The wood for the trees

A POPULAR definition of madness identifies sufferers by their insistence on repeating the same thing over and over with the expectation of achieving a different result. If this definition is taken to be a truism and is stretched to encompass the whole of society, then we are a society that has well and truly lost the plot.

From the global war on drugs to the war on rhino poaching, society has consistently applied the same supply-sided approach to solving these problems, with most of the funding devoted to fighting the illegal trade of drugs and rhino horn going to interdiction and eradication efforts, despite mounting evidence that such an unbalanced approach will most likely lead to failure.

The FBI recently shut down The Silk Road, a website used for the illegal trading of drugs and other illicit products and services. The fanfare with which this news has been trumpeted by international media belies the reality of the so-called war on drugs: that it’s a war that the world is losing terribly. According to a report released earlier this year by the online medical journal BMJ Open the global “war on drugs” has been such a failure that illegal substances are now cheaper and purer than at any period over the past two decades.

Things aren’t looking so good for the rhinos either. Despite ubiquitous awareness campaigns and increased law enforcement efforts poachers have killed at least 688 rhinos this year in South Africa alone, surpassing the previous record of 668 set last year. With three months left in 2013, a few hundred more rhinos could join that gruesome total by year’s end.

The similarities between the dominant approaches adopted by governments to deal with the illegal drug and rhino horn trade taken together with their ostensible failures point to a need to shift the focus from paternalistic modes of thinking about these problems.

It’s the kind of approach that sees drug addicts as law-breaking hedonists who deserve only discipline and punishment instead of recognising addiction as being a treatable disease. There have been suggestions that drug policy should focus on drug addiction and abuse and drug problems should be the responsibility of doctors and public health workers. In some countries that policy is called “harm reduction.” Another name for it is just “common sense.”

In terms of rhino poaching we’ve adopted an approach that dismisses a particular culture’s belief in rhino horn as medicine as either crazy or misguided instead of trying to understand it as legitimate cultural practice. Despite our professed multiculturalism in this country especially, few of us recognise that the ongoing interest in rhino horn in these countries is not just about ‘medicine’. These are societies that continue to revere rhino horn for a complex cocktail of factors including aesthetic qualities, associations of status and elitism, deeply entrenched healing traditions and national and cultural pride.

If we can start to grasp this complex and deeply-rooted cultural affinity towards rhino horn and move beyond populist Western views of rhino horn being sought as an aphrodisiac or quack medicine based on a cancer-curing myth we stand a far better chance of finding a sensible lasting solution to the problem of rhino poaching.

  AUTHOR
Chris Tobo
Columnist

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