Unravelling rhino riddles

Why are some countries more effective than others at controlling rhino poaching, asks Paul Tanghe.

Since 2008, surging consumer demand in Vietnam and China has triggered a global crisis in rhino poaching. In South Africa, the twentieth-century paradigm of conservation success, particularly in rhinos, poaching has increased exponentially. Today in South Africa, over three rhinos are likely to be poached every day, with each year’s total worse than the year before. Elsewhere, wild rhinos have become extinct in Mozambique and Vietnam, and the last remaining northern white rhino bull is under continuous armed guard in Kenya.

Yet some countries have successfully controlled rhino poaching: Botswana, Indonesia, Nepal, and Swaziland. These success cases are puzzling in that none enjoys high state capacity, rule of law, or strong economies.

The sacred value protection model might explain why some countries have successfully controlled rhino poaching amid the current global crisis. People relate to one another in any given situation using just one of four possible models: market-price, equality-matching, authority-ranking, or communal-sharing (Fiske 1992). When people relate to one another on rhino issues using a market-priced model, rhinos possess secular or fungible value.

However, when people use one of the three alternative models to relate to each other on rhino issues, rhinos gain sacred or incommensurable value. Under such circumstances, poaching rhinos becomes a blocked exchange: a form of a taboo trade-off involving the disapproval of commodifying goods and services deemed to have moral or emotional significance (Tetlock et al 2000). Consequently, poaching causes moral outrage and cleansing behaviours, thus enabling resilient policy adaptations to the surging price of rhino horn.

Despite significant popular attention to the crisis in rhino poaching, there is scant comparative analysis of counter-poaching across rhino range states. Yet dominant approaches to understanding conservation and poaching stress the capacity of the state to coerce behaviour, and/or the influence of markets in incentivising individual decisions.

According to these perspectives, the solution to poaching lies in increasing the coercive power of the state, or in making not-poaching economically preferable to poaching. However, these approaches fail to explain why relatively weak countries likes Nepal and Swaziland have controlled poaching, and why a strong state like South Africa has failed.

To demonstrate how social conditions can affect control of poaching, I first examine existent conservation literature that locates poaching as an outcome of individual decision-making. I then apply relational model theory and the sacred value protection model to this decision, hypothesizing that if people relate to rhino conservation using a non-market-priced model, then poaching will elicit moral outrage and cleansing behaviours.

These behaviours should precede and accompany effective policy adaptations to the surge in rhino horn demand. If people relate to rhino conservation using market-priced models, then poaching will not elicit moral outrage and cleansing behaviour, making successful policy adaptations to surging demand less likely to occur.

After developing a theory applying the sacred value protection model to rhino poaching, I test my theory against the universe of cases involving rhino poaching. Using proxy measures of relational models found in rules regarding rhino boundaries, ownership, hunting, and penalties for misuse, I compare relational models with rates of rhino poaching for all rhino range states. Following this survey of all rhino range states, I consider in depth the cases of Nepal, Swaziland, and South Africa to illustrate how non-market-priced relational models can enable the successful control of poaching.

I conclude by addressing the implications of my argument for further research in environmental governance, illicit markets, and political economy, as well as for rhino conservation.

By Paul Tanghe: Instructor of International Relations and Comparative Politics in the Department of Social Sciences, United States Military Academy, West Point, New York; also PhD candidate in International Studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. Research interests in global governance, environmental politics, comparative environmental policy, the politics of poaching, and rhino conservation.

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