Few people, even those with little or no interest at all in wildlife can have escaped media attention given to the poaching of rhinos for their horn. No fewer than 1215 African rhinos lost their lives in 2014 (an all-time high in recent decades) as crime syndicates targeted Africa’s two rhino species to supply demand in Asia.
The rate of natural mortality plus the slaughter for horn is dangerously close to the point at which the species’ ability to reproduce is outstripped and the 25,000 or so extant rhinos tip towards rapid decline and even extinction in the wild.
The situation is untenable, but while there are many actions in response to the threat that conservations can agree upon, there is one major divide where rapprochement seems impossible. On the one side there are those, particularly here in southern Africa, who say farm rhinos and supply the demand through a legal trade, while on the other are those who say no to trade and call instead for strategies that kill the demand. It is an impasse of note, and unless the international treaty (CITES) is amended to allow trade (which is extremely unlikely) dealing in rhino horn will remain a criminal activity.
If the law were to be changed, the bureaucratic processes involved would potentially extend over more than a decade. So, even if the pro-traders economic model were to be put to the test, it would unlikely be in time to prove either positive or negative in terms of rhino conservation.
What is needed, and immediately, are seriously accelerated actions across the spectrum of crime fighting, cooperation on the part of transit and end user states, and persuading users to cut their habits. But in the meantime huge energy, time and money is being drawn into pro/anti trade lobbying.
So, is there any chance of a ‘Plan B’ that even in the short term sets differences aside and focuses on fighting the scourge with laser-beam intensity?
Impossible? Maybe not …
Recently, a meeting took place in Cape Town between several South African anti- and pro-rhino trade lobbyists. After an initial, seriously confrontational encounter, the lobbyists agreed that they had to set aside the specific agendas of their respective camps and focus instead on working together as a united front to come up with a plan for ensuring the survival of rhinos in the wild.
Advocate Jacques Joubert of Mediation in Motion, whose ‘Woza Mediation’ blog is well known, facilitated the discussions. The participants in favour of the legalisation of trade in rhino horn were respected economist Dawie Roodt, and rhino activist and Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa (IFAISA) director Braam Malherbe. Those against trade were veteran conservationist and wildlife tourism expert Colin Bell, and Ian Michler, an eco-tourism operator, writer and former stockbroker.
All participants agreed that, in the light of likely voting patterns when CITES members next meet in Cape Town (in March 2016), it is unrealistic to expect any changes to the legislation for the trade in rhino products. Indeed, it appears that even if successfully motivated, legalisation in the trade of rhino products would not happen within the next decade, at which point, based on current poaching statistics, rhinos in the wild could well be extinct. In fact, without a collaborative and united approach all parties present agreed that the fate of rhinos in the wild is dismal.
There was also a collective acknowledgement that some one in seven South Africans depend on a thriving tourism industry for their income. The country’s reputation as a Big Five destination could well suffer if rhinos were to disappear from the wild and this could impact negatively on the industry and put jobs at risk.
Another point of consensus was recognition of the fact that although South Africa is the front line in the rhino war, the crisis involves many other countries in Africa and elsewhere. Strategies to prevent rhino poaching are thus not specific to South Africa, and need to be implemented on a global scale.
Finding a viable way forward, therefore, is in the interest of rhinos and people. And with this agreed the following multi-facetted plan emerged:
Calling for the immediate cessation of hostilities between pro- and anti-trade camps in favour of rallying around a common vision.
Establishing efficient, effective, focused and sustainable fund-raising campaigns for rhino security and conservation.
Promoting public education primarily in Asia and worldwide to reduce demand for rhino horn.
Increasing the extent and efficiency of security and monitoring measures,
Centralising the application and issuing of permits to hunt rhino.
Establishing of a whistle-blowers fund and increased anti-poaching law enforcement.
Securing community buy-in and co-operation in rhino conservation of rhino, especially among people living in close proximity to rhino.
Being more proactive in targeting the middle-men in the criminal chain of command.
Increasing the deployment sophisticated technologies that can detect poachers long before any animal can be shot.
Securing increased governmental compliance with constitutional and legal rules in the struggle to conserve the rhino species.
In addition to attending this meeting, Malherbe also wrote to the Minister of Environmental Affairs, pleading for a change in the ‘rules of engagement’ that currently place anti-poaching units at a distinct disadvantage when apprehending rhino poachers in the Kruger National Park.
The participants agreed to an on-going review of the debate and, if necessary, to amend the current approach in order to produce a realistic and viable action plan that would be acceptable to the majority of rhino stakeholders.
The debate has been ground-breaking. It is the first time that pro- and anti-trade lobbyists have reached any meaningful consensus on a way forward. Roodt, Michler and Bell were in agreement with Malherbe when he said, “As long as we are fighting each other, we are aiding and abetting the poachers.”
Bell and Michler are now in the process of drawing up a “working paper” that will soon be circulated for contribution from all parties. DM
NOTE: The entire discussion outlined above was filmed and will shortly be available on YouTube.
"Don't tell me the sky's the limit when there are footprints on the moon." ~ Paul Brandt