Last month, a southern white rhino named Thandi gave birth to a healthy calf in South Africa. It was a remarkable moment, the kind that gives conservationists a brief reprieve from big-picture gloom.
That's because in 2012, much of Thandi's face had been hacked off by poachers who sought her horn, which is worth thousands of dollars in some cultures where it is believed that consuming it will cure cancer and remedy hangovers. A record 1,215 of South Africa's 22,000 rhinos were killed last year, and we're seeing no slowdown in 2015.
Although most Americans will never encounter a wild rhino in their lifetimes, the United States has recognized the global threat posed by poaching, the profits of which have been shown to support criminal networks and militant groups throughout Africa. A year ago, the Obama administration announced a "National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking."
The strategy is laudable. It calls for a three-part approach: enhanced enforcement of anti-poaching laws, better international collaboration on the issue and efforts to reduce demand for wildlife products like rhino horn. Unfortunately, this month when the administration announced its implementation plan for the strategy, it undermined its own goals.
The implementation plan calls for the U.S. to devote hundreds of millions of dollars to policing wildlife poaching and trafficking, but it provides virtually no funds for reducing demand, not even in the United States, which has been assessed by some as the world's second-largest market for illegal wildlife products.
I'm an economist by training, and I can tell you, if common sense doesn't, that trying to restrict supply without restricting demand is likely only to drive up price. That's how we have spent trillions on drug enforcement with little to show for it.
Instead of forever escalating our "war on poaching," we need a more durable solution that bans the trade, closes markets and otherwise prioritizes persuading consumers to stop buying wildlife products.
The effect of demand on poaching is well documented. In 1989, elephants were poached at the rate of 70,000 a year by some estimates. In response to a global outcry, the international ivory trade was banned and many consumers bowed out as publicity connected artworks and trinkets to the massacre of a species. Poaching levels plummeted, not because of intensified anti-poaching activity, but due to diminished demand.
But the effort wasn't universal, and it wasn't sustained. In 2008, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species allowed a one-off sale of ivory to China, a move that reignited the market there, fueled by the country's growing affluence.
Economic growth in Vietnam is having a similar effect on the smaller but lucrative rhino horn market. But we know it's a reversible situation. In 1994, the Clinton administration imposed unprecedented trade sanctions against Taiwan for its failure to stop sales of tiger bones and rhino horns. The well-publicized penalties, as well as intense international scrutiny, effectively stigmatized rhino horn. Taiwan banned the domestic trade — as did China, Hong Kong and Singapore — and soon the market collapsed. Rhino populations rebounded in South Africa until demand spiked in countries including Vietnam, now one of the world's primary rhino horn markets.
We know the kind of tactics that work — education, persuasion and government action. Consider the effort directed at quelling the demand for shark fin soup, a traditional delicacy that affluent Chinese were pursuing with such enthusiasm that 73 million sharks were dying a year. China responded. Tens of millions of dollars worth of state media have been donated to persuade consumers that shark fin soup isn't so much a delicacy as a travesty.
The education campaign, led by former NBA star Yao Ming, combined with a government ban on shark fin soup at state banquets, is credited with reducing the shark fin trade in China by 50% to 70% in the last few years. Traders are getting out of the business, and fishermen in places like Indonesia are giving up on pursuing sharks because the price of their fins is too low.
Bans on rhino horn are already in place in many countries. Vigorous enforcement of anti-poaching and trafficking laws will help make those bans effective, but we must also defund poachers and criminal networks by making rhino horn undesirable. That requires aggressively funding efforts to reduce the demand. We will once and for all protect rhinos — and other threatened wildlife — only through hearts and minds, not through bullets and handcuffs.
Peter Knights is chief executive and founder of WildAid.