Would an open, well-regulated, legal horn market draw new investment into breeding rhinos? Might this help not only the species but provide commercial opportunities for local communities?

Photo credit: Shannon Wild


Africa and Asia’s prime wildlife regions are primarily adjacent to impoverished rural communities. This applies as much in Asia as it does in Africa. For these local people to embrace a custodianship or stewardship ethic regarding wildlife and its management, they must benefit from it. Conservation, at best, has a checkered career in this regard.
The potential profitability of rhino farming certainly looks like an attractive option for local communities. But the assumptions of potential returns are predicated on market conditions panning out the way pro-traders imagine would be the case. The scenario of a demand constantly met by supply at an attractively high price may not prevail. The point is made time and time again that we have little understanding of potential market dynamics in the context of a legal trade.
Indeed, there are successful instances of domesticating wild animals for ranching. It is, after all, a process that has been ongoing for thousands of years. Crocodile and ostrich farming are frequently cited as good examples. But both these animals are rapid and prolific breeders, which is not the case with rhinos.
And there have been failures too. Vicuñas, for example, were once the poster child of wildlife trade protagonists. Initially, the legal trade in their wool did lead to a population increase, but poaching and the illegal trade are again threatening the species.
Like most farming enterprises, start-up rhino breeders would require substantial capital. There would be the cost of acquiring initial breeding stock, and rhinos born into farming operations would also take just as long as wild rhinos to reach an age and horn size big enough to be harvested—five years or more. That is a long time to bear costs without a return. And it’s not just the cost of initial stock. The cost of security fences and systems, veterinary expenses, and food would be incurred for some time before harvesting profits. Who would fund the start-up cost of establishing new farmers, particularly community farmers? Charitable donations may help to fund pilot projects, but not great numbers of newcomers.
The high projected returns from legally sold horn might be attractive to potential investors, but they only hold if the assumptions around a legal trade prove correct.
Maybe Asian governments would become invested in a legal trade, but not necessarily in ways that would support African and potentially Indian breeders. It might be more profitable for Asian investors to set up their own farms and cut out breeders in range countries. In an open trade environment, they would be entitled to do so. The investment capital would not be an issue, and it would be easy to source breeding stock.


There is no questioning the fact that the prosperity and quality of life of communities living alongside wildlife reserves are of paramount importance. For conservation areas to succeed, these rural communities must derive every meaningful benefit from participating in their care.

An example of this working well in practice is in northwest Namibia, where formal rhino conservation began in the early 1980s. Innovative conservancy models evolved to place local people, and their values, at the center of solutions geared more towards stopping poaching than catching poachers. The objective was to make poaching a socially unacceptable act. With jobs and revenue connected to rhinos, an environment would be created in which community members would be far more likely to report suspicious circumstances to protect rhinos seen as belonging to the community.

There is no reason not to breed rhinos for the renewable harvest of their horns. The fact that there are already collectively some 6,300 rhinos on privately owned property in South Africa proves that substantial herds can be grown. So why not embrace this opportunity? After all, there are plenty of instances where the domestication and farming of once wild animals have worked: crocodile and ostrich farming, for example, and the ranching of various antelope species. Crocodile farming is a major international industry—a million crocodile skins are exported legally from about 30 countries across the world—South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Kenya are significant producers. 

A controlled legal trade should encourage other landowners, individuals, and communities to start breeding rhinos and enter a market that would potentially deliver income 100 times that of traditional livestock farming. This need not mean the wholesale conversion of livestock ranching to rhino breeding, as it is possible to manage both activities side by side.

Part of the revenue earned by new rhino breeders would go towards paying rangers and anti-poaching teams, and other farm workers market-related salaries. Such employment opportunities would go a long way to gaining the support of rural communities.

Furthermore, by becoming active market participants, state reserves, private landowners, and communities with rhinos would be able to generate a substantial income from animals presently regarded as a massive financial burden.

 And if Asian governments become invested in the legal trade, which they could be through taxation and even directly, they would have an incentive to help close down the illegal trade.