Imagine the following scenario: Someone you know and like, perhaps a Facebook friend, asks you to sign a petition to ban the rhino horn trade in South Africa. Your friend tells you that South Africa is one of the few countries that permits the sale of rhino horn and that if you do not act on this issue you are being silent in the face of evil, and complicit in the deaths of thousands of rhinos. You care about animals and the environment, so this seems like a no-brainer. It is obviously the right thing to do, and you sign.

But was it the right thing to do?

In 2009, responding to immense international pressure, including such petitions, South Africa enacted a complete ban on the taking and sale of rhino horn. Before the ban, farmers harvested the horns of rhinos on their properties, tranquilizing the animals. This caused no harm or pain to the animal, and allowed the horn to grow back. Since the sale of horns was a major source of income in a poor country, farmers protected their rhinos and increased herd sizes through careful management, feeding and breeding programs.

White rhinoceros

After the ban, the fall in supply caused horn prices to skyrocket. This encouraged poachers, who until then had had no reason to target rhinos. Rhino deaths from poaching rose rapidly after 2009, growing from a few dozen per year before the ban to consistently over one thousand per year by 2013. In the twenty years before the horn prohibition, the white rhino population in South Africa had quadrupled. In the eight years after the prohibition, the  population had fallen by 15%. Poaching was a major contributor, but so was the fact that farmers no longer had a reason to protect and breed them.

Eventually, reality and common sense prevailed. South Africa lifted the ban in 2017, prompting further outcry from environmentalists. Just two years later rhino deaths from poaching had fallen by nearly fifty percent, and the rhino population had begun to recover.

Activism is great. We should all be working to make the world a better place. But activism which is not based on accurate information and careful thought is likely to do more harm than good.

Adapted from an article at