You may assume from the title of this post that it will be arguing for the legalisation of the rhino trade as the only means to protect rhino, but that is not the case. While there are arguments both for and against legalisation, it remains a hot debate and something I believe is distracting from other, potentially more effective mechanisms to protect rhinos. This post instead argues for the creation of an industry of ‘rhino-friendly’ products, manufactured by communities living close to the rhinos, and sold into international markets. In other words, ‘Preventing Poaching by Retailing for Rhinos’
The basis of this post is that the current militarised response to the rhino trade, while necessary in the short term to prevent the mass slaughter and potential extinction of rhinos, is not a viable solution to the problem. At best it is fire-fighting. A solution that addresses the structural causes of rhino poaching is required if the poaching is to be brought under control. This post argues that there is such a solution, and a mechanism to make rhinos valuable with or without their horns.
Preventing Poaching by Retailing for Rhinos
The proposal is to create an industry of ‘rhino-friendly’ products, manufactured by communities living close to the rhinos (particularly in Mozambique where many of the poachers in Kruger National Park originate from), and sold into international markets. I am not calling for a host of products emblazoned with rhinos on them, as they will only sell to a very niche market. Instead, conventional, high-quality, popular products should be made under a ‘rhino-friendly’ scheme and sold into international markets. The key with this scheme is to create quality products that people would buy anyway if they saw them in shops, in order to create a mass-market for these goods (e.g. rather than a t-shirt or polo shirt with a massive picture of a rhino on it that people will hardly ever wear, produce a quality, stylish t-shirt or polo shirt people can wear day-to-day with just a little rhino logo on it to show its provenance). The ethics behind these products (in that that they support rhino conservation) would simply be a deal clincher as opposed to the main focus of the products.
Given the huge numbers of people that already support rhino conservation charities internationally and the numbers who go on safaris, there is a large customer base for such products. This would also act as a ‘middle way’ for generating revenue for conservation. Currently the only ways to support conservation is through hunting or safaris (which cost a lot of money) or charitable donations (which people can only give a limited amount of their income to). Creating ‘rhino-friendly’ products would sit in the middle of these two, enabling consumers to use more of their income to support conservation by simply choosing ‘rhino-friendly’ products to buy, much like the Fairtrade movement has sought to do (e.g. people still buy coffee, but support human welfare by choosing to buy Fairtrade certified coffee).
A Red Carpet for Rhinos
Additionally, to combat rhino horn as a status symbol (as is currently the case in Vietnam, and which is a big driver of the demand for rhino horn and its high price), other status and wealth symbols need to be created that are tied to protecting rhinos rather than killing them. A range of high-end, luxury items should be produced that are ‘rhino-friendly’, and a mass advertising campaign organised to get celebrities and wealthy people buying and wearing/displaying these products as symbols of their wealth and ethics (e.g. produce a range of luxury handbags that celebrities can carry when walking down the red-carpet at big events). This is much like the Toyota Prius – a car that people would buy anyway because it is a quality vehicle, but the badge also acts as a status symbol for people to demonstrate their green credentials. The brand name for these products could perhaps be ‘Horny’.
By establishing these ‘rhino-friendly’ luxury goods as status symbols in their own right, not only would a huge amount of income be generated to support rhino conservation and jobs be created on the ground to combat the structural causes of rhino poaching, but it would help to diminish demand for rhino products by providing an alternative status and wealth symbol for people to display. A campaign pushing these rhino-friendly products as the real jewels, and people buying rhino horn as ‘cheapskates’, could then be launched to entrench this. Crucially, these products would offer a positive alternative to rhino horn – rather than simply telling people to stop buying horn, it offers a positive alternative choice to buy another product that still acts as a symbol of status and wealth, but which is beneficial to rhino conservation instead of damaging.
Through the creation of a ‘rhino-friendly’ industry, rhinos would become a more valuable asset alive than dead, and countries with rhinos would be able to effectively monetise their rhinos for the benefit of the country and to fund conservation work, and to do so in a way that supports rhino welfare and offers a long-term solution to helping ensure we continue to have rhinos living in the wild. Additionally, the communities that received jobs from these schemes would get a stake and sense of ownership of the parks and the rhinos, and so be more supportive of rhino conservation efforts.
This is by no means a panacea to the problem, and it would take some time to set up. However, South Africa already has a lot of established industry and a good manufacturing base, so if offers the potential to bring such a scheme into reality. If South Africa can make this scheme work, it will create a model that can be rolled out through many parts of Africa to create an industry of products that support conservation and offer an innovative way to mobilise a large source of new revenue for conservation and, in doing so, create bigger monetary incentives to protect wildlife. Such a scheme is already under development within the Marjan Centre as part of a plan to improve gorilla conservation efforts, but there is perhaps an even greater need, and an even greater opportunity, to create such a scheme in South Africa and protect these wonderful rhinos.
Richard Milburn, The Marjan Centre