Can Capitalism Save The Rhino?

  • Date: 05/08/17
  • FREEcology

Rhinos have been hunted to the verge of extinction because of their valuable horns. Most governments have responded, as they have with elephant poaching, by banning hunting, heavily restricting trade, and publicly destroying large stockpiles of seized rhino horn and ivory. It hasn’t worked. Poaching continues to be profitable and to push the rhino toward extinction.

Today, New York will destroy nearly two tons of ivory and rhino horn in Central Park, in a public display of its opposition to poaching. It’s been done many times before, yet poaching continues. Ironically, destroying ivory and rhino horn likely makes poaching worse, by driving up the price that poachers can receive.

National Geographic published a debate on whether crushes are an effective means of combating poaching. This contribution from PERC Fellow Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, a South African conservation economist, gets it exactly right.

I’m skeptical. It’s a PR stunt . . . But after many previous public stockpile destructions, how can yet another one end the poaching that feeds the persistent demand for illegal ivory? By now surely the conservation message is out? Ongoing destructions could backfire, reinforcing perceptions of ivory’s scarcity and supporting high black market prices. And doing this doesn’t generate sustainable financing for African parks, where it is desperately needed: It simply entrenches elephants as aid-dependent liabilities on a continent where they are losing ground to rapidly growing human populations, in relentless competition for space and resources.

The tragedy is that the rhino’s extinction risk could effectively be eliminated, if property rights and market incentives were embraced. John Stossel and Maxim Lott have a new feature for Reason explaining that poaching could be dramatically curtailed if rhinos could be lawfully farmed for their horns (which can be safely removed). Artificial rhino horn could also flood the market and drive down the prices that poachers can fetch. For rhinos, as with many other endangered species, free markets and property rights can succeed where regulation and wishful thinking have failed.

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