For a number of years, free market environmentalists have been calling for new strategies in managing rhino populations in Africa.  Now with a new report documenting widespread poaching and the decimation of the world’s only wild population of northern white rhinoceros in the Congo, the timing to implement such a new approach may be urgent.

Formerly widespread, white rhino numbers across five African countries used to hover around 2,250 in the early 1960’s.  But due to widespread poaching, that count dropped to only a mere 15 animals in 1984, prompting wildlife officials to seek greater measures to protect the animals specifically in the Garamba National Park where the remaining few resided. Due to moderately successful conservation efforts, that number grew, albeit slowly, to a level of 30 animals in 2003. 

Unfortunately, it appears this positive trend has taken a turn for the worse.  According to a recent survey of rhinos taken in the Garamba National Park, only 17-22 animals remain, which is particularly disturbing in that it represents a loss of around 14-19 rhinos in just the last 14 months.  The reason, according to officials, is because increasing numbers of heavily armed poaching gangs, including some from neighboring Sudan, have infiltrated the park —  not only claiming the lives of the rhinos, but also of several of the security guards charged with protecting them.

An emergency conservation plan was initiated for the rhinos back in 2003, and just in the past few weeks, a workshop funded by the International Rhino Federation was also held to bring stakeholder groups together to discuss new strategies for helping the beleaguered animals.  At present, emphasis is being placed on increasing funds for bolstering guard forces and using diplomatic pressure to bring peace to the region — but with limited monies and difficulties mounting to enforce security, some are advocating that free market strategies be employed.

One such person is Michael ‘T Sas-Rolfes of the Free Market Foundation of South Africa, who  has been urging the use of free market measures for decades.  By utilizing property rights and allowing local villages to manage rhino herds for profit, he contends, these endangered animals could well be brought back from the brink of extinction and return to normal, healthy population levels.  The open sale of rhino horns on the international market would not only empower local villagers, but relieve pressure for rhino horns currently provided only by the black market.

According to Sas-Rolfes, “Ideally, most rhinos should be privately owned, and ranched to supply their horn and other products to market; this is the approach that is most likely to prevent them from becoming extinct in the wild.” This free market approach played a part in the successful resurgence of the southern White Rhino, which is now often described as the “African cow” in reference to its cattle like behavior and eating habits. In the early part of the 1900’s this creature was almost extinct with under 50 remaining, but has since increased to over 11,000 animals today.

One can only hope, for the sake of the few remaining rhinos, that an effective strategy can be implemented soon.