When Duan Biggs was growing up in the Kruger National Park in South Africa, he used to watch elephants and rhinos walking past his bedroom window. He left home to pursue degrees in biology and economics, and when he returned in 2011 the park looked and sounded "like a pseudo war zone," he says.
"There'd be helicopters flying overhead all the time," he says. "I remember one afternoon coming back to my home from a game drive and the bush was crawling with people with assault rifles, from the army, from the police, and from National Parks. They were looking for poachers."
The military-grade equipment — drones, tracking chips, thermal scopes — deployed to protect wildlife against poachers hasn't prevented transcontinental cartels from slaughtering rhinos across Africa to supply a black market concentrated in East Asia, especially Vietnam, where rhino horn is consumed as a traditional medicine for modern ailments.
Historically prescribed for fever and "blood detoxification," it's now used for hangover and the side effects of chemotherapy. It's also a status symbol. "It's the thing to do. What a great gift for your boss, or your government official," conservationist Douglas Hendrie told NPR's Frank Langfitt in Hanoi, Vietnam.
If unchecked, this seemingly insatiable demand for the horn could result in the extinction of wild rhinos within two decades. This has led African governments to consider two radical — and contradictory — proposals for saving Africa's rhinos.
Proposal No. 1: Legalize The Horn
A rhino's horn is composed of the same protein as human fingernails. And, as with fingernails, if you cut off the horn, it grows back. So, Biggs has been arguing, African farmers could raise rhinos on private farms, and periodically saw off the horns for sale overseas.
"Essentially vets would go in, dart the animal and dehorn it," Biggs tells me. "Thereafter the animal gets up again and runs around the bush and continues life as normal," and the horn grows back.
This idea for a legal rhino trade is gaining supporters in the South African government (South Africa has 85 percent of the world's rhinos). There's a push to submit the idea for international vote in 2016 at the triennial meeting of CITES, the international conference on endangered species that originally banned rhino horn sales in 1977.
This possibility worries conservationists like Ian Craig, founder of the Northern Rangelands Trust in Kenya. He says ending the ban will lift the stigma — and cause demand to soar. He predicts that horn-selling kiosks will crop up across Vietnam not unlike cannabis coffee shops in Amsterdam.
"All the economists I've met say that as soon as you place a value on the animal then people are going to look after it and its going to multiply," Craig says. "They're not recognizing that supply could never meet the demand, and the demand is what's killing."
Proposal No. 2: Burn It
Craig and other conservationists in Kenya still recall a pivotal moment in 1989 when Kenya curbed the appetite for a different poachers' trophy. On that June day, when Kenya's then-President Daniel arap Moi set aflame 12 tons of elephant tusks confiscated from poachers, ivory had been trading legally at nearly $200 a pound.
"The idea was to send a very strong message to the world that ivory had no value," says Winnie Kiiru, a trustee of the Kenya Wildlife Service. "That a Third World country was setting alight all this? It made no sense. It made absolutely no economic sense."
It made no economic sense, and that was precisely the point, broadcast to television screens around the world: No one has a right to ivory except elephants. After the burn, ivory sales slumped. Among buyers, who were then mostly European and American, it became less cool to flaunt ivory belt buckles and cufflinks. CITES banned the trade three months later. And over the following decade, Kenya's elephant population began a slow climb back from the brink of extinction. USA Today named the burn one of the conservation milestones of the 1980s, up there with scientists finding a hole in the ozone layer.
Now, 24 years later, there's an internal memo circulating the halls of Kenya's government proposing to dehorn some of Kenya's rhinos and set those horns ablaze. So as South Africa is inching toward a proposal to legalize the trade and provide seller incentives, the Kenyans are contemplating a symbolic act intended, in essence, to shame the buyer.
Africa as a continent can't go down both paths at once. If South Africa is allowed to market — and advertise — its rhino horn, Kenya can't succeed in discouraging demand. You can't legitimize a trade and at the same time say it's wrong.
Underlying this drug-policy debate about animals is a philosophical gulf about the best way to influence human behavior. Neither side really knows what would happen if you could legally buy a packet of rhino horn in the pharmacy like Tylenol. Would the poachers go out of business, or would they become more audacious, laundering their stolen horn as legitimate? Would we ever be able to see a rhino in the wild again? "If the world at large is happy about rhino sitting in pens and farmed for their horns, then the economists are right," says Craig, the conservationist. "If the world wants wild, free-ranging rhino, then the economists are wrong."
There is one more proposal, so radical that no government will put its name behind it.
Proposal No. 3: Poison It
An organization called the Rhino Rescue Project will, for a fee, come to your land or conservancy and use a "patented process of high-density infusion" to put poison in your rhinos' horns. It won't harm the animal but will make any person who ingests it "seriously ill." As a caveat emptor, they paint the horn with indelible ink, a warning label for any would-be poacher or airport security officer alerted to the meaning of its bright pink color.
It's not surprising that African governments will not support the contamination of horns that people eat, however misguidedly, as medicine. But some private landowners in South Africa and Namibia have poisoned their rhinos' horns. They're willing to let the hazards of poaching trickle down to the consumer.
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And I'm Melissa Block. Now, the final story in our series on rhinoceros poaching. So far this week, we've heard about a poaching boom fueled by demand in Southeast Asia. Their powdered horn is thought to cure everything from a hangover to cancer. We've also heard how criminal syndicates have infiltrated some of the very organizations meant to protect the last of the world's rhinoceros. Today, NPR's Gregory Warner introduces us to two radical proposals for ending the crisis.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: When Duan Biggs was a child, he could see elephants and rhino outside his bedroom window. He grew up on the 6-million-acre Kruger National Park in South Africa. His dad was a scientist there. He left the park to pursue his education - undergraduate in economics, Ph.D. in biology. And when he returned to the park in 2011, his home felt like a war zone.
DUAN BIGGS: Well, for example, there'd be helicopters flying overhead all the time. I remember clearly one afternoon, coming back to my home. And I looked around, and the bush was crawling with people with assault rifles from the army, from the police and from national parks. And they were looking for poachers.
WARNER: To Biggs, this firepower seemed unnecessary. You don't have to kill a rhino to take its horn. You can clip it off like a fingernail. In fact, it's made of the same stuff as fingernails, keratin.
BIGGS: The risk to the animals is minimal. There's little evidence of behavioral change. Essentially, vets would go in there, would dart the animal; and they would dehorn it. And thereafter, the animal gets up again and runs around the bush, and continues life as normal.
WARNER: The rhino is running around the bush and in your hand is a horn of, say, 11 pounds.
BIGGS: That would be worth - at current price estimates - around quarter of a million dollars.
WARNER: So Biggs has been going around to conferences and classrooms, making this argument; that if people in Vietnam want rhino horn so badly that they'll pay for it per ounce what they're paying for gold, we cannot dream of stopping demand. The law against selling rhino horn is only helping criminals, like the prohibition against alcohol in the 1920s fueled the American Mafia.
So rather than let gangsters control this trade until rhino go the way of the wooly mammoth, we should legalize it - make it possible for rhino ranchers to farm the rhino, clip off their horns and sell them, without killing a single beast.
BIGGS: It's quite clear that for a product like rhino horn - which has ancient, persistent and growing demand - if you try to ban the use of that product and you try and enforce that, you're going to run into the sorts of problems we have in the Kruger National Park right now.
WARNER: And this argument for a legal rhino horn trade is gaining supporters in the South African government. There's a push to submit the idea for an international vote in 2016, at the big, endangered-wildlife conference known as CITES; which means that other countries in Africa have less than three years to come up with a counter argument.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)
WARNER: The best place, I'm told, to find that counter argument is on a little spot in Nairobi National Park, in Kenya.
WINNIE KIIRU: This place has been visited by people from all over the world.
WARNER: Today I'm visiting this spot with Winnie Kiiru, a trustee of the Kenya Wildlife Service. And the two of us are looking at a brick monument, almost like a crematorium.
(Reading inscription) ...this monument, which commemorates the burning of 12 tons of ivory. Wow.
On this spot, the then-president of Kenya, Daniel Arap Moi...
KIIRU: On July 18, 1989...
WARNER: ...set fire to 12 tons of ivory tusks confiscated from poachers.
KIIRU: And the idea was to send a very strong message to the world that ivory had no value.
WARNER: Ivory that year was trading legally at its then-highest price in history. So Kenya's symbolic burn of over $4 million of elephant tusk became like its Nancy Reagan moment: Just say no to ivory.
KIIRU: That a Third World country was setting alight all this - it made no sense, really. It made absolutely no economic sense.
WARNER: "USA Today" called the burn one of the conservation milestones of the 1980s, up there with finding that the ozone layer had a hole - because if you were walking down the street and saw an African president burning money, you'd also stop and listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)
WARNER: Worldwide sales of ivory dropped. The trade was banned three months later. And Kenya's elephant population, over the next decade, came back from the brink of extinction. Now, 24 years later, there's an internal memo circulating in the halls of Kenya's government; a plan, if approved, to cut off the horns of some of Kenya's rhino and set them ablaze. This time, it would be just say no to rhino.
KIIRU: The only creature that has a right to a rhino horn, is the rhino itself. (Laughing)
WARNER: So at the exact, same time that the South Africans are inching toward a proposal to legalize the sale of rhino horn worldwide, the Kenyans are contemplating a symbolic act to make the horn ever more taboo. And you can't go down both paths at once. You cannot, as Winnie Kiiru says, legitimize a trade and say it's wrong. For Kiiru, it's clear that if rhino horn were legal, there'd be no stopping the rise in demand among the Asian nouveau riche.
KIIRU: Let's do the math. The whole population of white rhinos in Africa is 20,000. You can't even meet the demand in Vietnam. Forget China.
WARNER: Not surprisingly, the economist does that math very differently. Duan Biggs says that if rhino were farmed like sheep - with their horns shorn off every year - incentivized farmers would breed more rhino while the price would go down. Eventually, it's the poachers who would be priced out of the business.
BIGGS: Provide a financial incentive, and a benefit, to the landholders that are conserving these rhino.
WARNER: And underlying this whole debate about animals is a philosophical gulf about how you influence human behavior. Is it with shame, or is it with profit? Because in the end, neither side really knows what would happen if you could buy a packet of rhino horn in the pharmacy, like Tylenol. Would it become more popular, or lose its forbidden allure? Would the poachers go out of business, or would they become more audacious because they could launder their stolen horn as legitimate?
And then there's this question: Would we ever be able to see a rhino in the wild again? Or if we wanted to take our kids to see the great rhinoceros, would we have to peek into guarded pens on private rhino farms? At the next CITES conference on endangered species, in 2016, some council of experts may be asked to decide which of these hypotheticals is closer to the truth.
Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.