This is a Western media myth! Rhino horn is used for various medicinal and ornamental purposes in Asia, and this use is deeply entrenched in several Eastern cultures and traditions.
Rhinos used to be far more widespread and our human ancestors hunted and ate them in Europe and Asia. They also used rhino horn to make ornaments such as bowls and used some rhino body parts as medicine. Rhinos played a strong role in many traditions and cultures and it is quite likely that the mythical unicorn with its healing horn was in fact a rhino.
According to historical records, Gujarati people from India once believed that rhino horn acted as an aphrodisiac, but this is no longer relevant and has not been for many decades. Today, some rhino horn is still used to make ornamental dagger handles in Yemen, but the most important demand remains among certain East Asian communities, who use it as a medicinal ingredient to treat ailments relating to toxicity, inflammation and fevers.
The aphrodisiac myth makes for sensational reporting in the Western media, but does nothing to advance communication and understanding between people who are concerned about saving the rhino and those who still believe that its horn has curative powers.
The illegal trade is driven by the high price for rhino horn. The price is unnecessarily high because a worldwide trade ban has made rhino horn artificially scarce. Many of the people involved in the trade are simply responding to market signals.
You can cut or shave most of the horn off a live rhino without causing it any serious harm, and it grows back again. Since rhino horn is made of keratin, this is similar to having a haircut or cutting fingernails. At least one rhino species, Africa’s southern white rhino, can be easily and profitably farmed for its horn.
The use of horn in Traditional Chinese Medicine is cultural, and dates back thousands of years. Whether rhino horn can be scientifically proven to work as medicine is most likely irrelevant to those who use it. A large portion of the world’s human population uses healing systems other than the science-based Western pharmaceutical approach, and those people believe that they have the right to do so.
Rhino horn is more than just a medicine – it is a cultural icon and precious commodity that continues to rise in value because it is being treated as a non-renewable resource. Rhinos are also threatened by other factors (such as habitat loss), and the best way to ensure their future is to make live rhinos as economically valuable as possible to the people who actually control their destiny.
We have no idea what it would take to achieve this or if this is even possible. Although we can try educational and media campaigns, we do not know how much these would cost to be effective, nor do we know whether we can realistically fund such campaigns. There are already captive breeding programmes for African white rhinos in China, suggesting that at least some Asian consumers are unlikely to change their preferences anytime soon.
Analysis of the rhino horn market suggests that it shares similar demand characteristics to products such as alcohol and illegal drugs. Bans on such products are unenforceable – they simply result in much higher prices and ensure that all trade is handled by organized crime syndicates. These syndicates typically co-opt corrupt government officials to help them, thereby ensuring that such bans can never succeed.
The ivory market is quite different from the rhino horn market, so it is wrong to make a direct comparison. Even so, the long-term success of the ivory ban remains highly questionable.
Severe punishments can backfire. Judges demand better evidence to successfully prosecute such cases and are more likely to dismiss them if evidence is flimsy. High penalties are useless if the probability of getting caught and convicted is low. The best deterrents for poachers are 1) early detection before they even get to a rhino and 2) a lower market price for rhino horn.
Given the right incentives, the private sector is typically more efficient than government agencies at producing and protecting commercially valuable species such as rhinos .
The only barrier for a legitimate rhino horn market is the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and related national laws and restrictions. Remove these barriers and there will most likely be a thriving legal market for horn, as indicated by the current high black market prices.
This is an illogical claim to make for any renewable resource that can be legally owned and physically protected. Rising demand leads to rising prices and increased economic incentives to protect and breed more rhinos. However, with a legal trade the increased supply of horn will most likely cause prices to drop.
African horn is at least a partial substitute for Asian horn. Economics teaches us that an increase in the supply of African rhino horn will most likely make it relatively cheaper than Asian horn, thereby displacing some of the existing demand for it. This will help protect Asian rhinos, not threaten them.
There are many precedents for successful, sustainable legal trading regimes that don’t threaten most wild populations of a species. Examples include deer farming for velvet (antlers) in New Zealand, wool harvesting from wild viçunas in South America, ostrich farming, crocodile farming and the most obvious analogy – sheep farming. Rhinos can be easily farmed, ranched and/or harvested in the wild and the resultant production could out-compete most of the supply from illegal poaching.
It is, in fact, most probably more risky to continue with a ban that has consistently failed for more than three decades, and which has no successful precedent.