This post stems from an interesting argument I read on The Marjan Centre blog by Richard Milburn. It's a recurring argument and one that is simultaneously distasteful and pragmatic. It's not necessarily the solution but it is certainly applicable in the UK as much as in Africa.
Richard puts forward the argument that legalising farming band trade of rhino horn and elephant tusk is the best way to manage dwindling populations and to combat poaching issues. By doing so you commoditise the wildlife and in doing that give incentive to businesses to protect it. The argument goes that this method should put the majority of poachers and smugglers out of business. It's unpalatable because these are supposed to be wild animals. Turning them into a monetary value is gruesome and reductive, and a destruction of a much cherished fantasy.
In Scotland, England and Wales, the black grouse used to be ubiquitous. 40 years ago you could see them within 40 minutes of London. They were shot and pressured into alarmingly diminished numbers until the shooting community, in a similar act to the whaling community, collectively decided to put a self-imposed moratorium on the shooting of black grouse until their numbers have recovered. Black grouse numbers have since steadied and recovered, although nowhere near the previously successful levels. Many gamekeepers, farmers and land managers in general think they have a vested interest in the black grouse recovery; they will be able to recoup investment of time and effort once they decide the grouse are in sufficient numbers to be shot again. I'm not saying this is a good thing, far from it, but this is a system that has encouraged the proliferation of a previously endangered species.
The iconic capercaillie has a different story. Hunted to extinction in the 18th century, we imported Swedish stock to replace it and the numbers recovered. We continued to shoot them after this recovery. Today the capercaillie has the highest protection rating in Scotland and the numbers are dropping steadily. Experts are struggling to ascertain why this is happening as millions upon millions of pounds go into saving it. Also, now that pine marten are legally protected, there is an extra predatory pressure on the capercaillie.
The difference causing their fortunes? Well in fact the capercaillie is a deeply complex issue and no one really knows, pro-shooting opinion goes that the difference is that one can be shot for sport and the other can't. Some gamekeepers will argue that allowing them to be shot will allow them to recover in numbers. Seems a slight fallacy though - they will hardly be wild if they are farmed like pheasants. Dr Adam Smith at GWCT promotes this a "conservational self-interest". Basically, if these landowners have all this money, all this land and all this infrastructure, why not guide them in a conservation-positive direction?
It's because they end up getting shot. It's because they are defined by the limits imposed on them by the humans that allow them to live. It's short-term and arguably damaging to capercaillie stock. It's because this is unpalatable and reduces the cherished wildlife to merely a commodity. What underpins wildlife is that it is elusive, outside of our control, natural and not influenced by us.
There are stretches of land that are, relative to the UK, untouched in Africa. The Kruger National park holds the remaining majority of the black rhino population. It is alarming how many are being taken by poachers at the moment.
The continuing irony is that in resisting poachers so vociferously, anti-poaching operations have increased the risk of poaching and limited the supply, which means increased value (the rising Far Eastern wealth is the demand factor). Market economics, that are so often fervently rejected in the conservation community, came to the national parks anyway.
The choices are incredibly hard. Embrace the economics in a "sustainable" manner - a horribly misused and overused word. Or carry on like this, fighting for the wild. It's a matter of ethics and pragmatism, but I can't shake the feeling that it a serious waste to change the status of the last wild rhinos to things with a monetary value. Nature isn't taking it's natural course, but economics.
I romanticise the wilder parts of the world due to the fact that they are something we don't touch. I realise this is not true, but regulating and creating an official market feels like giving up entirely.