Last rhinoceros

This picture I have used before in an optimistic post on Rhinos.

It was taken in 1988 in the Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe — 24 years ago. The skulls are from black rhinos shot by poachers.

At the time the conventional wisdom was that the main market for rhino horn was in the Yemen where the many princes required the matted hair as raw material for artisans to carve ornate dagger handles.

This year a new wave of poaching has hit the species that since the losses in the 1980’s is now spread far and wide, mostly in smaller reserves that are heavily protected. This time the story is that the market is Asia where ‘medicinal’ use is setting high demand.

Maybe it was Asia back in the late 1980’s too as there can only be so many Yemeni princes, but whatever it was then there seems little doubt that today it is a large and powerful market that seeks rhino horn. And market forces are hard to stop. High demand and limited supply generates prices that make for good business and, for some, small fortunes.

But there is something more. Scarcity seems to trigger something primal in us.

As consumers we go to great lengths to sooth that feeling, paying whatever it takes to be in possession of that limited commodity.

The real worry for anyone with empathy for the rhinoceros is that these markets are newly flush with dollars thanks to two decades of double-digit economic growth in many parts of Asia. This economic growth has brought many benefits and it has also dramatically increased the proportion of people with disposable income. There is vastly more money in the system than there was in the 1980’s and as we know it matters little if you come from Chengdu, Chennai or Chicago consumers want to spend their surplus cash on themselves.

Chengdu at a tick over 14 million is the 4th largest city in China and is home to 5 times the number of people living in Chicago. Given there are currently 22 cities in China with more residents than the 2.7 million that live in Chicago, there is no shortage of potential customers for medicinal products.

Protecting the rhino is now a much harder problem than it was in the 1980’s. When you live far away from the rhino and have probably not even seen one, except maybe on television, you don’t even ask the fundamental question: rhino or me?

You just say, “me, thanks”, just like every consumer has done since commerce was invented. And, as the Lilly Allen lyric in her song ‘The Fear’ so profoundly puts it: “I am a weapon of massive consumption, it’s not my fault, it’s how I’m programmed to function.” We simply cannot help it.

So, if you are fond of a bet there would be very short odds on the only living rhino in 2036, another 24 years after the picture was taken, being in a zoo. And maybe this is necessary. Loss on a scale large enough and scary enough will probably be what it takes to change the knee-jerk “me, thanks” to…

“me, once I have thought carefully about the consequences of my choice”.

Here is an idea for the rhino problem.

Why not ban all false advertising across the entire globe.

Any claims made by an advertisement of any kind in any media must be falsifiable according to a strict set of international rules. And the onus of the proof falls on the advertiser, the company or individual who runs the ad.

So you cannot say that rhino horn powder cures any number of ailments and promotes everlasting life unless you have evidence — good, old-fashioned falsifiable evidence.

Failure to comply would result in an on-the-spot $1 million fine payable into a national environmental fund.

This edict need not just apply to wildlife products, but any product where the seller claims it to be what it is not.

Now there’s a thought.

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