Monday, 21 February 2011

The battle over rhinos is heating up

2010 saw poaching of rhinos reach levels never seen in the past, as the price of Asiatic rhino horn reached the unimaginable levels of $50 or higher per gram, whilst less expensive African horn reached much higher prices than it has historically been at. Three hundred and thirty-eight rhinos were killed in South Africa alone during 2010, or about one-thirtieth of that country’s rhino population (and South Africa holds 75 percent of the world’s rhinos).

As I have observed the increasing poaching of rhinos through a Google Alert throughout 2010, I have long wondered why the governments of the countries concerned have not been either doing something about rhino poaching or asking themselves whether, as Robert P. Murphy says, rhinos could be handled better by profit-oriented groups? Murphy argues that the political leaders would have to personally benefit from maintaining stocks of rhinos for there to be any possibility of their numbers stabilising. My brother, myself and other relatives doubt this very much because:
  1. the conservation of rhinos would need to be more profitable than other land uses
  2. those who hold rhino horn have an interest in extinction of rhinos to increase its price as it turns into a rigidly non-renewable resource.
For this reason, it is encouraging for me to see that governments in Southern Africa, often viewed as incompetent and tending towards lawlessness, have actually in recent weeks managed to prevent at least nine rhino poachers from killing this year even more than the three hundred and thirty eight rhinos killed in 2010. Since rhinos breed only once every two or three years, at the present rate of increase in poaching all five rhino species would be extinct by 2035.

One cannot question the need for park rangers in areas with such poaching-sensitive species as rhinos to be armed. Rhino poachers are naturally armed, and unarmed park rangers are not likely to be able to simply tell a would-be rhino poacher to move away. Rhino poachers, being generally members of well-structured and well-resourced criminal gangs, are not likely to back down against even someone from the government.

One much deeper ethical issue that these shootings produce is whether it is just to kill proven rhino poachers - or even those who would kill rhinos, which contravenes laws on the trade in endangered species (of course most rhino species are now Critically Endangered). In general, there is a very strong resistance within me to allowing killing of anybody, even the worst criminals. Nevertheless, with rhino poachers, killing may be the only way that can serve even as a deterrent to killing rhinos, so that one can make the most extremely exceptional case here. The killing of rhino poachers as far as I know has not been seen before, though Kenya, with the fourth largest rhino population after South Africa, India and Namibia, began arresting rhino poachers in 2009 and seems not to have been in the rhino poaching news so much (correct me if you can). Although it is not easy to tell how many innocent people could be shot if a really hard-line policy was adopted by those eager to control rhino poaching, it does seem to me that it is not as tough to identify those profiting from the extinction of rhinos as many other criminal cases. This provides further support for a tougher line on poachers than has been taken by governments in Africa and Asia ever since the rhino crisis began over a hundred years ago.

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