Ian Player would turn in his grave if he heard the latest neoliberal “solutions” to the rhino poaching crisis in South Africa.
Ian Player, veterinary physiologist Dr Toni Harthoorn, John Clark and Magqubu Nthombela and the rest of the team behind Operation Rhino – the initiative that saved South Africa’s white rhino in the 1960s – would never have envisaged that the conservation programme he started would lead to the level of privatisation that rhinos now face.
When Ian Player made his name with Operation Rhino in 1961, a remnant rhino population of only 1,000 in South Africa was outgrowing the limited space and grazing of Umfolozi Game Reserve.
Using new tranquillisers and animal management strategies, the team translocated rhinos out of Umfolozi Game Reserve to private game reserves, provincial nature reserves and national parks around the country. It was a first. Translocating rhino was revolutionary.
Operation Rhino spread rhino from one end of the country to the other and the rhino were left to flourish in their new habitats, except for a few trophy hunters and photographers punctuating the peace of the veld to pay for the privilege. Cattle ranchers sold their cattle and stocked their land with rhinos and wild animals from breeders and auctions.
With the ‘60s came a new era in conservation, ecotourism and a greater value placed on nature because it was in crisis.
I recognise the incentives that commercial wildlife businesses such as live sales, tourism and controlled trophy hunting have generated for conservation, but the market doesn’t have all the answers.
As wild spaces diminish in size, along with wild populations and their safety, no wild vestige is safe from prying humans, whether with a trap camera or a gun. The options are shrinking. When wildlife farmers like the biggest private owner of rhino in the world, John Hume, are touting the practice of domesticating rhino for commercial sale as conservation, it’s just greenwashing.
Farming wildlife is being pushed commercially worldwide for a range of reasons including as an important food source and to boost rural incomes. Seafood leads the way with sales of $203-billion set for 2020. Rhinos have been farmed for 100 years to supply trophy hunters and tourism.
But where will the idea of farming rhinos for their horn to supply a seemingly growing market in Asia lead? Picture domesticated herds of rhino drinking at water troughs, eating “rhino feed” and being drafted in yards and loaded onto trucks like cattle to auction.
Swaziland will table plans to make the rhino horn trade legal at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Johannesburg next month because the government wants to commercialise rhino farms. South Africa has legalised the trade in rhino horn inside the country and no doubt interested parties will be making a case to CITES to legalise it internationally.
The ranchers who want to see the profits from rhino horn go to them instead of to the illegal syndicates spin the story that legalising the trade will drive prices down. They greenwash the horn trade as a conservation strategy.
If I was a rhino would I choose mutilation, death or farming? Farmed wild animal is an oxymoron.
It’s wrong that it’s only money that makes Big Five creatures worth protecting.
And what then?
Will rhinos be farmed intensively like pigs in little stalls in piggeries? I don’t think the Asian consumers will have any qualms about intensive rhino farming. After all, they pay big bucks to drain off a glass of bile from a living bear in a cage, so it makes sense that they’d also like to see that they are getting a real horn by seeing it being harvested in rhinocery. DM
Mic Smith is a freelance environmental journalist from the Gold Coast in Australia. He also tutors journalism at Griffith University. He worked in newspapers in Vietnam for four years during which time he covered the poaching of Vietnams last rhino. Mic wrote two major features about consumer demand for rhino horn in Vietnam, one of which won an award from TRAFFIC. This year he was nominated in his home state of Queensland for a Clarion Award in the Freelance Media Category for 'Amid rhino poaching frenzy, dark days for South African society" which he researched in SA in February. It was published by the environmental news website Mongabay.