Opinionista Peter Borchert 26 January 2015

Thumbs up on the good work with rhinos, Minister Molewa – but please, no more talk of trade

Minister Molewa, yesterday you reported on the government’s ‘integrated strategic management plan’ for rhinos that was approved in August last year. You and your colleagues should be congratulated: a number of elements of the plan are already taking root and showing encouraging results. But please, let’s not talk of trade anymore.

Dear Minister Molewa,

Many of the steps that have been taken to protect rhino are to be congratulated. But I have some concerns that I wish to bring to your attention.

Moving rhino to safer places

The decision to move some rhinos from areas of high risk into what are termed Intensive Protection Zones (IPZs) is sound. Already 56 rhinos in the Kruger National Park (KNP) have been moved to an IPZ where they have been collared so that they can be easily tracked.

It makes sense to have some rhinos in constricted areas where concentrated security measures are easier to put in place, compared with trying to keep tabs on animals moving in a much wider area of the KNP, especially near the border with Mozambique where smuggling is relatively easy.

It also makes sense that 100 rhinos have so far been moved to neighbouring states. You say that “through this method we aim to create rhino strongholds: areas where rhino can be cost-effectively protected”. I agree and am glad that such translocations will continue throughout 2015.

Stepping up anti-poaching initiatives

While this has been happening, anti-poaching initiatives have been stepped up in both frequency and sophistication. For example, funding for the development of a special forensics laboratory has been forthcoming, as has money for equipping and training mobile forensics teams for better data gathering and crime scene management. Furthermore, the training of customs officials at major air and sea ports is paying dividends. More contraband goods are being detected and more traffickers are being brought to book. As a corollary to this, state prosecuting officials, including magistrates, are being given specialised training. This is particularly important as in the past shortcomings in legal procedure have seen many criminals either getting away lightly or even scot free.

You rightly comment that “it is clear that the improvement of actionable intelligence will ultimately contribute towards a rise in the numbers of people arrested, prosecuted and convicted for poaching-related activities, as well as for corruption”. Strides have also been made in inter-state cooperation involving Interpol and other crime-fighting agencies.

So, although the number of poached rhinos in 2014 rose to 1,215 from 1,004 previously, the actual rate of increase has slowed. And while this might be cold comfort, there is justification for your claim that “given the highly organised nature of the syndicates, we believe these figures could be considerably higher were it not for our interventions”. But, while I laud the progress you and your colleagues have made and your resolve to continue, I have grave reservations about some of the things that are happening.

The sale of rhinos

As part of the translocation strategy South African National Parks has called for tenders to purchase rhinos. Presently 20 bids are being considered. There is nothing new in this process, and in many ways it is a sound way to develop and grow viable rhino populations on private land, and to generate funds that you guarantee will be ring-fenced and ploughed into ‘conservation projects, including rhino conservation.

However, the phrase ‘including rhino conservation’ makes me suspicious immediately, as it gives far too much leeway in the disbursement of the funds. Quite simply, any money derived from rhino sales should only be invested directly into rhino-focused projects. And that’s that.

Motivations promoting a legal trade are both flawed and wrong

I am further troubled by the fact that for an owner of rhinos, taking into account the purchase price of the animals and the subsequent cost of their security, the only business justification is to farm the animals and crop their horns for sale in Asia, where demand remains high. The problem with this is that it is currently illegal to sell rhino horn in terms of CITES, to which South Africa is a party. And it is this impasse that private rhino owners seek to break by convincing you and your government to motivate a trade-friendly change to the CITES rules in terms of rhino.

For rhino speculators such a change is critical: if they can get a point of international law relaxed, they will make billions; if not, their rhino stocks are worth very little, a liability even.

I strongly believe that a legal trade would be disastrous: the pro-traders are simply wrong. I understand their imperative, but I unwaveringly believe that the only way to secure a future for rhinos in the wild is to kill the demand and to thoroughly disrupt contraband supply lines. Not an easy path, I grant you, but it is the right one. If you haven’t seen it, watch this video for some compelling arguments against trade.

Changing the rules – not a chance

What is highly disturbing is the power that the pro-trade lobby seems to wield in South African government circles. For example, in July 2013 the South African cabinet authorised your department to explore the possibility of legalising trade in rhino horn, or not. “I have established a Committee of Inquiry to look into this issue,” you say. “Pre-screening has taken place but final vetting has not taken place. We are working with the State Security Agency to fast-track this process.” But in many ways it seems as if the decision has been made.

Quite rightly, you say that South Africa needs to provide incentives to communities that will encourage an understanding of the value of rhino. (Conservation and the tourism industry, as well as government, have been shamefully slow in involving rural communities.) I agree wholeheartedly that people must benefit, and meaningfully. But isn’t it somewhat premature to have already handed over five rhino to one tribal authority and for there to be a process underway with another two?

The undertaking of communities being given rhinos is that they use their land for rhino conservation and sustainable game ranching.

In my book ‘sustainable game ranching’ means breeding rhino to sell horns for profit. This is certainly the message that the pro-trade lobby is putting out. And if this is the promise being made to communities, it is a promise that cannot be delivered under current CITES rules. It is a strategy, therefore, that is doomed to backfire, and badly at that.

I believe that there is not a snowball’s chance of CITES voting to change the rules on trade, and if South Africa remains hell-bent on trying to persuade them otherwise, it will be a lot time, effort and money wasted.

Reneging on CITES? Surely not

Recently I heard one pro-trader openly state that if CITES does not change its rules and regulations, then pro-trade states should “go it alone”. Go it alone? What on earth is he saying? CITES is an international treaty to which South Africa is a signatory. Is South Africa seriously going to consider reneging on CITES? Would we want to be considered a rogue state, a pariah? We’ve been down this path before in our history, and we surely don’t want to walk that route again.

Dear Minister Molewa, please consider your stance seriously. DM

As a publisher, editor and writer Peter Borchert has a media career spanning more than four decades. He was the founder of Africa Geographic whose magazines were the focus of 20 years of his life. In 2014 Peter started a new venture Peterborchert.com – Talking about Africa, a digital media platform dedicated to the celebration of Africa’s wonders and the ongoing dialogue about the threats to their existence.


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