Saturday, 16 August 2014

Murphy called into question: speculators do want rhinoceroses extinct

In his 2006 The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism, Austrian school economist Robert Patrick Murphy said that private owners of rhinoceroses and rhinoceros habitat would always wish for the species to prosper and would crack down completely on poaching that could reduce their numbers – instead creating a system of trade that would allow profits to be made from rhinoceros products whilst maintaining their numbers.

Such a trade, given the slow breeding rate of rhinoceroses, would necessarily be very restricted and who knows how few people would be allowed to kill rhinoceroses for their horns and other parts?? What this would do for the working masses of rhinoceros range states is unclear even if it did keep rhinoceroses from declining, and Murphy never looks at how Javan and Sumatran rhinoceroses suffered catastrophic declines in pre-industrial Indochina and even in Táng Dynasty-period China. (The last rhinoceros in Thailand was not killed until circa 1989, but trophy hunting by the ruling classes of Britain and Asia had made them rare one hundred years before that).

Today was a first visit for several years to my eldest half-sister in Sunshine – planned two weeks ago because my mother was visiting Canberra where my uncle is ill. Despite the house being even more cluttered than I remembered it, I managed after a nice leek soup lunch to discover a 2012 article titled ‘Banking on Extinction: Endangered Species and Speculation’ by Oxford Review of Economic Policy that shows using the example of the Black Rhinoceros that for species that are already “rare”, it will always be economic for financial speculators to drive that species to extinction.

Whilst the Black Rhinoceros is the best-studied example, it is likely that the current rhinoceros poaching crisis is “banking” much more on the extinction of the Sumatran and Javan Rhinoceroses – not studied at all in academic literature on poaching. There are several reasons for supposing such:
  1. The Sumatran and Javan Rhinoceroses are much less numerous than the Black Rhinoceros, with wild populations likely under 100 animals in one or a few locations
  2. Owing to their short and stubby horns, each Javan or Sumatran rhinoceros produces only a fraction the volume of horn produced by each African rhinoceros.
    • Approximately, a Sumatran Rhinoceros’ two horns total a quarter the length of a Black Rhinoceros’
    • whilst a male Javan Rhinoceros’ total only a tenth and the female has no horn at all
  3. The Sumatran and Javan Rhinoceroses have been exploited for “trophy hunting” and horn for at least ninety years longer than the Black Rhinoceros.
  4. From (3), it is likely many untested (to determine which rhinoceros species) or undiscovered stockpiles of Javan and Sumatran horn exist among these speculators
  5. From (4),the price of Javan and/or Sumatran rhinoceros horn may be currently depressed by these stockpiles
  6. The potentially imminent extinction of these species will mean profits beyond anything seen in the rhinoceros horn industry to today even for small amounts for horn or other rhinoceros parts
The fact that Vietnamese poachers killed the last mainland Javan Rhinoceroses in Cát Tiên National Park suggests firmly that Vietnamese, Taiwanese and Chinese speculators indeed possess substantial stockpiles of Javan and Sumatran horn, despite the fact that the extreme rarity of Javan Rhinoceroses pre-dates the explosion of poaching in the 1970s – the species was almost unknown outside Ujung Kulon as early as the 1930s. These stockpiles would have a much higher present value were no individuals of these species present than if conservation efforts were more successful.

Whilst ‘Banking on Extinction’ does mention that stronger private property rights would actually mean Javan and Sumatran rhinoceroses would no longer be in danger of immediate extinction, the author give no suggestions as to how to achieve this or even whether it could be done.

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