In a decision that will be celebrated by environmental lobby groups and rhino poachers alike, the South African government has cancelled its plans to propose legal, regulated trade in rhino horn at this year’s CITES conference in Johannesburg. The losers are rhino owners and the animals themselves.
It takes a brave government to stand up to the might of the environmental lobby. In 2013, environmental affairs minister Edna Molewa did so, by announcing that the Cabinet had approved “the development and submission of a proposal to the 17th conference of parties to CITES, scheduled to take place in 2016 in South Africa, to introduce regulated international trade in rhino horn”.
Intense lobbying ensued. Dozens of environmental groups, old and newly-formed just for this purpose, argued against legalising trade. With the government under pressure, a Committee of Inquiry was formed, which reported to an Inter-Ministerial Committee, which advised the Cabinet on whether or not it should defend its 2013 decision.
On 13 April 2016, the government capitulated. Last week, minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe reported from Cabinet: “The recommendations endorse South Africa’s integrated strategic management approach to resolving the poaching of rhino and illegal trade in rhino. The committee recommends that the current mode of keeping the country’s stock levels be kept as opposed to the trading in rhino horns. The country’s strategic approach entails security, community empowerment, biological management, responsive legislative provisions that are effectively implemented and enforced, and demand management.”
In other words, nothing will change. No proposal will be made to the 2016 CITES conference in Johannesburg.
CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an international treaty aimed at ensuring that such trade does not threaten the survival of plant and animal species. It has extended protection to a mind-boggling 35,000 different species, whether they are traded as live specimens, or products such as furs or herbs.
The problem is this: it does not work, and this was clear long before the recent spike in poaching even started. Bans never work. All they do is constrain supply, without eradicating demand. That makes prices go up, quality go down, and the entire business go underground, where it is run by criminal syndicates wielding guns, instead of law-abiding, tax-paying businesses. The most obvious example of this truism was the attempt in the 1920s to prohibit the sale and consumption of alcohol. It did not achieve the goals of the temperance movement, and only served to provide Hollywood with spectacular shootouts between moonshiners in their souped-up hotrods and hapless government agents.
Today, flora and fauna are among the most profitable illicit trade goods, exceeded only by traffic in humans, counterfeit money and drugs – all of which are even more vigorously suppressed by law, police enforcement and even military action.
To advocate for the legal hunting and trade in the products of game is a politically unpopular position to take, even if decades of wildlife conservation policy has proven that banning these activities more often than not fails to protect the species.
The most stark examples are from South Africa and Kenya. One has had tremendous success at growing its wildlife populations – including black and white rhino – since enacting private ownership of game in 1991. About three-quarters of South Africa’s game populations and wild acreage is now protected by game farm owners able to trade in wildlife and the associated products. In Kenya, by contrast, big game hunting was banned in the late 1970s, and it has seen 80% of its game wiped out by poachers.
As Molewa said in 2013: “Due to sustainable utilisation and adaptive management practices, South Africa has developed and maintained a proud conservation record, and communities have contributed to the conservation of species while benefitting financially from the restoration and protection of species.”
However, the prohibition on trade in rhino horn has resulted in far fewer rhino in private hands, by comparison with other game. Only a third of South Africa’s rhinos live on private game farms. The majority are in the Kruger National Park, which is exposed to a long, porous international border, and in the Hluhluwe Game Reserve.
When the international rhino horn trade ban was extended by moratorium to domestic trade in 2009, it did nothing to prevent a sharp increase in poaching in South Africa over the last 10 years. The IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group, in a report endorsed by TRAFFIC, a global wildlife trade monitoring network, reported to the previous CITES conference in 2013: “Looking at South Africa … illegal killing of rhino has increased every year since 2007. This has occurred despite CITES bans on legal horn trade, increased law enforcement effort in the field (South African National Defence Force and police personnel being stationed in Kruger National Park since August 2011), increasing arrests, and a good conviction rate in cases that come to court with some significant sentences being handed down and in other cases asset forfeiture being imposed.”
Clearly, existing measures have not been sufficiently effective. The rise in poaching “highlighted the need to take action in terms of addressing demand for rhino horn”, Molewa said at the time. “The establishment of a well-regulated international trade could assist in this regard, if implemented in conjunction with all the other interventions to curb rhino poaching.”
Well, Cabinet has overruled her about that. It decided that no brave but necessary stands will be made while the government is hosting the two-week CITES conference towards the end of September 2016 in Johannesburg. Preening on the international stage is expensive, and political controversy is bad for business.
Green groups will crow about this, no doubt. Rhino Alive, a group that seeks the legalisation of trade in rhino horn, received this gloating e-mail: “So pleased to hear of the recent decision to not legalise trade in SA. You must be devestated [sic]. We won. – A Rhino Voice…”
Of course, green fundraising is a big industry. So, for that matter, is the war against poaching. There are dozens of supposed nonprofit organisations that collect money from the public to “save the rhino”. Most pay their directors and employees handsomely. Even government organisations are constantly looking for reasons to justify bigger budgets. According to Pelham Jones, chairman of the Private Rhino Owners Association, “hundreds of millions of dollars” have been spent on rhino protection projects across Africa. No wonder the groups spending all this money consider this a victory.
The response from the experts at Rhino Alive was scathing:
Dear Rhino Voice
Devastated that, based on current poaching trends, we are probably going to lose thousands of rhinos over the next few years and most of these rhinos are going to die horrible deaths – deaths that are completely unnecessary;
Devastated at the amount of human and animal lives that have been and are going to be lost in the poaching war, also unnecessarily;
Devastated at the amount of private and national reserves that are going to give up protecting rhino and opt to get rid of them, due to sky-rocketing costs of security measures and the safety risk to their own families and employees;
Devastated that rhinos, at the most desperate of times, are going to have less habitat and fewer people protecting them.
We’re quite astounded and yes, devastated that anyone sees this as a victory.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
With customers who have nowhere to turn except the illegal market, and a never-ending supply of would-be poachers willing to risk their lives for a few thousand dollars, there is no reason for international crime syndicates to stop targeting rhino, in the same way they pursue the drug trade, prostitution, or counterfeiting. They have every reason to celebrate this “victory”.
Jones estimates the cost of lost rhino and security for remaining stock to have cost private rhino owners over R1-billion to date. Unlike national parks, he says they receive no financial help from government and little from wildlife NGOs. Having no hope of recovering these and future losses is a powerful disincentive to keep supporting and breeding rhinos on game farms. Even the few ranchers who can afford to keep rhino for sentimental reasons or to sustain their luxury tourism image will think twice about risking their lives and the lives of their staff for an animal that cannot pay its way. Rhino owners have every reason to be devastated by this “victory”.
If we are to stick to the policy status quo, it would be well to remember that the status quo on the ground is a growing crisis involving more than 1,000 dead rhinos per year, which is only modestly dented by even military-scale anti-poaching efforts.
Doing nothing at this year’s CITES conference might be a victory for some, but it certainly is a devastating defeat for rhinos. DM
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