Farewell to horns


in Economics, Science, The environment

Cosmic bowling

This blog has previously mentioned the process of ‘fishing down’ marine food webs: you start with big delicious predator species (tuna, salmon, etc) and fish them to local extinction. Then, you catch smaller and less tasty things until the area of sea contains only plankton and jellyfish. This is a rational thing to do in the right circumstances: where access to a certain area of sea is free and unrestricted, and where everyone else is driving the resource towards destruction anyway. The best you can do individually is cash in while you can, since the resource is getting destroyed anyhow.

It seems that something similar is happening in relation to horns used for traditional Chinese medicine. Back in 1991, conservationists concerned about the decimation of rhino populations for medicinal purposes tried to encourage the use of Saiga Antelope (Saiga tatarica) horn instead. The World Wildlife Fund tried to encourage pharmacists to substitute the horns of the less endangered antelopes for those of the more endangered rhinos. Now, antelope populations in Russia and Kazakhstan have fallen from over 1,000,000 to just 30,000 (a 97% decline).

Switching from the unrestrained usage of one resource to the unrestrained usage of another just shifts the focus of the damage being caused. In order to create sustainable outcomes, restraint must be enforced either through economic means or regulation.

As an aside, there does seem to be some scope for reducing the horn trade by reducing demand through education. While horn is apparently an effective remedy for fever (though less good than available drugs not made from endangered species), the idea that it is an effective aphrodisiac can be countered. The rigid appearance of horn hardly makes it likely that it actually has chemical aphrodisiac properties, though it may strengthen the placebo effect already bolstered by general reverence for tradition. Apparently, the advent of Viagra has reduced prices and demand for rhino horn as well as seal and tiger penises that have traditionally been employed (though less effectively) to the same end.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan November 13, 2007 at 10:17 am

Previous posts on fisheries:

Dolphin safe tuna
Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

Lomborg on fish
Thursday, June 29th, 2006

More bad news for world fisheries
Thursday, January 5th, 2006

. November 14, 2007 at 10:37 am

United States Research and Development Investments
In Different Types of Energy
Compared to the Cost of the War in Iraq

Litty November 14, 2007 at 6:53 pm

the placebo effect already bolstered by general reverence for tradition.

Akin to your faith in Western Medicine, no doubt.

Ben November 14, 2007 at 6:03 pm

If that’s really the supposed justification for using horn in aphrodisiac, why not use tree bark (got wood?)…

. May 20, 2017 at 2:31 pm

The problem is international. The rhino-horn supply-chain sprawls from South Africa, home to nearly three-quarters of the world’s rhinos, to Asia, and in particular to Vietnam, where rhino horn is coveted as medicine, prescribed for fevers, alcohol dependency and even cancer.

For them, the best form of conservation is to cut demand. A new study, requested by the Vietnamese and South African governments and overseen by the International Trade Centre, an independent arm of the WTO and the UN, provides information on where that demand comes from. Thanks to contacts in the traditional-medicine business, the academic researchers who conducted the study interviewed rhino-horn users. Disproportionately, these were well-off older men. None used it as an aphrodisiac. And nothing suggested any stigma in using it: if anything, illegality enhanced the product’s exclusivity and hence their willingness to pay. Asked how their demand would respond to price, users confirmed that cheaper horn would increase usage.

But if legalisation is risky, so is maintaining the ban. The study finds a hard-core user base of around 30% of rhino-horn users, who want the stuff regardless of the penalties. So long as doctors prescribe it demand will be difficult to eradicate. Douglas MacMillan, an author of the study, is sceptical that information campaigns persuade many people to shun it. Vietnam has already seen vigorous initiatives pointing out that rhino horn is the chemical equivalent of human hair and toenails.

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