Opinionista Busani Ngcaweni 21 February 2016

Rhino poaching undermines our sovereignty

Generally, we all agree that rhino poaching and all other brutal killing of wildlife is barbaric and criminal. Evidence suggests that rhino poaching is fuelled by at least two determinants. The first of these is greed: those wanting quick and easy money kill wildlife to profit from their various body parts. The second and perhaps more complex driver of rhino poaching are superstition and masculinity. There is large market for rhino horn by-products in eastern Asia, where a sizeable number of adult males is preoccupied with existential questions of virility and immortality.

Reports confirm that initially most poaching took place on privately owned game farms, with alleged involvement of game-farm operators eager to make a quick and easy buck. However, owing to depleted private stock in private game farms, the crime spilled into public game areas like the Kruger National Park.

Sammy Mafu, a marketing expert who has studied this rhino-poaching phenomenon, has observed that some demographic groups in countries like Vietnam and Thailand have the highest demand for rhino horn by-products owing to the concomitant prevalence of non-virile young adult men. Scientists blame mass diet change and the onset of debilitating diseases. The horn is deemed as an aphrodisiac for greater sexual health and, by extension, a pathway to immortality.

We also observe that in South Africa, poaching – as demonstrated by its exploitation by numerous stand-up comedians – can easily be racialised. Some people cannot help but notice the enthusiasm of whites in ‘save the rhino campaigns’, while they do not extend as much activism to anti-poverty and job-creation initiatives.

Furthermore, there is consensus that it would be tragic if the rhino were to become extinct due to the greed of human beings, whereas the equally tragic annihilation of other great species is largely attributed to rapid changes in the ecosystem – changes which human beings cannot entirely be exonerated from.

However, there are other, perhaps even greater, problems with rhino poaching in South Africa in particular and the African continent in general. Firstly, you have people operating as syndicates, terrorising the nation with their murderous actions. Secondly, foreign nationals feature prominently in these syndicates. Thus, rhino poaching is, in essence, a threat to national sovereignty

We are being invaded and occupied by greedy external forces (assisted by internal parties) with no regard for our national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The idea of machine-gun-wielding foreigners colluding with local syndicates smacks of early signs of insurgency in a constitutional democracy.

High-calibre weapons (of war) are used in these hideous crimes. Rhino poaching is threatening our tourism industry and therefore jobs and much-needed revenue.

Responses from authorities in countries where the majority of implicated foreign nationals come from are rather, for all intents and purposes, lukewarm. At least countries like Vietnam have signed cooperation agreements with South Africa to curb poaching, while China has committed to intensifying search-and-seizure operations in ports of entry.

Call this exaggeration, if you will. But how else in modern society would you characterise this abhorrent act of mass killings of wild animals employing conventional war methods and equipment? These combat guns could one day land in the hands of other criminals and renegade groups who will use them to commit heinous crimes and acts of sabotage.


Recent comments by the former head of our national parks agency prompted a thought: patterns of invading and colonising forces mirror those of rhino poachers in many ways, including the fact that they both plunder national resources for the benefit of a few (often foreign interests) while instilling fear in local communities.

When such events occur, countries often react by activating their diplomatic machinery to negotiate with the implicated foreign countries; much like when there is threat of hostilities between countries. Internally, countries being invaded mobilise the army to reinforce security in ports of entry and in national parks. When the army is deployed – as the last line of defense – it is a demonstration that the country takes the threat too seriously to combat through agencies like the police.

Finally, read in anti-colonial discourse, concerns about rhino poaching extend far beyond narrow racial narratives of ‘animal-obsessed whites’ saving the rhino while turning a blind eye on poverty, unemployment and equality. It transcends humanitarian (opposition to the idea of killing) and economic (impact on tourism) considerations. It extends far beyond tighter marshalling of ports of entry and the efficacy of immigration and customs agencies. It is not just about the stiffness of sentences for poachers.

Employing a political attitude in the analysis of poaching brings to the fore geopolitical and national sovereignty questions since, as already argued, poaching impacts negatively on our political economy and undermines national sovereignty. It should therefore be annihilated in that context.

A national and international broad-front is required to combat poaching in the same way as countries like South Africa attained freedom; through the multiplicity of anti-colonial and anti-oppression strategies that included mass mobilisation and international solidarity. Therefore, saving the rhino by totally exterminating poaching will consolidate our anti-imperial struggles while preserving our natural resources for the purposes of buttressing national heritage, growth and job-creation initiatives.

The end of colonialism and institutional racism was the greatest development of the 20th century. Arguably, it would count among the greatest tragedies of the 21st century if the rhino suffers the same fate as the dinosaur! DM

Ngcaweni works in The Presidency. He writes in his personal capacity.


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