Mathematicians propose solution to rhino poaching

Why legalizing the rhino horn trade could prevent extinction

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Amir Cohen/Reuters

A group of mathematicians, frustrated by South Africa’s inability to stop rhino poaching, is creating an “optimal management strategy” to save the white rhinos. At an annual math conference, held last week at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, an international group of academics—from Oxford University to the Indian Institute of Technology—began work on the vexing problem. Though the government tightened hunting regulations in 2009 and deploys military aircraft to hunt poachers, poaching has only increased. Today, rhino horn, a prized medicinal ingredient in Asia, sells for $100,000 per kg.

In designing the model, the value of a poacher’s life, the cost of keeping a white rhino safe, and the worth of rhinos for tourism must be taken into account, says conservation economist Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes. Their recommendation, expected by year’s end, may be controversial. Legalizing the rhino horn trade to reduce poaching is being considered. Ecologist Norman Owen-Smith believes a rhino policy recommendation based on numbers can help where military might and bunny-hugging platitudes have failed. “Clear logic can help cut through emotion.”