Rhino horn. Picture:  AFP PHOTO / ROBERTO SCHMIDT
Rhino horn. Picture: AFP PHOTO / ROBERTO SCHMIDT

THE definition of insanity, according to Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. So let me apply that definition to the ivory and rhino horn trade.

In 2008-09 the Standing Committee of CITES (the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) approved China and Japan as two official ivory trading partners and sanctioned the one-off sale of more than 100 tonnes of legal ivory to them.

Born Free and others warned of dire consequences, but to no avail.

A CITES representative argued at the time that "the tonnage involved in this one-off sale of legal ivory is significant and if it can go some way to satisfy the demand for ivory within the domestic markets of China and Japan over the next few years the demand for illegal ivory will be reduced. We hope this will have a knock-on effect on the levels of poaching of elephants."

Her predictions were disastrously wrong.

Far from satisfying demand, demand was stimulated and elephant poaching has gone through the roof. The volume of illegal ivory in trade has hit 25-year-highs and today’s price for 1kg of illegal ivory is 1,000% higher than the legal sale price a few years ago.

Many countries in Africa may lose their elephants entirely as a result. Now we face a similarly misguided scenario for rhino.

Proponents of trade — the SA government, the Private Rhino Owners’ Association, the Professional Sport Hunters’ Association, Michael Eustace of African Parks and others — say legalisation will enable them to control the market and generate resources to fight poaching. They are, at best, extremely naïve.

They want to establish a central selling organisation (CSO), a cartel, to control the supply of rhino horn and to manipulate demand through price-fixing.

If there is too much demand, they will increase the price. Too little demand, and they will reduce the price. Imagine that they establish an official market price of $60,000/kg. What will the poachers’ reaction be? To offer poached rhino horn at $30,000/kg or $20,000/kg.

These prices are still so fantastical that poor people will continue to be exploited by criminal networks, willing to risk someone else’s lif e, to "make a killing".

And what if demand is too strong and the CSO decides to raise prices? Then the criminal poaching syndicates will continue to undercut and poaching will continue unabated.

Proponents of legalisation claim that they will be able to satisfy demand, but since there is currently no legal trade they have no idea what demand really looks like.

Mr Eustace admits as much: "The trade is secret so there are no hard numbers."

Official estimates are that the Chinese middle class — those with disposable income to spend on anything from cars and air-conditioning to wildlife products — will reach 1-billion by 2030 (Forbes).

The official stockpile of rhino horn in SA is just over 16 tonnes and it has been estimated that the average single dose of rhino horn in traditional Chinese medicine weighs 1.5g. That means that if the entire stockpile was turned in to traditional medicine doses right now, it would come to just under 11-million doses.

That’s barely enough to scratch the surface of the potential legal demand and, quite frankly, if it was 60 tonnes it would make little long-term difference.

I can assure you that is not going to satisfy demand. It’s going to stimulate it — and that demand is going to be met by relentless poaching.

But there is another equally disturbing and more insidious consideration.

Legalising rhino horn will also legitimise claims made by some that it works as a hangover cure or as a treatment for cancer.

At the CITES Conference in Bangkok in March 2013, I attended a meeting organised by the Minister of Environmental Affars, Edna Molewa. It was billed as an opportunity for her to listen to the views of the wider community. "I am testing the water of public opinion," she said.

For 90 gruelling minutes the audience was bombarded with so-called facts and figures from economists, hunters, rhino owners, diplomats, and politicians. Then the minister asked for any comments.

I briefly set out my fundamental concerns. Then, looking at the nine individuals up there on the stage, I asked one question: "Don’t be shy," I said. "Raise your hand if you believe that rhino horn works."

No one moved a muscle.

That moment’s silence seemed to last for ages. My question hung in the air. Then, somewhat sheepishly, the panel admitted that they did not believe rhino horn worked.

For me that reveals the shocking degree of cynical exploitation running through this whole issue. I imagine a Chinese or Vietnamese family a few years from now. Their elderly mother is dying of cancer. The children, hearing that rhino horn is the "cure", scrape together their last resources and buy some of it. It is legal, exorbitantly expensive and useless. Their mother dies. They are in poverty. They are victims of the blatant exploitation of their vulnerability, ignorance and superstition by those who know better but who are in ‘the business of rhinonomics’.

This schizophrenic, fantasy world is exemplified by an opinion piece written by Dr Bandile Mkize, CEO of KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife, in which he states: "If we can satisfy the global demand for this commodity (rhino horn) in a legal … and sustainable way, it is likely that the colossal value presently attached to this commodity … from poaching these animals, will drop. And with this devaluation, it is anticipated that the intensity of poaching will also drop."

He goes on: "Trading rhino horn represents a very real business opportunity for SA conservation, a sustainable means of acquiring substantial revenue. Down the line I anticipate this money helping start small businesses, where local people can be trained to become crafters and designers in rhino horn products, such as jewellery, necklaces and curios."

Dr Mkize says prices will fall. Mr Eustace wants prices to stay high.

It is economic dyslexia (as pointed out in Leonardo’s Sailors’ http://thestudyofvalue.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/WP5-Nadal-and-Aguayo-Leonardos-Sailors-2014.pdf ) and it spells disaster for rhino in the wild in SA and possible extinction in all other African states.

Rhino conservation is controversial and it’s challenging. Fighting poachers is deeply distressing. We all know that there are no easy answers and with nearly 1,200 rhinos poached in 2014 in SA alone, things will continue to be bloody. However, legalising trade will, in my view, hasten the demise of a species that we all care deeply about.

To allow that to happen is simply insane, especially when we are fully aware of the likely consequences. We have seen what happened — and continues to happen — to elephants and in the ivory trade. We have a chance to choose a different path with rhino, one of compassionate conservation.

So if we care about the rhinoceros, the only sane decision is to end trade in rhino horn unequivocally, universally, and in perpetuity.

If we don’t, the individual tragedies suffered by rhino day after day will happen again and again and again.

Travers is president of the Born Free Foundation.