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Horn consumers reveal why a legal trade alone won’t save rhinos

Such a trade will likely face competition from a parallel black market because of a strong preference for wild rhino horn

24 January 2022 - 19:32 By Vu Hoai Nam Dang and Martin Reinhardt Nielsen
Three of four rhinos that were killed for their horns in the Western Cape in December. On the black market, African rhino horns can fetch up to $20,000/kg (about R305,000).
WHAT A WASTE Three of four rhinos that were killed for their horns in the Western Cape in December. On the black market, African rhino horns can fetch up to $20,000/kg (about R305,000).
Image: Inverdoorn Game Farm

Demand for rhino horn in Asian markets, especially Vietnam and China, has pushed remaining population of the animals to the brink of extinction. In the past decade, nearly 10,000 rhinos were killed by poachers in Africa. The remaining populations on this continent and in Asia are steadily declining, with fewer than 30,000 animals left in 2020, from 500,000 at the beginning of the 20th century.

Rhino horn is coveted for rumoured medicinal properties and as a status symbol. To stop the poaching crisis it has been suggested that horns sustainably harvested from live rhinos be sold in a legal trade to international buyers to meet demand. At the same time, this may generate income to fund anti-poaching activities, create jobs for local people, discourage poachers and encourage private rhino owners to conserve them.

In an international, legal trade, rhino horns can be microchipped and a certification and permit system put in place to prevent laundering.

But whether legalising the international trade in rhino horn will contribute to conserving rhinos is hotly debated in conservation circles. Opponents argue that a legal trade will remove the stigma associated with using rhino horn and thus increase demand to a dangerous level.

We’ve published a new study that addresses this conundrum through an experiment with 345 rhino horn consumers in Vietnam to generate insight to their choices about purchasing rhino horn.

We found that a legal trade in rhino horn would not eliminate a parallel black market, but would likely reduce it. Our insights can be used to evaluate the possible consequences of a legal trade and develop policies and interventions to manage demand for rhino horn.

Preference for wild rhinos

The trade in rhino horn is highly lucrative. On the black market rhino horn prices can fetch up to $400,000/kg (about R6m) for Asian rhino horns and $20,000/kg (about R305,000) for African rhino horns.

While rhino horn is mostly used as a traditional medicine in Vietnam to reduce hangovers, detoxify the body and reduce high fever (despite no scientific evidence supporting these benefits), a large quantity is supplied to the art and antiques market in China.

Consumers preferred a legal trade. However, those with higher incomes were less concerned about legality. Hence, if the legal supply of wild rhino horns is not enough, they will likely buy poached or stolen horns from illegal suppliers.

Only by interviewing consumers of this product can we generate insight to motivations for purchase and rhino horn preferences. However, because it is so expensive, rhino horn consumers are mostly senior and very wealthy individuals who are notoriously averse to investigations into their illegal behaviour.

They generally do not want to talk to researchers they do not trust about their purchase and use of rhino horn. Nor are they motivated to participate in interviews by small gifts or abstract reasons, such as conserving rhinos. This poses a huge challenge for studying the impact of a legal trade on consumer demand.

To interview a large number of rhino horn consumers we hired a team of research assistants with a winning sense of humour, colourful life experience and true grit. With a rented Porsche and a Rolex watch borrowed from friends, we reached out to various networks and clubs where wealthy consumers often gather, such as golf and tennis clubs, and established a network of key informants who helped introduce us to potential respondents.

In the interviews we showed them choice cards and kindly asked them to make choices about purchasing rhino horn for medical use in different scenarios, including an international, legal trade in rhino horn.

Our study shows consumers do not want captive-bred rhinos which are perceived as “farmed”, such as cattle or horses. They prefer and are willing to pay more for horns from rhinos living in the wild or semiwild environments, such as private reserves where they need to find food and water themselves, but receive supplemental feeding at some times of the year. This is because consumers believe wild rhino horns have better medicinal efficacy than farmed ones, being exposed to naturally occurring medicinal herbs.

Consumers preferred a legal trade. However, those with higher incomes were less concerned about legality. Hence, if the legal supply of wild rhino horns is not enough, they will likely buy poached or stolen horns from illegal suppliers.

Conservation implications

Our results show some support for the argument that a legal trade could shift the preference of a large proportion of consumers to legally supplied horns.

However, the strong preference for wild rhino horns is a huge concern. As a consequence, a legal trade would likely continue to face competition from a parallel black market.

Some important questions remain unanswered by the study. These include: to what extent legal supplies can meet potentially rising market demand and whether consumers can be convinced that less-wild rhino horn has similar health benefits, if any, as those of wild rhino horn.

This means the extent to which poaching would be reduced would depend on the legal supply of wild and semiwild rhino horns, on campaigns’ ability to change consumer preferences, to what extent the legal trade would reduce stigma and increase demand, and on enforcement efforts in supply-and-demand countries.

Our results suggest that basing campaigns on the influence of peer reference could be a viable strategy to reduce demand by encouraging people who have experienced no or negative effects of using rhino horn to step forward in the debate. Rhino horn consumers often listen to their peers when considering buying or using this product. We found that the more peers used rhino horn with no or negative effects, the less likely consumers were to buy rhino horn.

Unanswered questions

Some important questions remain unanswered by the study. These include: to what extent legal supplies can meet potentially rising market demand and whether consumers can be convinced that less-wild rhino horn has similar health benefits, if any, as those of wild rhino horn.

Furthermore, the aggregated international demand for rhino horn is unknown if the rhino horn trade is legalised and there is no guarantee that legal horns can meet this demand. More importantly, consumers show a strong preference for wild rhinos and do not believe that horns from semiwild or farmed rhinos have the same medicinal effects.

Finally, our study only generates insight into Vietnamese consumers, while Chinese tourists visiting Hanoi to purchase rhino horn and the mainland Chinese market remain mostly unstudied. While more evidence is needed to confirm whether a legal trade will contribute to rhino conservation, demand reduction campaigns should continue.

The study received ethical approval from the Research Ethics Committee for SCIENCE and SUND at the University of Copenhagen and the Ethical Review Board at the Hanoi University of Public Health. Respondents were informed of the study purposes, potential benefits and risks of being enrolled in the study, and that they could withdraw from the interview at any time.

Vu Hoai Nam Dang is a PhD fellow, University of Copenhagen, and Martin Reinhardt Nielsen is an associate professor, University of Copenhagen.

This article first appeared in The Conversation.

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