At first glance, there’s no obvious connection between the conservation effort to protect endangered species and the war on drugs. Indeed, the western liberals who loudly proclaim the futility of the latter, see no contradiction in their support for the use of some notably similar tactics against the illegal trade in rhino horns and elephant tusks.
In a fascinating article for the Atlantic, Zach Goldhammer explores the many parallels between the two wars. Let’s begin with the economics:
“China, with Vietnam not far behind, is the world’s largest purchaser of illegal elephant ivory and rhino horns. A surging middle class in the country has stoked demand for rhino horn in particular, which, when ground into powder and consumed, is believed to be a luxury remedy for cancer, hangovers, sexual impotence, and a host of other ailments. A kilogram of rhino-horn powder is now worth an estimated $60,000; more than its weight in cocaine, gold, or platinum. One estimate pegs the value of the wholesale rhino-horn trade at $180 million.”
Then there are the security concerns:
“Born Free USA, an American conservation group, has reported that U.S.-designated terrorist groups such as Somalia’s al-Shabab and Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army reap profits from the illegal wildlife trade. Johan Bergenas, a researcher at the Stimson Center, a D.C.-based think tank, has been a particularly vocal advocate for combating a ‘new threat in the terrorist hotbed of Africa.’”
So, what to do about it? As things stand, the main thrust is a military-style campaign against the poachers:
“Responding to the idea that conservation groups should model themselves after the DEA or CIA, animal-rights organizations such as the WWF have taken dramatic measures to fight poaching. Last year, the organization received $5 million from Google to develop Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, equipped with thermal-sensing cameras to detect nighttime poaching raids in South Africa.”
Other voices insist that instead of trying to interdict supply, we should regulate it:
“In 2013, South Africa’s Environmental Minister Edna Molewa suggested that the country could reduce black-market demand for poaching by producing legally harvested rhino horns… The plan would involve the non-lethal removal of rhino horns, which rhinos have the capacity to regrow. Eustace has estimated that roughly 1,200 horns per year could be sustainably obtained from live rhinos, while 400 additional horns could be collected from rhinos who die of natural causes.”
The underlying theory is a familiar part of the debate over drug policy. By legalising and regulating the supply of a product, the criminal trade – and the harm that comes from it – can, it is argued, be supplanted.
The problem is that the theory doesn’t always work out in practice – for instance, there’s the troubling relationship between the over-prescription of (legal) opioid drugs in America and the (illegal) heroin trade. There are fears of something similar happening in the case of powdered rhino horn:
“…the legal sale of such products would be difficult to regulate and could potentially expand the market for an illegal trade that would operate in tandem with the legal one.”
There is a third option – which is to tackle demand:
“…rhino horn neither cures cancer nor revives a weak libido. Rhino horn is formed primarily from keratin, the same substance found in human nails. Studies demonstrating the horn’s lack of medicinal value, combined with the threat of economic sanctions, have helped deter rhino-horn production and consumption in countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.”
In the end, this may be the best bet. Bad habits, even if widespread within a population, can be challenged. For instance, the demand for illegal drugs – which the defeatist side of the debate takes as a given – is in long-term decline among young people in the UK.
Both of these wars revolve around products that people consume not because they have to, but because they want to. With the right combination of information, distraction and deterrent, we needn’t surrender to stupidity and selfishness.