One of the most compelling, but misleading arguments used by pro-trade lobbyists to justify a legalised trade of rhino horns is that horn removal is both renewable and sustainable. A renewable resource is defined as a resource which can be used repeatedly because it’s replaced naturally. A sustainable resource is defined as the ability to maintain a specified rate or level. The trade of rhino horns could fit both criteria, but the problem starts when renewable and sustainable are mistakenly accepted to mean humane and ethically justifiable. Ponder the industries below.
1. Bear bile farming is the process of extracting bile, a digestive fluid produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder. Bear bile contains Ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), used to treat a range of ailments including liver and heart disorders.
2. Civet Coffee (also known as Kopi Luwak) is a “designer drink” produced using part-digested and defecated coffee cherries by the Asian Palm Civet, a nocturnal carnivorous mammal. Producers claim the digestive mechanism improves the flavour profile of the coffee.
3. Rhino horns are used for medicinal, emotional and investment purposes. Rhino horn re-growth after partial removal is undisputed. Partial removal in this example refers to the non-surgical procedure of de-horning where horns are removed to between 5 and 7cm from the base, avoiding the germinal layer while leaving a visible stub not natural wear and tear sustained through daily activities.
Filthy, restrictive metal cages housing Asiatic black bears in China
Living in confinement, an Asian palm civet on a 'Kopi coffee farm' Indonesia (Credit: PETA)
White rhinos on a South African farm (Credit: David Chancellor)
Although UDCA has proven medicinal benefits, humans don’t need to obtain UDCA from bear bile, which only contains trace amounts anyway. It can be synthetically engineered cheaply and in greater volumes than bear farms can produce. There are no proven health benefits associated with the production of the Kopi Luwak and the taste superiority is a matter of individual preference. Moreover, the use of rhino horns either as a medicinal ingredient, emotional or investment piece is subjective.
The common denominator of each example is a harvested product derived from a renewable source (the animals' natural ability to replenish) and a sustainable source (none of the animals have a conservation status beyond vulnerable and all are considered plentiful in the wild and none need to die to obtain the product). The question you need to ask yourself is when does sustainable use become unsustainable abuse?
The answer lies in our tangible experiences, but more often our individual interpretation and visual perception of a situation. Remember there are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to accept what is true. We aren’t generally deceived by our eyes, but our perception of what our eyes see.
Most people won’t dispute the abhorrent cruelty of the first two examples because it is obvious. Both bears and civets live in captive environments which fail to emulate their natural, wild habitats. Living conditions are restricted to filthy, baron cages void of enrichment, stimulation, physical contact and adequate husbandry. The cruelty is reaffirmed by obvious poor physical condition, while psychological cruelty is evident when abnormal physical behaviours manifest.
So why does the latter example not embody the criteria of what most of us consider cruel? Is it because images of intensively farmed rhinos appear to show plump, healthy animals roaming an environment not dissimilar to those of their wild counterparts or maybe because the manifestation of both physical and psychological symptoms of their captivity is not immediately obvious?
Consider this; an intensively farmed rhino may have a roaming range of just 4-5 hectares per animal compared to between 75 and 12,000 hectares in a national park. They live in herds far larger than would naturally occur in the wild. They may be subjected to copious medications including antibiotics, anti-inflammatory compounds, painkillers, tranquilisers (particularly if regular horn harvesting is practiced) and will almost certainly require additional nutrition through supplementary feeding as well as be exposed to greater human contact.
Perhaps even more crucially, in each example, the harvested product is the greatest asset, more valuable (in monetary terms) than the animal. Can you still ethically justify a trade where all financial incentive are placed first and foremost on the commodity, essentially leaving the live animal to become an industry by-product?