Posted on 04.07.2023 | Tag: Species and Habitat

Worldwide there is a high demand for wild animals and products made from them. Wild species are used as sources of a wide variety of goods, including medicine, food and used in fashion industry. The demand for wildlife in Traditional Asian Medicines (TAM) has been identified as a major driver of unsustainable and illegal trade of wildlife globally. The variety of wildlife products used in Asia is extensive and includes many species that have been designated as Endangered or threatened by the IUCN Red List, such as tiger, bear, pangolin and rhino.

Commercial farming and trade in wildlife has been promoted as a conservation strategy and a potential solution to poaching crisis. It based on a theory that the black markets for wildlife can be flooded with cheaper products from legal farmed sources, thus outcompeting the illegal market, leading to a decrease in poaching.

Fake rhino horns and bear gall-bladder for sale in Laos - WildAct

Here, I would like to use the bear bile farming in Asia as a case study for the argument against commercial farming of rhino and legalising the trade of rhino horn, as there are several similarities between these two wildlife products:

1. Both rhino horn and bear bile have long been used in the Asian traditional pharmacopoeia.

2. The extraction of bear bile and the harvest of rhino horn do not require the killing of the animals.

3. Before being commercially farmed for their parts, both species were poached in the wild and are facing extinction.

In South Africa, rhino horn was banned from the domestic trade in 2009 in order to protect wild populations from poaching. However, earlier this year, the South African government lifted the ban. Meanwhile, the international trade has been banned since 1977 and it remains the case. More than 10,000km to the East in Vietnam, a few months later, the Vietnamese government announced their commitment to close down bear bile farming completely.

Prior to the advent of commercial bear bile farming, the only way to obtained bear bile was to kill a wild bear and take out the gallbladder which contains the bile. However, in the 1970s, a technique was developed in Korea to extract bile from bears living in captivity and the techinque soon spread to China in 1980s and Vietnam in 1990s. This farming of bear bile were introduced as a means of reducing pressure on wild bear populations and also to meet the demand for bear bile. As bear bile was made legal, the number of bears being kept in China and Vietnam rapidly increased, to over 10,000 bears in the former and approximately 5000 bears in the latter.

A moon bear were kept in captivity for bear bile farming in Vietnam - WildAct

The price for bear bile, indeed was reduced greatly due to the availability of farmed products. However, it was not good news for the bears. As farmed bear bile became popular and price dropped, poorer people with less in come were able to afford to have bear bile in their cupboard “just in case” if they needed it. In our recent survey with the youth of Vietnam in 2015, bear bile were still the most popular wildlife part used, even though it was banned by the government since 1992. Consumers of bear bile stated that they do not necessarily purchase bear bile to use immediately, but keep it at home in case of emergency (Report can be found here). This report stated that rhino horn was the least popular item among respondents, with the most frequent reasons stated were that it is illegal, too expensive and it is cruel to kill the rhino for its horn.

In order to increase the profitability of bear bile farming, the bear bile industry also creating new demand by making new non-traditional products by including bear bile in such products as eye drops, shampoo, soft drinks and even toothpaste. Needless to say, the demand for bear bile rapidly increased, leading to the reduction in wild bear populations, not only from countries whose bear bile farming were made legal, but also from the neighbouring countries such as Laos and Cambodia in order to supply the bear bile farming industry. This proves that once wildlife products are commercialised and brought into the “business world”, there will always be new products created to feed the demand, and new demand can always be created by businessmen in order to make more benefits. This pattern was already found with rhino horn: In 2016, a North American company, which will not be named here, claimed to create bioengineered rhino horns in order to flood the market in Asia. Even before the trade of 3D printed rhino horn were permitted, this company published their commercial advertisement on several social media sites.  Their advertisements were made in Vietnamese, claimed to use bioengineered rhino horn in beers, whitening cream for women and also medicines. Needless to say, traditionally the Vietnamese do not put rhino horn in neither beer nor whitening cream.

What is very dangerous about legalising the trade of wildlife products is that WE KNOW the consumers prefer to use wildlife products originating from the WILD, not from the FARM. I once interviewed a relative of a rhino horn consumer in Vietnam and she told me that she bought a piece of rhino horn a few years back for her mother, who was dying from last stage of cancer. The rhino horn did not work, and her mom past away a couple months after putting all her hope and life-savings into rhino horn. She then stated that maybe the rhino horn did not work, because “it was a fake horn”. It did not occur to her, that rhino horn did not save her mom because it actually does not have the power to cure cancer.

A report earlier this year claimed that consumers of rhino horn in Vietnam prefer to use horn of rhino that is harvested in a humane way (can be seen here). However, I would like to point out that this research was clearly designed in a favour of pro-traders: the research avoids using the words “wild” and “farmed” products but instead used “lethal” and “non-lethal”. There is much peer-reviewed research into consumers' preference of several wildlife products in Asia suggesting that there is a strong preference toward products coming from wild origin, as they believed them to have a stronger effective in curing disease, they are considered more potent and therefore more desirable (Can be seen herehere and here ).

Bear bile farming in Asia is dying out, not because farmed bear bile “flooded” the markets as it was set up for, but because consumers believe that bile from farmed bears is not effective. Therefore, wild bear bile was still in high demand, consumers were willing to pay a much higher price for it, and wild bear populations are continuing to decline.

What will happen to our rhino? - WildAct

Results from years of legalised bear bile farming and trade is the decline of wild bear populations all over Asia, and thousands of bears are still being kept in captivity in either legal or illegal farms throughout Vietnam and China. These bears are also not suitable to release back to the wild, due to serve physical health issues, and mentally traumatisation from years of being kept in tiny little cages. So, what can we learn from this painful lesson? Commercialising the trade and farming of wild animals, especially those that are endangered such as rhino do not work because:

1. Legalising rhino horn takes away the barrier that stop a group of people who do not consume rhino horn as they afraid of violating the law, thus creating a larger demand for rhino horns.

2. If the price of farmed rhino horn is – as many pro-traders claim -  lower than the price of horn from wild rhino, then it will fall into the same situation as the bear bile farming in Asia. People with lower income will be able to afford rhino horn and this will definitely create more demand for rhino horn consumption.

If the price of farmed rhino horn becomes higher than that of wild rhino due to funding needed to for protection of farmed rhino, protection of harvested horn stocks, veterinary care, food, shelter ect… then obviously rhino will still be poached in the wild, and this theory of saving rhino through farming does not work.

3. The demand cannot be “flooded”, as legalising and commercialising wildlife parts will create opportunity for business to create new products and new demands for them.

4. Wildlife consumers have a strong preference towards products come from wild animals that are living in the wild, not farmed wild animals.

5. Wildlife traders and farmers have a strong incentive to control the supply in order to maintain profitable trading values.

6. There is little understanding of the demand and current domestic markets in South Africa for rhino horn. Do Africans also use rhino horn for medicine or black magic?  If there is no demand for rhino horn within South Africa, then what is the meaning of legalising domestic trade for rhino horn? If the largest rhino horn farm in South Africa only allowed to trade rhino horn domestically, why is he advertised for this product online in both Vietnamese and Chinese? and why is non-resident of South Africa can also join the bidding?

7. There is an increase in rhino horn smuggling from Africa to Asia. Legalising the domestic trade will no doubt create more opportunity for smugglers to transport illegal rhino horn in and out of the country. It has been proven that permit documents are very easy to fake (read report here).

8. Rhino horn is not only being used as a symbol status in Asia, but also as medicine. It was reported that there is an increase of 50% annually in the Asian tourists visiting South Africa. Is enforcement in a good place to stop smuggling of rhino horn out of South Africa? And the sentimental question is: Are the South African government and private rhino farmers willing to take advantage of cancer patients to sell – and promote - fake medicine in order to line their own pockets?

9. Legalising domestic trade of rhino horn in South Africa not only undermines the work of reducing demand and education projects for rhino horn consumers in Asia but also posing a threat to the very few remaining Asian rhinos. The sway that the largest rhino farmer in S.A. has over the Department of Environmental Affairs is no doubt undermining South Africa’s reputation abroad.

10. The legal trade in any commodity that is of monetary value to someone has never prevented it from being stolen – or in this case poached. It is almost always cheaper to take something illegally than to purchase it legally, from a loaf of bread to a mobile phone to a Van Gogh. A legal supply of rhino horn from a farm in Klerksdorp will not stop the slaughter of rhinos in Kruger.

Illegal wildlife trade market in Durban, South Africa - WildAct

I also cannot stop worrying about the decision of legalising the domestic trade in South Africa, as this country is home for approximately 70% of white rhino and 40% of black rhino. Now that South Africa falls victim to the rhino horn trade, other African countries would start questioning “Why can South African make money from their rhino horn but we can’t?”.

30 years of bear bile farming in Asia has done nothing to reduce poaching of wild bears. How long must we allow this experiment in legal rhino horn trade last before we see the error of our ways?

For more information relating this article, please contact: