This is one argument that simply won't go away. Environmental researchers writing in the Science journal want the trade in rhino horn to be legalised, by selling shavings harvested from the horns of live rhinos in the hope that poachers won't just hack their faces off instead.
The price of rhino horn has rocketed from $4,700 per kilo in 1993 to $65,000 per kilo in 2012. The article's authors claim that this is due to the ban on the trade and the resultant scarcity of horn in the international market. But this ignores the fact that the economies of various Asian countries have experienced massive growth, enabling more and more people to afford the product. Increasing affluence has been attributed to the similarly increasing demand for and price of elephant ivory, so it is not a huge leap in logic to suspect a similar causation with rhino horn.
Another claim of the authors that should be contended is that anaesthetising rhinos and taking shavings from their horns can be done without harming the animals themselves. As anyone who works with rhinos (or for that matter, any kind of animal) could tell you, anaesthetisation is always fraught with danger. Only last year in a tragic irony a rhino died under anaesthetic while its horn was being tainted to deter poachers. To feasibly keep up with global demand for rhino horn - if indeed this is possible at all - every rhino in Africa would need to be regularly anaesthetised to harvest the shavings. Undoubtedly a great deal of them would die in the process. It would also be an extremely stressful experience for the animals irrespective of fatalities, potentially affecting their health and reproductive rates in the long-term.
But if these issues could be overcome, could a legal trade save rhinos?
Sun bears and moon bears, threatened in the wild, are now farmed for a thriving Asian industry. They are harvested for their bile, popular for its medicinal uses. The bears are kept in cages so small they will never stand up in all their lives, while their bodies suffer permanent wounds so that bile can be siphoned straight from their gall bladders. Cruelty aside, legal farms were introduced to meet demand for bear bile and so reduce the poaching of wild bears. Yet in the years since, demand has increased and so has poaching, indicating that either farming has changed nothing or it is in fact driving demand. Certainly bear bile has become more popular, to the point where it is now used even in non-medicinal products like shampoo and wine.
Time and time again, introducing previously scarce animal products into markets has stimulated demand. It has been witnessed with bear bile and elephant ivory, and as with bears the proliferation of tiger farms may well be fuelling tiger poaching. It could be even more disastrous for rhinos. Their horn is not bought for mere trinkets as with ivory, and although tiger products are believed among other things to improve virility these are benefits that people can, ultimately, choose to live without. But traditional Asian beliefs hold rhino horn to be capable of curing maladies as serious as cancer. If you truly believed there was a product that could cure you or a loved one of a fatal illness, and you could afford it, would you hesitate?
It's utterly stupid to think that keratin from a rhino horn will cure your cancer, but this belief will consign rhinos to extinction if left unchallenged. Creating a legal market in rhino horn and using the revenue to fund conservation efforts would be one step forward and two steps back if it also fuelled demand.
Instead we must continue to spread awareness and educate people, even if it is a slow, hard fight. To legalise the trade in rhino horn would be to undo all our efforts so far; we would essentially be proclaiming our support for a baseless traditional belief. We also cannot look at the issue of rhino horn in isolation to other species accorded similar uses in Asian traditions. All pangolin species are now threatened or endangered due to demand for their scales, which are believed to have medicinal properties (sound familiar?). If we encourage people to believe that rhino horn does cure cancer as tradition would have, these assumptions will surely bleed into the markets for products from other kinds of animals.
To seek to erode such beliefs is not to disparage the cultures that host them. But what is the point in allowing ignorance to drive entire species to destruction? Preventing poaching and using education to reduce the demand for products from endangered animals will not prevent the extinction of these animals on their own. But it would be a real start.