Ethical Horn is a Perfect Substitute for Poached
Asian consumers are just as willing to purchase ethical (or ‘farmed’) horn as ‘wild’ horn taken from poached rhino. The only thing stopping us from selling ethical horn from healthy animals, in lieu of poached horn, is our own poor policies.
This has always struck us as one of the more foolish arguments against a legal trade in horn. If there is no consumer demand for horn from protected private reserves, then why do we regularly engage in the exchange of gunfire with poaching teams we have detected on, or even in, our perimeter? Why are they risking their lives in pursuit of a product for which they can get no payment?
If there is no interest in "farmed" horn, then why are we regularly approached by foreign individuals hoping to purchase the horn we have stored in our vaults?
And if Asian markets have no taste for horn unless it has been poached, then why does roughly 80% of all seized horn show the clear and obvious signs of having come from the sort of ethical harvesting of horn that leaves the rhino alive and healthy?
Take a close look at this picture of horn seized at the Hong Kong airport. Having trouble telling which horns were poached and which were ethically trimmed? Look at the bottom of each horn in the front row. Starting from the left, we can see that the first, third, sixth, and seventh all show the concave surface that comes from hacking the entire horn out of the rhino's skull. While it is possible that these horns were the result of natural mortalities, it is more likely that they were poached.
Now look closely at the second, third, and fourth horns (from the left) in that same row. Do you note the flat surface? Such a smooth cut can only be the result of the veterinarian-managed process in which a rhino was tranquilized, trimmed, and released back into the wild.
We see that same evidence on seven of the nine horns visible in the second row.
After that, the horns are all resting in
such a way as to make it difficult to see whether the bottom was trimmed or hacked. Fortunately, there is a second way to identify horn trimmed ethically - the shape of the horn itself.
A horn that has been trimmed previously, and that has not yet grown out completely, bears the 'half-loaf' shape we see on every horn in the third row, or at least shows the trimmed tip we see on the last horn on the right in the front row. Horns that have either never been trimmed, or that have been trimmed but have grown out again, bear the clear horn shape we see across the other horns in that front row.
From these two signs - the cut along the bottom, or the cut that shortens the horn - we can see which horns were taken off animals in managed environments, and which horns were taken off animals that might never before have been trimmed. In other words, we can see which horns were 'farmed', and which were 'wild'.
Five of the horns in this picture appear to have been taken from 'wild' rhino. Twenty six are clearly from 'farmed' rhino. The remainder are not sufficiently visible to make a determination. Thus, 16% of the horns are from the 'wild', and 84% from 'farmed.'
If horn consumers do not want 'farmed' horn, then why would smugglers have gone to the trouble to sneak a shipment consisting of 84% unwanted material into Hong Kong?
The whole argument is too ridiculous for words. And it gets worse.
The advertisements shown here were published in Vietnam by an NGO dedicated to convincing Vietnamese consumers not to buy rhino horn. They have not succeeded. But their failure is not the interesting aspect of this story. It is their choice of images that is of interest.
This NGO is one of the loudest voices claiming that consumers of horn have no interest in ‘farmed’ horn, and that trade in horn is, thus, doomed to drive consumers to more frenzied support of poaching. But when one looks closely at the advertisements they have put before the Vietnamese people, one sees that every one of the horns in those images is from a ‘farmed’ environment. Why do their ‘demand reduction’ ads need to reduce demand for ‘farmed horn’ if consumers already don’t want it?
If this NGO truly believes that consumers of horn have no interest in trimmed horns, why waste money buying ads with pictures of ‘farmed’ horn? The facts of their ad purchases clearly demonstrate that they know these consumers consider such horn attractive. They have built a fund-raising machine to attract donations they use in a battle they claim doesn’t need to be fought.
Any readers who might not yet be convinced that the central goal of these campaigns is fundraising rather than demand reduction are asked to note the language in which these ads are presented: English. Is a campaign in English more likely intended to target the Vietnamese horn-buying market, or the English-speaking fundraising market?
Silliness like this is all too often the norm in the current debate. We must move past such distractions and allow those with the relevant experience to craft ethical strategies that work, based on science and fact.
So what does the science say?
A study published in March of 2022 conducted a choice experiment with 345 confirmed consumers of rhino horn in Vietnam. That study (available here) showed that consumers' main concern was a strong preference for LEGAL horn, whether from 'wild' or 'farmed' environments.
This is consistent with our own experience, in which we have been offered as much as R75,000 ($5,000) per kilogram if we are willing to sell horn illegally, and R375,000 ($25,000) if we can deliver horn legally. To be clear, we have engaged in neither so far, and have no intention of operating illegally. But the prices offered make the point quite clearly: Consumers will pay a premium for the chance to purchase ethical, legal horn.
The claim that consumers of horn will not purchase ethical horn in lieu of poached horn is nonsense. Consumers prefer to purchase ethical horn, sold in compliance with the law.