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WILDLIFE TRADE OP-ED

Let it burn, says animal welfare NGO about South Africa’s 75-tonne rhino horn stockpile

Let it burn, says animal welfare NGO about South Africa’s 75-tonne rhino horn stockpile
Poaching has decimated white rhino populations in the Kruger National Park – from 10,621 in 2011 to just 2,060 in 2022. (Photo: Conservation Action Trust)

South Africa has more than 75 tonnes of rhino horn stockpiled from animals that have died naturally, horns seized in anti-smuggling operations, and horns sawn off from immobilised, live rhinos in an attempt to deter poachers.

The government should destroy all stockpiles of rhino horn to stop them being diverted into the illegal rhino horn trade through theft or corruption, according to a new report released by the South African wildlife welfare organisation, the EMS Foundation.

The report compares two sets of stockpile figures provided by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE), one in May 2019 and the other in December 2020. This shows that after the 17 months between these dates, government stockpiles inexplicably ended up with 4,006 fewer horns than in 2019, with 563 fewer in private stockpiles.

Megan Carr, one of the authors of South Africa’s Rhino Horn Stockpile: Intrinsic to Illegal Trade, said in an interview that this “leaking” from stockpiles, presumably to the illegal trade, was a compelling reason the government should burn all rhino horn stockpiles.

“It’s been proven that rhino horns have been stolen from stockpiles and have gone into the illegal trade,” Carr said.

Since 2016 at least 974kg of rhino horn, seized in 11 separate incidents, were found to have come from South African stockpiles, both government- and privately owned.

These hauls represented 18% of all rhino horns seized by the authorities between 2016 and 2021, the report said.

Michele Pickover, director of the EMS Foundation, said rhino horn stockpiles had become just another avenue for horns to leak into the illegal trade.

“The government has created a nightmare by allowing stockpiles. They need to destroy them,” she said.

“Rhino horn from state reserves should be in a central stockpile, but government says that is too expensive. So, dysfunctional provinces have to look after their own stockpiles,” she said.

All horns in stockpiles are meant to be kept securely with a set of identifying data for each horn, loaded onto a central government database, with horns from seizures clearly differentiated as they may never be traded, even if the trade ban is lifted. The report questions whether this is always done.

It highlights two thefts from government stockpiles:

  • In June 2023 thieves broke into the offices of the North West Parks and Tourism Board in Mahikeng and stole 51 rhino horns worth an estimated R9-million from the vault. Five men were arrested but the horns were not recovered; and
  • In 2014 four men were arrested after stealing 112 horns from the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency in Mbombela.

In an earlier report the EMS Foundation listed some incidents of horn stolen from private owners, compiled from media reports:

  • In 2021 armed men stole eight rhino horns from a safe at a wildlife sanctuary near Gravelotte;
  • Thieves broke into a safe in 2018 and stole 12 horns from a game reserve on the Garden Route; and
  • 66 horns were stolen from a safe at a game lodge near Mokopane in Limpopo.

Pickover feels that these thefts and unexplained discrepancies cast serious doubts on the DFFE’s ability to control these stockpiles.

The government’s stockpiles have built up over decades from horns removed from rhino that have died naturally, horns seized in anti-smuggling operations, and horns that have been sawn off from immobilised, live rhinos in an attempt to deter poachers.

These stockpiles from national and provincial game reserves – and from private rhino owners – are growing, particularly with the widespread practice of dehorning.

Currently, there is not much anyone can do with the stockpiled rhino horn. Although it is legal to buy and sell it within South Africa’s borders if one has a permit, there is no local market for rhino horn.

rhino horn

A rhino with horns is becoming a rare sight as the government and private owners usually dehorn the animals to deter poachers. (Photo: Conservation Action Trust)

There is, of course, a huge market in Asia – which is fuelling poaching here – but international trade in rhino horn has been banned since 1977 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Since then, the only people trading in rhino horn internationally are criminals.

The EMS report questions why the government and private conservation bodies hold on to stockpiles, given that these horns have no conservation value, no local market, and the cost of keeping them secure is high.

The answer is, of course, that both the government and private stockpile owners are hoping the CITES ban will be lifted so they can sell their stockpiles to the lucrative Asian markets.

And there is a lot of stockpiled rhino horn in South Africa.

The DFFE’s High Level Panel Report of 2020 listed the government stockpile as 27,641kg and the private stockpile 47,544kg – a total volume of 75,185kg. 

That represents many thousands of rhino.

That High Level Panel report states that South Africa’s substantial horn stockpiles equal “several years’ worth of supply to the illegal market at current levels of poaching”.

Many South Africans in the conservation world see legalising the international trade as the only way to save the rhino.

Pelham Jones, chairperson of the Private Rhino Owners’ Association, which holds 65% of all white rhino in South Africa, believes opening international trade will transform worthless stockpiles into money for conservation.

He argues that a legal trade would collapse the illegal trade because there would be “a better-quality horn delivered to consumers more efficiently and reliably”.

Jones claims that the illegal trade and poachers would struggle to match this and points out that the trade ban has not stopped poaching.

But the EMS Foundation says there is little chance of CITES lifting the trade ban.

“There is just no international appetite to unban rhino horn trade, there hasn’t been for 47 years – so why on Earth continue to stockpile the horn, particularly as it costs a lot to secure?” said Carr.

David Bryant, DA MP and member of the parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, agreed that the realistic likelihood of CITES allowing legal trade was “slim to none”.

Bryant agreed, too, that the government stockpiles were poorly managed, and not all horns in the private stockpiles were properly accounted for.

He did not support destroying stockpiles at this stage, but said what was urgently needed was for the DFFE and the police to conduct a “full and thorough assessment of all stockpiles across the country”.

The Kruger National Park used to be the white rhino stronghold, but the animals have been decimated. According to the SANParks Annual Report 2022/23 there were an estimated 10,621 white rhino in Kruger in 2011. Despite a multipronged anti-poaching strategy involving many sectors, by 2022 there were just 2,060 left.

Most no longer have horns, for their own protection.

The government has thrown a lot of money at protecting rhinos, about R1.1-billion between 2017 and 2021. Of this R660-million was spent in Kruger.

A report published in 2023, Project Fire, found that dehorning rhino was the only anti-poaching measure that showed strong statistical evidence for reducing poaching.

If there is no horn, there is nothing to poach.

rhino

One of the many thousands of rhino that have been killed for their horns which criminal syndicates feed into the lucrative Asian markets. (Photo: Adam Cruise / Conservation Action Trust)

So, will the government consider destroying its rhino horn stockpiles to prevent them from leaking into the criminal trade?

DFFE spokesperson Peter Mbelengwa said they would not.

“Rhino horn is a natural resource acquired legally through natural deaths of rhino and other management interventions. The CITES restriction is only applicable to the international commercial trade. The domestic trade in rhino horn remains legal in South Africa,” he said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Rancher out on R100,000 bail after ‘26 unreported rhino carcasses’, horns found on Limpopo farm

And will the DFFE say how many rhino horns they have accumulated in stockpiles since the last figures of 2020?

“Information and data regarding rhino horn stockpiles is not shared with the media/public for security reasons,” Mbelengwa said.

Nor does the DFFE agree with the EMS call for the white rhino to be urgently uplisted to CITES Appendix 1, because it says the white rhino does not meet the biological criteria to be listed in Appendix 1.

Appendix 1 includes species threatened with extinction and trade in these species is banned for commercial purposes.

‘Ruse’

Pickover believes the DFFE’s reason for not releasing stockpile figures is a ruse. “How can releasing figures be a security risk? Everybody knows there are stockpiles. The existence of stockpiles themselves is a security risk, as has been shown, not knowing how many rhino horns are in them.

“And it’s super significant for the public to know because it is government that is wanting to open up international trade, so government needs to be transparent.

“In any event, similar information was provided publicly in 2019 and 2020.”

What to do with the stockpiles in the meantime?

The DFFE’s High Level Panel report made an interesting recommendation to Environment Minister Barbara Creecy. It said that while the question of legalising trade remained “highly polarised”, Creecy should start a process of consulting Southern African Development Community countries to determine whether destroying stockpiles of rhino horn – and ivory – is consistent with regional protocols.

If this were deemed “a sensible policy option”, Creecy should consider marketing rhino horn and ivory stockpiles to international donors and philanthropists, who would then “buy” the stockpiles for destruction in South Africa, with most of the donated money going to conservation and development in poor communities living alongside elephants and rhino.

It’s a solution that may satisfy all parties. DM

This article was provided by the Conservation Action Trust.

EMS Foundation is a South African nonprofit organisation established in 2014 for the protection of the rights and welfare of wildlife, children, the elderly and other vulnerable groups.

Melanie Gosling is a veteran South African environment writer.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • John Nash says:

    Time for honesty. The EMS Foundation is the greenwashing arm of some of the richest people in the country whose legal activities have had a consequentially profound effect on the environment. It is an animal rights group. Animal rights (AR) do not exist in nature. Animals kill each other all day long. AR are an invention of well-fed westerners – poor people, hungry people and refugee camps don’t do AR. Please note that the writer writes but doesn’t actually save any rhinos. That is the job of others in the real world, and the real world is important here.

    The international ban on legal sales of rhino horn have clearly not protected rhinos from poachers. The reason is simple – the ban was AR based and imposed by people who haven’t got ant rhinos to protect or look after – but there is an ongoing demand. That demand could be filled legally if the ban was lifted, taking the market away from foreign criminals and giving it to SA farmers.
    At the moment, few farmers want rhinos on the property – they have no commercial value alive, are expensive to keep and guard and they attract armed criminals. If the trade was legalised, the world price would stabilise and farmers would be pleased and keen to have rhinos. This alone could add 25,000 rhinos to the national herd.
    Apart from being an outrageous waste of SA’s natural resources, if the leak is stopped by burning the stockpile, then the demand will fall upon living rhinos.
    That’s AR logic for you.

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