino (PHOTO: JASON PRINCE/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Wanna Save the Rhino? Legalize Horn Farming

• March 06, 2013 • 12:10 PM

The African White Rhino (PHOTO: JASON PRINCE/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Black-market rhino horns are more valuable than gold or cocaine. Could legalized “horn farming” save the endangered species?

Like the dodo, the dinosaur, and the pig-footed bandicoot (maybe), the western black rhinoceros is now a thing of the past, hunted to extinction for its horn. And small wonder. Despite being banned in 1977, the rhino horn trade is flourishing. Twenty years ago, a kilo of horn went for $4,700. Today, it sells for $65,000, making it more valuable than either gold or cocaine. Poaching is on the rise, and by some accounts, the number of endangered (but not yet extinct) white rhino killed doubles each year. By 2035, African wildlands could be devoid of the animal.

As parties to the international Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) meet in Bangkok this week, a team of Australian conservationists are presenting an unusual—and controversial—proposal: in order to save the remaining African rhinos, farm them for their horns.

The economic logic goes like this: demand for horn is inelastic and growing, so a trade ban (which restricts supply) only drives up prices, making the illicit good more valuable—and giving poachers greater incentive to slaughter the animal.

“Rhino horn is used for dagger handles in Yemen and has been used in Chinese traditional medicine for millennia as a presumed cure for a wide range of ailments,” explains Duan Biggs, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Queensland, in a March issue of Science. “Rapid economic growth in east and southeast Asia is assumed to be the primary factor driving the increased demand for horn.” Conservation managers have even tried preempting poachers by de-horning animals in their care, to no avail; the stubs are simply too valuable to pass up. (As documented in the 2012 National Geographic article, “Rhino Wars,” African wildlife conservation has become as militarized as America’s “war on drugs,” with the same miserable failures.)

But horn harvesting need not be an all-or-nothing proposition.

“Rhino horn is composed entirely of keratin and regrows when cut,” writes Biggs. “Sedating a rhino to shave its horn can be done for as little as $20.” A white rhino produces about a kilo of horn per year, and the current global demand could be met by “farming” as few as 5,000 animals on a private, well-guarded preserve. (Natural rhino death “would also provide hundreds of horns annually,” even as the herd continues to grow at a rate near 10 percent.) The millions of dollars generated by the legal enterprise could be used to fund further conservation efforts, such as wildland preservation, sustainable rural development, and field research.

Biggs points to the legalized crocodile skin trade, monitored by Cites, as a success story of endangered animal farming. Some 1.4 million crocodile skins were bought and sold last year, according to a recent UN report, supplied by Cites-registered farms around the world, including in the United States, Thailand, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela.

Still, Biggs argues, horn farming won’t necessarily replace poaching unless certain conditions are met. The black market will only collapse when legal horns are cheaper and easier to obtain than ill-gotten ones and penalties for operating outside the “central selling organization” are severe. DNA signatures and radio chips will help trace licit horns, and exporters will be subject to regular audits. At the same time, buyers must demand cruelty- and conflict-free wares (think of efforts to demonize blood diamonds).

Horn farming has been proposed before—Cites considered and rejected the idea in 1992—but many conservations feel that poaching is primarily a demand problem, not a supply one. Educate the heathen public, the thinking goes, and it won’t support such a brutal practice. (The World Wildlife Fund, which just received a $5 million grant from Google to hunt poachers with drones, has ads like this one on bus stops all over my neighborhood in Washington.)

“Yet education, enforcement, protection, and awareness efforts aimed at reducing the use of horn have all demonstrably failed to turn the tide of this rising demand,” Biggs writes. “Legitimizing the market for horn may be morally repugnant to some, but it is probably the only way to prevent extinction of Africa’s remaining rhino.”

Doing so will require conservationists set aside environmental logic and replace it with the economic kind. It’s a risky wager. But then, with the rhino population plummeting, long odds are better than none at all.

Kevin Charles Redmon
Kevin Charles Redmon is a journalist and critic. He lives in Washington, D.C.

More From Kevin Charles Redmon

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.