Thursday, May 10, 2012

Rhinos AGAIN

I realize that this is my third post about the grim future facing the rhino in the current poaching frenzy generated by the desire for horn for traditional eastern medicines.  I promise this will be the last for some time, but this one is a bit different from the previous posts. 
I was recently involved in organizing a small workshop on mathematical modeling in honor of the 70th birthday of a leader in the field – Anthony Starfield.  Mathematical modeling is about trying to use mathematics and computers to try to mimic the behavior of real world systems.  The objective is usually better understanding of the way the particular system works, and often to make predictions of that behavior into the future.  The problems involved can be hugely complex requiring teams of scientists, reams of equations, and high performance computers – such as trying to estimate the effects of global warming – or they can be very small, simple models involving a few equations and estimates – such as modeling the growth of a population under ideal conditions.  Often the idea is to play “what if” games to obtain input for brainstorming sessions around an intractable issue.

A chunk in Vietnam
During the workshop, we had a hands-on session around the rhino problem.  This was exactly one of the small “what if” scenarios. There was no attempt to make predictions or recommendations, the group had no status (although a couple of experts took part), and the scenario we discussed is not on the table at any official forum.  In any case, this is a decision which must be made by an international body; it is not up to South Africa alone.

The scenario is farming rhinos
Sad looking, but safe

No one is really keen on this option.  Rhinos are, after all, wild animals and they look best and do best left to their own devices in the African veld.  But it turns out (and I admit that this was news to me) that rhino horn does regrow.  It is, after all,just compacted hair and hair keeps growing.  So farming is possible as a sustainable activity involving harvesting the newly-grown rhino horn every few years.  But although the white rhino is fairly docile, it is not an easy process to immobilize a rhino to cut off a chunk of its horn!  The event is liable to upset the animal.  Also rhino ranches – with fairly tame animals concentrated in a relatively small area – will be a huge attractor for the poachers.  So high security costs must be built into the farming scenario.

So why go to the trouble?  Why not just eradicate the poaching and keep the blanket ban on the sale of rhino horn?  The problem is that the market seems to be growing – especially in Vietnam – and because the amounts used in traditional medicines are quite small, the price of a whole horn can be sky high.  The game is now so lucrative that ALL the resources of the nature conservation authorities probably couldn’t control it.  Just this week, two poachers were arrested carrying R800,000 (US$100,000) in cash.  This is a huge amount of money in South Africa.  It is easy to speculate for what the money was to be used.

So how do the numbers stack up?  Well, there are about 500 natural deaths in the bush per annum and most of the horn from these animals is recovered.  That’s about 5,000lbs alone.  Then, an adult rhino grows about half a pound of horn a year.  If every one of the 20,000 white rhino in South Africa had the new growth harvested each year (a completely ridiculous scenario but we’re playing what if, remember?), that would be another 10,000lbs.  There is also an ill-determined amount of rhino horn (legally obtained) in stock right now and this could be used to bridge the period until the ranching gets up to speed  and also to drive down the price.  Let’s say a sustainable total of around 7,500lbs building up to about 10,000lbs could be produced from farming and natural mortality per year.  Would that satisfy the demand?  Maybe.  It depends how the supply and demand curve works.  One would want to get the price down so that rhinos would be less attractive to poachers, but not drop it enough to significantly increase demand.

Good looking and safe?
An interesting marketing strategy could be borrowed from De Beers.  Consumers like to be sure that the items they are buying are genuine and reliable.  A rhino horn “pedigree” (similar to the Kimberley Process one for diamonds) could go out with the merchandise guaranteeing that it is legally and humanely obtained as well as absolutely genuine rhino horn.

There were enough ideas thrown around to make us feel that it was worth pursuing in the sense of trying to build a more meaningful model.  So we’ll keep at it.  But as I said before, nothing along these lines is on the table right now, so nothing’s going to change significantly any time soon.  

And that’s bad news for the rhinos.

Michael – Thursday.


  1. I like the approach Michael. It's just the sort of out of the box thinking that might "get legs" if enough of the right people get interested in the project. And I'm not just talking about household celebrity names willing to lend their support ... though that would no doubt help.

  2. It's disturbing to see how much cruelty humans perpetrate on animals for their own gain. it would be nice to be humane, but history does not bear that out.