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February 17, 2019

Permit private ownership of rhinos

A conversation between a Zen master and his student went like this:

Student: “Where will you go after 100 years?”

Zen master: “I will change into a horse or a donkey.”

Student: “And then?”

Zen master: “I’ll go to Hell.”

Student: “But you are a man of great goodness and wisdom, why would you go to Hell?”

Zen master: “If I don’t go to Hell to teach you, who will?”


This week those we pay to protect our wildlife sent us to Hell. And the reason was as bewildering as the destination we were sent.

Tourism CS Najib Balala had earlier offered his Kenyan masters a one-way ticket to Hell for asking him to resign following the death of 10 rhinos after their relocation to a newly established sanctuary in Tsavo East Park. The last of the 11 black rhinos died on Monday.The irony is that the translocation was to save the rhinos. But as President Herbert Hoover would say, “This was a social and economic experiment which was noble in motive but far-reaching in purpose”.

As taxpayers, Kenyans have demanded an explanation. But we are asking the wrong questions and that is why the CS has all the right answers. This has enabled him to exonerate himself and blame others, culminating in the suspension and demotion of some Kenya Wildlife Service veterinarians involved in the translocation.

The right question we ought to be asking is why we continue to entrust the State to protect our wildlife, a job they have been performing dismally. The Kenya Wildlife Service Strategic Plan documents that in 1970, the rhino population was 20,000. Thanks to poaching, this number has dwindled to only 540. This is despite protection measures such as translocation, hunting bans, sanctuaries and prohibiting illegal trade.

However, this should surprise no one. Because as surely as dawn follows night, where there is a demand for any commodity, a market will rise to meet it. And no amount of prohibition, however well meaning, can effectively prevent it without negative unintended consequences. For instance, in Vietnam, rhino horns can fetch up to $100,000 per kilo. So with this kind of returns, what would be the incentive to protect the rhinos in the wild?

Do you know why nobody worries about the extinction of chicken or cows? It is because they are not managed by the State. The free market has the magic bullet to ensure rhinos and other endangered wildlife species are as ubiquitous as the sand on the seashore. And that magic bullet is called private property rights.

Property rights refer to the legal ownership of specific property and forms the basis for all market exchange. They help to protect and conserve the value of resources, thereby providing an incentive for owners to efficiently use and maintain them. When property rights are well-defined, secure and transferable, they motivate the owners to take into account the cost of their actions on future availability, typically resulting in efficient allocation of resources. This is why cattle or poultry keepers will invest in breeding, feeding, treating and protecting their livestock.

I, therefore, submit that the government should permit the private ownership of rhinos. When ownership and management of wildlife is exclusively vested in the State, it suppresses innovation, competition, research and development, which greatly contribute to positive outcomes of species and habitat conservation.

One, when a rhino is dehorned without killing it or cracking its skull, it only takes three years for the horn to grow back to its full size. This means it is quite feasible to harvest the rhino horns without decimating the wildlife. And the current economic value of rhinos will incentivise the rhino farmer to nurture, protect and conserve the rhino at his own, not the taxpayers’ cost. This will ultimately increase the welfare of the rhino because they will treat it as a renewable resource, while leaving the taxpayers with more disposable income in their pockets.

Two, private ownership of rhinos will automatically see an end to poaching because the harvesting of rhino horns will be conducted legally without killing the rhino. This will enable the efficient reallocation expensive costs of protecting the rhino, which include translocation that has yielded the opposite intended results. This will also solve the problem of dwindling rhino populations because traders will undertake a voluntary exchange with the rhino farmers, just like they would when buying a camel. Farmers would also breed more animals, thus creating a demand for the parent stock and sell the surpluses to other farmers leading to the establishment of new colonies. This will also bring the rhino horn market towards an equilibrium because the supply of horns will be sufficient to meet the demand, thus lowering its price.

Three, legal rhino horn sales will boost the GDP of the country exponentially than any number of tourists can. And this will be done without burdening the taxpayer with tourism marketing campaigns costs. In the process, this will stimulate other economic activities such as attracting more domestic and foreign tourists to the rhino farms, employment of private vets to treat the animals, growing of fodder, packaging and transportation for the horns and overall employment in the rhino farms.

Unknowingly, Balala was sending us to a realm he was already occupying. With the death of 11 rhinos hanging over his head, there could possibly be no other habitation for him. And like the Zen Master, we ought to oblige him. Because as his paymasters, if we decline to join him, who will teach him that reckless words and actions have consequences, and that the only way to save the rhino is to privatise it, if we don’t?

My unsolicited advice to the Tourism CS is, an intelligent man should never miss an opportunity to keep his mouth shut.


Man will always be in hell as long as he is in charge - Anthony T. Hincks 

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