Episode 469: Rhino Horns And Clean Water : Planet Money On today's show: Two stories from Kenya.
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Episode 469: Rhino Horns And Clean Water

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Episode 469: Rhino Horns And Clean Water

Episode 469: Rhino Horns And Clean Water

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In Africa right now, poachers kill about two rhinos every day. They kill them for the horns which they can sell for about $50,000 - each. One thriving market for these horns is Vietnam, where people with enough money to buy a chunk of one grind it up into a glass of water and drink it down after a wild night out. It's supposed to cure a hangover, or a fever, even cancer and a long list of other ailments, though of course there's very little evidence the horns cure anything at all. Meanwhile, the rhinos, if the poachers continue to kill them at this pace, by 2016 more will die each year than will be born. Rhinos will be on track to becoming extinct. Hello and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Marianne McCune.


And I'm David Kestenbaum. Today on the show, two stories about trying to control human behavior. We're going to take you to Kenya to hear some competing ideas about how to stop rhino poaching, including setting some rhino horns on fire. And also in Kenya, we'll take you to a beautiful stream that I went to where drinking the water could kill you. There is an easy way to make the water safe, but a lot of people just don't do it.


MICHAEL KIWANUKA: (Singing) Tell me a tale that always was. Sing me a song that I'll always be in. Tell me a story that I can read. Tell me a story that I believe.

KESTENBAUM: Both of the stories you're going to hear today have aired on the radio. As always, we collect them here so you don't miss anything.

MCCUNE: The first one is about the rhino poaching problem. It's from a series NPR reporters have been doing. And one of the pieces starts out with sound from a video that is very horrible and upsetting. A poacher shoots a rhino in a South Africa game reserve, and then you can hear the animal crying as it tries to escape.


MCCUNE: The poacher was brave enough to videotape what he does for a living.

KESTENBAUM: That was from a story that NPR's Frank Langfitt did. The money is so big for rhino horns - they go for a price that rivals gold and cocaine - that conservationists and government officials in Africa are having a hell of a time stopping poachers. It's basically - it's a war situation. I mean, they have guns and helicopters and drones trying to protect these rhinos, but there are spies on the inside who are leaking out information and helping the poachers. It is a very, very difficult situation.

MCCUNE: Right. And if this war isn't working, which it seems not to be, what are the other choices? One way to discourage poachers would be to make it less rewarding, drive down the price of rhino horns, though the way you would do that is pretty controversial. Here's Gregory Warner, NPR's East Africa correspondent. He did this story for PLANET MONEY.


GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: When Duan Biggs was a child, he could see elephants and rhino outside his bedroom window. He grew up on the 6 million acre Kruger National Park in South Africa. His dad was a scientist there. He left the park to pursue his education - undergraduate in economics, Ph.D. in biology - and when he returned to the park in 2011, his home felt like a war zone.

DUAN BIGGS: Well, for example, there'd be helicopters flying overhead all the time. I remember clearly one afternoon coming back to my home, and I looked around and the bush was crawling with people with assault rifles from the army, from the police and from national parks, and they were looking for poachers.

WARNER: To Biggs, this firepower seemed unnecessary. You don't have to kill a rhino to take its horn. You can clip it off like a fingernail. In fact, it's made of the same stuff as fingernails - keratin.

BIGGS: The risk to the animals is minimal. There's little evidence of behavioral change. Essentially vets would go in, they dart the animal, and they would de-horn it. And thereafter the animal gets up again and runs around the bush and continues life as normal.

WARNER: The rhino is running around the bush, and in your hand is a horn of, say, 11 pounds...

BIGGS: That would be worth at current price estimates around quarter of a million dollars.

WARNER: So Biggs has been going around to conferences and classrooms making this argument, that if people in Vietnam want rhino horn so badly that they'll pay for it per ounce what they're paying for gold, we cannot dream of stopping demand. The law against selling rhino horn is only helping criminals, like the prohibition against alcohol in the 1920s fueled the American mafia. So rather than let gangsters control this trade until rhino go the way of the woolly mammoth, we should legalize it, make it possible for rhino ranchers to farm the rhino, clip off their horns and sell them without killing a single beast.

BIGGS: It's quite clear that for a product like rhino horn, which has ancient persistent and growing demand, if you try and ban the use of that product and you try and enforce that, you're going to run into the sorts of problems we have in the Kruger National Park right now.

WARNER: And this argument for a legal rhino horn trade is gaining supporters in the South African government. There's a push to submit the idea for an international vote in 2016 at the big endangered wildlife conference known as CITES, which means that other countries in Africa have less than three years to come up with a counter argument. The best place I'm told to find that counterargument is on a little spot in Nairobi National Park in Kenya.

WINNIE KIIRU: This place has been visited by people from all over the world.

WARNER: Today I'm visiting this spot with Winnie Kiiru, a trustee of the Kenya Wildlife Service, and the two of us are looking at a brick monument almost like a crematorium.

This monument which commemorates the burning of 12 tons of ivory. Wow.

On this spot, the then-president of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi...

KIIRU: On July 18, 1989.

WARNER: ...Set fire to 12 tons of ivory tusks confiscated from poachers.

KIIRU: And the idea was to send a very strong message to the world that ivory had no value.

WARNER: Ivory that year was trading legally at its then-highest price in history, so Kenya's symbolic burn of over $4 million of elephant tusk became like its Nancy Reagan moment. Just say no to ivory.

KIIRU: That a third world country was setting alight all this - it made no sense, really. It made absolutely no economic sense.

WARNER: USA Today called the burn one of the conservation milestones of the 1980s, up there with finding that the ozone layer had a hole. Because if you were walking down the street and saw an African president burning money, you'd also stop and listen.


FORMER PRESIDENT DANIEL ARAP MOI: I appeal to people all over the world to stop buying ivory, for to do so will go to support the needless illegal killing of animals.

WARNER: Worldwide sales of ivory dropped. The trade was banned three months later, and Kenya's elephant population over the next decade came back from the brink of extinction. Now, 24 years later, there's an internal memo circulating in the halls of Kenya's government - a plan, if approved, to cut off the horns of some of Kenya's rhino and set them ablaze. This time it would be just say no to rhino.

KIIRU: The only creature that has a right to a rhino horn is the rhino itself.

WARNER: So at the exact same time that the South Africans are inching toward a proposal to legalize the sale of rhino horn worldwide, the Kenyans are contemplating a symbolic act to make the horn ever more taboo, and you can't go down both paths at once. You cannot, as Winnie Kiiru says, legitimize a trade and say it's wrong. For Kiiru, it's clear that if rhino horn were legal, there'd be no stopping the rise in demand among the Asian nouveau riche.

KIIRU: Let's do the math. The whole population of white rhinos in Africa is 20,000. You can't even meet the demand in Vietnam. Forget China.

WARNER: Not surprisingly, the economist does that math very differently. Duan Biggs says that if Rhino were farmed like sheep, with their horns shorn off every year, incentivized farmers would breed more rhino while the price would go down. Eventually it's the poachers who would be priced out of the business.

BIGGS: Provide a financial incentive and a benefit to the landholders that are conserving these rhino.

WARNER: And underlying this whole debate about animals is a philosophical gulf about how you influence human behavior. Is it with shame, or is it with profit? Because in the end, neither side really knows what would happen if you could buy a packet of rhino horn in the pharmacy like Tylenol. Would it become more popular or lose its forbidden allure? Would the poachers go out of business, or would they become more audacious because they could launder their stolen horn as legitimate? And then there's this question - would we ever be able to see a rhino in the wild again? Or if we wanted to take our kids to see the great rhinoceros, would we have to peek into guarded pens on private rhino farms? At the next CITES conference on endangered species in 2016, some council of experts may be asked to decide which of these hypotheticals is closer to the truth.


KESTENBAUM: That's Gregory Warner. He's NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Kenya. And Jacob and I, as it turns out, were also in Kenya a few weeks ago. And we ended up meeting a bunch of people there who are working on a very different problem that seems by comparison like it would be much easier to solve. It's the problem of trying to provide people with safe drinking water. I mean, there are no poachers involved. There's no one trying to stop you, right? It's something everybody wants to happen. It's been a top international aid priority for years and years and years.

MCCUNE: Governments and charities spend millions of dollars working on it, and yet it has proven very difficult. So here's that story you did, David. It starts by a spring.


KESTENBAUM: This is a beautiful spot in western Kenya. The farms around are lush. There's a lovely spring. A boy comes by to fill up a container.

How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: I'm doing fine.

KESTENBAUM: What are you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: (Foreign language spoken).

KESTENBAUM: "Getting drinking water," he says. The spring water looks clean, but of course there are some things you can't see. I'm here with Evan Green-Lowe, who works for a group called Innovations for Poverty Action. He bends over and fills up a cup.

EVAN GREEN-LOWE: Looks good, right?

KESTENBAUM: Yeah, it looks really clean.

GREEN-LOWE: Would you like some?

KESTENBAUM: I don't know.

GREEN-LOWE: It's not a good idea.

KESTENBAUM: Drinking a cup of water can kill you, or at least make you really sick. Alex Mwaki works for CARE Kenya on water issues. I asked him what might be in that nice clear cup of water. He sighed.

ALEX MWAKI: It might contain fecal contamination, pathogens like those ones causing cholera, the Vibrio cholerae.

KESTENBAUM: Also typhoid, dysentery, parasites, worms.

MWAKI: Worms. Worms. Intestinal worms.

KESTENBAUM: All particularly dangerous for children. Not surprisingly, getting clean water to the world has been a top priority for years. And for a while, it looked like this was just an engineering problem. If there's no clean water in a village, dig a good well. Or if there's a spring, there are ways to protect springs. Do that. This turned out not to be enough, though. When Alex Mwaki tested water in people's homes, often that water was still contaminated. Maybe the container the family used to fetch the water wasn't clean or the container was clean but the cup people used to scoop the water out wasn't. Or the water got stored in a big clay pot at the house and kids stuck their hands in it. So many ways for things to go wrong.

MWAKI: My reaction, I would say, was, well, we still need to do more. We have not done much.

KESTENBAUM: So one of the next ideas was chlorine. If families brought the water back to their homes and then added just a tiny bit of chlorine, that should protect the water. That way if bacteria get in somehow, the chlorine would kill it. Simple. And today, there are lots of efforts to get chlorine to people in areas with unsafe water. In Kenya, you can buy little bottles or tablets in the stores for pennies. Problem solved?

GREEN-LOWE: If only it were that easy.

KESTENBAUM: This is Evan Green-Lowe again with IPA. He says surveys show that only a small percentage of people in Kenya buy the chlorine even though it's cheap.

GREEN-LOWE: Getting it to happen in every household every time proved to be an extraordinarily difficult task.

KESTENBAUM: So here is the latest iteration, what Evan's group thinks is the best approach to date for helping people in rural areas get safe water - a chlorine dispenser by the spring or well. Basically an upside-down bottle of chlorine with a handle that releases a measured amount.

GREEN-LOWE: So it says (foreign language spoken), which is treat your drinking water.

KESTENBAUM: A tiny bit of chlorine is enough for 20 liters of water.

GREEN-LOWE: It's very - it's very simple. A lot of its success is in its simplicity.

KESTENBAUM: Success is a relative term. We spent an hour at the spring, and everyone who came by did use the dispenser. But it turns out if you test the water in people's homes in villages where the dispensers have been installed only 40 percent test positive for chlorine. Just 40 percent. Even when there's chlorine in an easy-to-use dispenser by the spring at no cost, not everyone uses it. Some people don't like the taste. Some people are afraid of it.

GREEN-LOWE: Sometimes you're in a rush or you're thinking about something else and you just don't do it.

KESTENBAUM: But it's right there.


KESTENBAUM: Which might be frustrating if it weren't also understandable and very familiar.

GREEN-LOWE: I've had malaria five times now. I have a bed net hanging above my bed and I don't use it.

KESTENBAUM: Why don't you do it?

GREEN-LOWE: It's 45 seconds. It's a burden. I don't want to. I just don't - I either don't think about it or feel stubborn.

KESTENBAUM: People everywhere - in rural Kenya, in New York, wherever - we just don't always do all the things we're supposed to do. The developed world has solved the water problem by essentially taking people out of the loop. We pipe clean water to everyone's homes. But it's going to be a long time before that happens here.


KESTENBAUM: So, Marianne, after that story aired I emailed Evan just to say hey, the story's up. Tell me what you think. He said, I thought it was great. He said, I do want to point out that I feel like we are making progress. You know, we made a lot of progress. I know 40 percent is not 100 percent, you know, but it's much, much better than it used to be. And this is a very cheap way to get clean water to people. And we are saving lives.

MCCUNE: So it's not an intractable problem.

KESTENBAUM: I think it's going to be very hard to get to 100 percent without some sort of central plumbing system. But, you know, sometimes behaviors do change on a big scale. It happens. My wife has been trying to get me to wash my hands every time I come in the house from the subway. I didn't used to do it or I'd just, like, turn the water on (laughter). And now I do it every day. Mostly.

MCCUNE: (Laughter).


KIWANUKA: (Singing) Lord I need good, good loving. Hey, I need loving.

MCCUNE: As always, we want to know what you thought of the show. You can email us, planetmoney@npr.org.

KESTENBAUM: You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Spotify. I'm David Kestenbaum.

MCCUNE: I'm Marianne McCune. Thanks for listening.


KIWANUKA: (Singing) Yeah. Oh. Yeah.

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