Friday, 18 October 2013

Can farming rhinos for their horn really be called conservation?

The lasting image from last night's Earthwatch debate at the Royal Geographical Society on conservation was of "farmed" rhinos with their horns chopped off. There's a similar picture of farmed rhino here

They looked more than a bit pathetic. But the proposal of the debate was that rhinos should be farmed for their horn creating a legal trade because the war on illegal poaching has been lost.

Over its' lifetime a rhino could have its horn cut off seven or eight times we were told.

Basically it means breeding wild animals - rhinos, tigers and elephants - for their horns, tusks, skins and other parts to feed a market.

Supporters of the motion, Dr Duan Biggs, lead author of a Science journal paper on the legalisation of rhino horn trade, Kirsten Conrad, formerly of PETA and a conservation policy analyst and Michael 't Sas-Rolfes, an independent conservation economist, argued that the price of animal parts would come down, trade established and the poachers put out of business.

If we do not act now numbers will dwindle to the point where we will lose some of the most iconic and majestic species on our planet. And it will happen on our watch.

It's a counter-intuitive idea but one that is gaining traction and the vote at the end of the intelligent and civilised debate, chaired by Martha Kearney, was closer than might have been expected with a substantial minority supporting the idea.

I left the debate with more of a feeling that the supporters of legal trade had not set out the details of their market clearly enough.

Those opposing the motion were Dr Glyn Davies ,WWF-UK head of global programmes, Dr Katarzyna Nowak, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Durham University,  and Mary Rice, Executive Director of the Environment Investigation Agency.

They challenged how a market would operate. How would it be policed? Would not pushing rhino horn onto the market stimulate demand rather than reduce it?

Gangs with stockpiles already have a vested interest in driving species to extinction and poachers would still have an incentive to obtain body parts illegally but cost-free and sell them on as legal.

Of course at the moment creating a legal trade is only an idea - something to be tried - but time is running out. Do we have the time to go through the international negotiations and set up the regulatory bodies to make it work?  If we can't make international action against black market trading work why should legal trade agreements be any better?

Then there are the unknowns. As was pointed out by Mary Rice of the EIA tiger farming in China has not stopped the illegal trade. "Wild tiger" skins offer an increased rarity value.

Unscrupulous market fixers could just claim farmed rhino horn was not as effective in medicine - whilst all rhino horn has been proved to have no health curing properties at all.

I realise that "farming" is being used here in its widest sense but even so once you bring commercial farming to bear pretty soon farmers will want to increase their profits. That could mean breeding programmes, developing rhinos with faster growing or larger horns. Is an animal on a farm, like an animal in a zoo, really wild any more or just a convenience for us to carve an ornament from or pretend it has cured our hangover?

I had a nightmare vision during the debate of rhinos in sheds being force-fed hormone boosted feed to grow their horns twice as fast.

And this is the crux for me.  What are we conserving here? Wild animals with all their brute force and unpredictable power in a hierarchy of dominance and daily fight for survival as recorded in so many Nature films.

Or our own misguided rituals? Our own practice of abusing animals for trinkets and potions which bring false hope?

Pro-traders will say idealism has failed and a legal market is the only way to preserve what we have left.

But, for me, that seems like an ending in itself, an ignoble and unsatisfactory conclusion. Surrender terms in a defeat.

Are the only choices left for wildlife farming and disfigurement or extinction?

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