Opinionista Ian Michler 29 April 2014

OSCAP International Conference: The poaching debate could have been so much more

There is no denying the debate around trade in rhino horn and elephant ivory has polarised the conservation community in South Africa like never before. And with so many concerned citizens involved as volunteers, rhino owners or financial contributors to the causes, this polarity has also spilled over to them.

But given the complexities of the debate and what’s at stake, it would also be irresponsible and unwise naively to wish away these current divisions. Part and parcel of dealing with any politically charged issue the world over, a mix of case history, good science, reason and ideology forms the basis of this process. And as is so often the case, the ‘vested interests’, those that stand to make substantial sums of money or benefit in ways over and above the obvious causes, become an additional element.

In this context, one cannot escape the fact that until recently, the conventional wisdom in southern Africa held that a legal trade must be the core component to the regions rhino poaching crisis. However, this is now increasingly being challenged both locally and internationally with compelling research, science and opinion. No matter how unpalatable this contribution may be to some, it is extremely well-founded and cannot be ignored or rubbished away. Incorporating fresh and credible input actually strengthens the discussion and is necessary for a healthy review and analysis process that should lead to more informed decision-making.

And by way of trying to further understand the polarity, it would seem that divisions around rhino horn trade seem to be symptomatic of a far wider and more significant polarisation taking place around interpreting the concept of sustainable utilisation. Born out of thinking from the 1970’s and 80’s that sought a more responsible and equitable way to develop, the notion was entrenched in Agenda 21 at the 1992 Rio Conference and has since found its way into the constitutions of the IUCN, most conservation agencies, and the South African government. It is regarded as the principle that underpins the way we manage our environmental assets.

This is all well and good, but ‘sustainable use’ is also the same tagline put forward by some to justify activities such as predator breeding, canned hunting, farming wildlife and the inbreeding and cross-breeding of untold species and sub-species. Nearly all these practices have little to no conservation, ecological or ethical base whatsoever, yet they continue to be sanctioned. More akin to ‘sustainable abuse’, it would seem that certain sectors within wildlife management believe that by simply invoking the notion of sustainability, this immediately bestows legitimacy on what they do. Under such circumstances, it is perfectly understandable and acceptable that the definition and parameters will be increasingly questioned.

It was against this backdrop that the recent OSCAP International Conference to assess the risks of rhino horn trade took place. Held in Pretoria, South Africa, it too was a polarised forum in that the majority of presenters were firmly in the ‘no-trade’ camp. But before crying foul, it must be pointed out that the organisers extended 19 invites to various pro-trade or neutral parties that were spurned. Nine of these went to SANParks; seven for complimentary observers and the other two as speakers. Only one replied, declining due to prior commitments while the other eight never bothered to answer. Five invites went to pro-trade advocates from the private sector, some as observers and some as speakers, but all declined citing either “unbalanced representation” or prior commitments, and another eight went out to various NGO’s and other parties. All of these declined due to prior commitments.

And in January 2014, Edna Molewa, the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs was invited to open the conference. She declined on the 1st April and a further invite was then extended for an alternative representative to perform the functions, but to date, almost two weeks after the conference has ended, no reply has been received.

So, amid the cries of bias and boycotts, it’s a sobering thought that if only 50% of these invitees had taken up the opportunity to be present, the OSCAP Conference could very well have been a truly balanced international forum in wildlife trade.

The private sectors’ absence, while difficult to justify, was to be expected. They cannot however turn down the opportunity to state a case and also complain about a forum being unrepresentative. And for the NGO’s and neutral individuals; we have already established that political interference and pressure forms part of the work, but one would hope at some stage these constituencies get to stand on platforms based on relevance rather than being fearful of association.

Conversely, there is little leeway here for why the South African government was absent. As was the case with the London Conference, they have again chosen to ignore an important platform to hear and give input and evidence crucial to the debate, this one right in their own backyard. Wildlife trade issues are as much about risk analysis and probabilities as they are about hard and fast facts, which is even more reason for the ultimate decision-makers to canvass as widely and cautiously as possible.

These no-shows beg serious questions around government’s commitment to participate in an even-handed process. By extension, one wonders on what basis exactly they make their decisions, and one hopes they do not end up so far down a particular road that it leads to isolation. Whatever their reasons, they missed some extremely compelling science, background information and arguments.

In the meantime, with genuine fears that ‘conservation fatigue’ may well set in, few would disagree that at the very least, a more united approach should be forged by all parties on the agreeable aspects of the rhino and elephant debates to ensure the effective implementation of policies aimed at securing the survival of these and other species. DM

Ian Michler has spent the last 24 years living and working across 15 African countries as a safari operator, specialist guide, consultant and environmental journalist. He works with the Conservation Action Trust and was a presenter at the OSCAP International Conference.


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