Saving the rhino from extinction throws up the horns of a dilemma

Buildings Brics: Gram for gram, rhino horn is worth more than gold. So it is little surprise the animal is being hunted to extinction.

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Gram for gram, rhino horn is worth more than gold.

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So it is little surprise the animal is being hunted to extinction, which is why conservationists are pushing to create rhino-horn farms in a bid to save the creature.

Currently, horn sells for about US$60,000 (Dh220,392) a kilogram - gold is trading a shade below that at about $57,000 for the same measure - making it a prize very much worth chasing.

South Africa National Parks has lost a record 340 rhino this year, despite doubling its anti-poaching patrols.

In the past, poached rhino horns ended up in Yemen, where they were turned into traditional daggers called jambiyas. But over the past decade, demand has shifted to Asia, where they are prized as a tonic in traditional medicine.

In the past year alone Africa's Western black rhino, and Vietnam's Javan rhino have been hunted to oblivion. It is a trend that is set to accelerate unless the failed tactic of banning trade in rhino products is replaced, say conservationists.

"I do believe that conservationists need to investigate a legal trade in rhino horn as the current approach [trade ban] is not working, and appears unlikely to work in the foreseeable future," says Michael 't Sas-Rolfes, a conservation economist based in Johannesburg.

"The key to the rhino's survival is to make the animal more valuable alive than dead to the people who control its destiny," he says.

The idea is now being cautiously investigated by the South African government, and enjoys widespread backing among local conservationists, wildlife farmers and economists.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, an international body that regulates wildlife trade, is circulating a paper that discusses the idea.

Wildlife authorities are coming to realise that banning the sale of horn has failed. As rhinos decrease in number, horn becomes more valuable, and the incentive to poach increases.

A single horn can earn a poor Mozambican labourer 200,000 rand (Dh86,815) - as much as he can hope to earn in 10 years.

Poaching is also becoming more sophisticated. Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese syndicates frequently hire professional hunters to do the killing. Using helicopters, night-vision goggles and high-power rifles fitted with silencers, they outgun underfunded national park rangers.

"The demand is for around 900 horns a year, which we could easily supply without harming an animal," says Michael Eustace, an investment manager and wildlife economist.

Cropping of horns, which does not cause the animal any pain, and those harvested from animals that die naturally, together with existing stockpiles held by national parks, would provide the supply.

"It's not a biological issue - it's a market issue of supply and demand," says Mr Eustace.

Trade could be managed through a central selling organisation (CSO) such as the one operated by De Beers that for years controlled the flow of diamonds on to the market. A CSO would only trade in legally acquired horns, and sell to registered buyers, such as Chinese state pharmaceutical companies.

Horn sales could earn southern African wildlife conservation almost 800 million rand a year, according to Mr Eustace.

The CSO would supply companies directly, cutting out middlemen and ensuring only horn from legitimate supplies were sold.

"SA alone could easily supply 400 horns a year from natural deaths, 400 from stocks and 600 from farmers cropping half their horn", says Mr Eustace. "Based on current prices for horn, this could raise 784m rand a year for parks and wildlife."

But it will be an uphill struggle to convince international wildlife organisations, such as the WWF, that depend on wealthy European and US donors who are less likely to support such an idea. Critics say current examples of farmed animals to serve the Asian market, such as bears and tigers, are rife with abuse and cruelty.

"If you consider the plight of tigers at the moment, which are extensively 'farmed' in China, there appears to be no advantage for conservation of the species," says Francesca Shapland of the UK's Save the Rhino foundation.

Mr Eustace dismisses the comparison. "Rhinos are not harmed in harvesting horn, which grows back. There's no need to injure or kill the animal."

As the killing continues, the drive to legitimise the selling of their horns is likely to gain momentum.

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