The daunting simplicity of rhino wars

By | May 11, 2017

Rich people must be smart, that's why they are rich. Except when they are stupid and believe that snorting a line of rhino horn powder gives them a better boner than biting off their own fingernails. Or when they, instead of showing off with something fun to drive, choose to own a rhino horn.

The whole rhino situation is frustratingly simple. One of the most charismatic animals on the planet is heading towards extinction, and it is because of a single superstition of a bunch of wealthy guys in Vietnam. Even more frustratingly, these guys wouldn’t be worse off if they decided not to care about rhino horns any more – the demand is not driven by any life or death necessity, it is somehow arbitrary.

Compared to complex and gigantic screw ups such as climate change or habitat loss, the rhino problem is way simpler, better defined, and with the causes, actors, and mechanisms relatively well known. It seems so textbook-simple that we should be able to stop it much easier than climate change.

Simple in theory, but the reality is daunting. Armed guards, preventive sawing off the horns, infusing horns with pink poison, education, legal measures, fortifications, ex situ conservation. All of these measures seem reasonable, yet they’ve had questionable impact: the poaching rates continue to increase, steadily, surely, making rhinos rarer, driving prices high, increasing demand, increasing the pressure.

Perhaps my grandchildren will only know rhinos from pictures.

And if we can’t prevent something so simple as the rhino extinction, then how can we deal with something so complex as climate change?

Recently I brought up these issues at lunch, suggesting that there must be something that we can do – after all we are articulate scientists from a rich country, and we work at an institution with the mission to understand biodiversity loss, we are ecologists, zoologists. There must be something that we can do better than non-academics to help the rhino cause.

We promptly rejected the idea of writing a fake paper linking the use of rhino products to cancer and publishing it in some predatory open-access journal under fake names. Apart from being potentially discrediting for serious conservation science, it could be a perverse incentive for using rhino products as a weapon, again rising the price and demand.

In the end we did not come up with anything, so it was kind of depressing (as many of our lunch conversations about environmental issues are).

Then, later, a colleague tried to cheer me up, suggesting that if it really bothers me, then I should try to get in touch with some NGO that deals with the rhino problem – surely there must be some. So I went online and I found, and I realized that perhaps the most rational action I can take to help the rhino is to support an initiative like this. And since one of the founding members was Douglas Adams, they’ve got my heart.

For the start I am sending them some money.

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