Saving African rhinos, any possible way

By Sipho Hlongwane 4 October 2011

The South African government is taking a multidimensional approach to the rhino poaching crisis. After announcing a year ago it would conduct a study into the viability of legal trade in rhino horn, it is now holding bilateral talks with the government of Vietnam to share information. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

South Africa and Vietnam are clearly not on the same page when it comes to combating the growing crisis of rhino poaching in South Africa. This dissonance came to light when a five-member panel from the government of Vietnam visited South Africa to hold talks with local officials on rhino poaching which has seen almost 300 of the iconic beasts butchered this year in what officials refer to as a conservation war.

The Vietnamese had no clue how big the crisis actually is, South Africa’s deputy director general of biodiversity and conservation in the department of water and environmental affairs, Fundisile Mketeni said to the Mail & Guardian. Statistics cited by the Vietnamese suggested that trafficking in rhino horn had decreased.

In South Africa, we know the situation to be very grim. We have already lost 297 rhinos to poachers in 2011 alone, according to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF).

In August, two Vietnamese nationals were sentenced to eight and 12 years in prison for attempting to smuggle rhino horn out of South Africa.

“Now that we’ve had the discussions and shared information, the Vietnamese are much more aware of what is going on.” South Africa’s data have been correlated with information from Traffic, the international wildlife-trade monitoring organisation. It sponsored the meeting between South African and Vietnamese officials.

South Africa signed a memorandum of understanding with Vietnam. “We agreed that the memorandum and subsequent implementation plan allow co-operation in biodiversity conservation, law enforcement, wildlife trade, information and intelligence gathering and sharing, permit issuing processes and verification mechanisms, monitoring and reporting systems, technology development and sharing, capacity building and training, prosecution and law enforcement, awareness, knowledge and research, custom services and legal systems within which the two countries operate,” the environmental affairs department said.

We needed no greater example of the desperate need for more shattering of Asian myths than the lack of information by Vietnamese officials. The sudden upsurge in rhino poaching in the last few years is believed to have been sparked by a swelling middle-class in Asia, large parts of which believe that rhino horn (which is little more than tightly compressed hair) holds medicinal properties.

The Vietnamese promised to conduct public tests on rhino horn to show people that it had no medicinal value. “This is the Oriental experience founded a thousand years ago. It cannot change overnight. We have to convince the people through our own research that the horn means nothing,” said Nguyen Truy Kien, a councillor in the Vietnamese government.

South Africa has also been busy at home, collaborating with local stakeholders on the “war” on rhino poaching, and possible solutions. Trade in rhino horn is prohibited by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

In October last year the department of environmental and water affairs began a study into the possibility and feasibility of legalising trade in rhino horn – a notion repugnant to local and international conservationists. Despite government reassurances that the study in no way endorses legalising rhino horn trade, its insistence it  would provide a scientific basis for examining the issue, has found little traction. “One of the outcomes of the summit in October last year was that we should look into the possibility of trade in rhino horn,” Albi Modise said. “If that is going to happen, it must be based on scientific study. So we are just studying the possibility and viability of the trade.”

Modise said one of the reasons the South African government is opposed to dehorning rhinos in national parks is that there is no scientific study into what effects this might have on the animals and their behaviours.

“We are nowhere near legalising trade in rhino horn,” Modise said.

Morné du Plessis, CEO of WWF South Africa, said the organisation they would not support the legalisation of trade in rhino horn. “The issue is, therefore, a little more complicated than simply legalising the trade in rhino horn,” Du Plessis said. “For example, it would allow poachers to launder poached rhino horns. What we also have to realise is that it is not only South Africa that has a rhino population. And even with our levels of sophistication, we’re finding it very difficult to get to grips with poaching.”

People are getting desperate though. Last year Reinhardt Holtzhausen, operational manager of Wildlife Ranching South Africa, gained instant notoriety when he openly suggested that rhino horn trading be legalised. He claimed advances in DNA matching meant trade could be regulated much more carefully than before.

Another game reserve owner suggested poisoning rhino horn in an effort to dissuade people from using it.

Whatever the solution, making the ultimate customers whose mythologies drive the illegal trade in rhino horn – which fuels the mass slaughter of animals – understand better what they are doing to nature is a good way forward. DM

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