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Legal Trade in Ethical Animal Products Saves Species


Trade is the single most effective conservation tool ever deployed.  It has brought countless species back from the brink of extinction.  And South Africa is the prime example of this truth.

The notion that trade doesn't save species is, perhaps, the most pernicious of the false claims that have been thrown around irresponsibly. Captive breeding, often funded through trade, has brought more species back from the brink of extinction than any other conservation strategy.  It is particularly galling to see this claim propagated in the context of the rhino, as the white rhino’s remarkable turn-around in the 1960’s was due entirely to the captive breeding efforts of the dedicated experts in what was then the Natal Parks Board. That effort was funded by the fact that these parks were allowed to sell the excess rhino they bred.  And the only reason we still have healthy populations of that species today is entirely because of the captive breeding efforts of private individuals, driven by the potent mix of conservation commitment and the potential to fund it through commercial trade.

Were it not for the commercial element, virtually none of the meaningful private rhino populations would exist today; and if they did not exist, South African rhino would be on the brink of extinction.  And since South Africa’s white (and often black) rhino have been used to reintroduce populations in the rest of Africa, the absence of effort here would have left Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania and others, with no white rhino at all.


This next chart shows the number of surviving rhino in public vs. private reserves.  In 2010, rhino populations were healthy and growing in both environments, with the vast majority in public hands.  Within just ten years, private reserves had more than doubled their population, and public reserves had lost massive portions of their populations.  Were it not for the dedicated efforts of those private individuals still willing to put everything they have at risk, to save the rhino; this battle would already be lost. Private reserves get no support from government or NGOs to sustain their operations.  So, the only way to keep these life-saving reserves running is to have commercial trade funding the effort.


In the 18th century, ostrich feathers were so popular in ladies’ fashion that they disappeared from all of North Africa. If not for ostrich farming, which began in 1838, then the world’s largest bird would probably be extinct. Today, ostriches are farmed and hunted for feathers, skin, meat, eggs, and fat. 


African Wildlife Foundation website,


Every single one of the animals shown in the composite photograph atop this page owes its continued existence, and the healthy populations now thriving in the wild, to captive breeding.  Many of those animals – the sable, ostrich, crocodile, and bontebok, for example – were saved specifically by captive breeding done by private individuals.  For commercial profit.  In other words: “Trade.” And while credit for saving the white rhino in the ‘60s must first go to the amazing rangers who accomplished that task, the job of keeping them alive over the past decade has been accomplished best by the private rhino owners who have made this their life’s work.

Simply put, the most effective conservation strategy ever conceived has been the harnessing of private self-interest to achieve a conservation outcome.  That is how we saved ostriches in the 1900’s.  It is how we saved sable in the 2000’s.  It is the only reason we still have strong rhino populations today.


While the world is experiencing history’s most frightening crash in biodiversity, with devastating consequences throughout our continent, South Africa and Namibia have bucked that trend and improved biodiversity to the point that these two countries (and only these two countries) have far more wildlife today than at any point in the past 150 years.  South Africa and Namibia have 20x more wildlife today than they had 40 years ago, while Kenya and Botswana have suffered the loss of 85% and 45% of their wildlife, respectively, over the same time period.


This astonishing achievement forces us all to think carefully about how it was achieved.  The lessons of that achievement hold the key to preserving our planet and its wildlife. The key was a set of laws passed in the 1970’s and 1990’s that allowed private individuals in SA and Namibia to purchase, own, and profit from, wildlife.  Private individuals can do none of those things as freely and easily in Kenya and Botswana.  And that has made all the difference.

When private individuals were allowed to purchase some of the few remaining bontebok, and to benefit financially from any breeding success they could generate, they protected and bred those animals.  There are now literally thousands of these once scarce antelope roaming private reserves in South Africa.  When private individuals were allowed to purchase, own, and profit from sable, they took the initiative to breed the populations back to healthy levels.  There are over 25,000 sable on private reserves, even as there are only about 800 alive in Kruger.  Sable are more endangered on public land than even rhino.  And all of this was done simply because the private individuals responsible believed they could profit from their efforts.


Trade works.  The model is simple, reliable, and easy to deploy.  In the case of rhino, the model’s benefits are obvious and well-established.


Asian markets have been buying horn for hundreds of years.  For the past 40 years, the only way they could access the horn they wanted was by buying it from poachers. If they are now given the option of buying it from reserves – both private and public – that can drop 7x the poached volume on the market every year, the business model behind poaching will be gutted, the criminal syndicates that have organized the poachers will be starved of income, that income will be shifted to conservationists and our government, and the rhino will be safe.

We encourage any readers who wish to understand this opportunity in more detail to watch the excellent film, “Rhino In Crisis: A Blueprint for Survival” (  It features interviews with Dr. Ian Player and Dr. George Hughes, both of whom are heroes of rhino conservation, and without whom we would not have any white rhino at all today.  It also features commentary by Mavuso Msimang – the head of the Minister’s expert panel appointed to consider the issue of legal trade in horn (among other issues).  And it offers key input from the African communities whose voices are all too often excluded from this conversation

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