In January 2021, the ministry of forestry, fisheries and environmental affairs confirmed that the population of southern white rhinos in the Kruger National Park (KNP) has declined by 67% — from 10,621 in 2011 to an estimated 3,529.
Despite spending millions of rands and establishing a dedicated, highly trained private army, efforts to protect and grow the southern white rhino population continue to prove unsuccessful.
Sadly, it seems that in the KNP, we have reached the tipping point where there are more rhino dying and being killed than are being born.
It is now or never for the government to take decisive action to ensure that a species so fundamental to many ecosystems — a “keystone species” — is conserved and sustainably financed so that it can thrive and grow in numbers.
The time for deliberation and indecision is over.
Project 1743’s Buffalo Dream Ranch is home to a population of rhinos that grew from an initial 368 in 2011 to 1,865 animals at the time of writing.
In comparison to the KNP, whose southern white rhino population has decreased by 14.8% per year, our population has increased by 15.7% per year. Our approach has centred on sustaining the comprehensive physical protection of rhinos, providing them with suitable habitat and so giving them the space to thrive and breed unhindered.
One of our solutions to poaching has been the trimming of rhino horn — a pain-free practice that has been resoundingly endorsed by organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Wildlands Conservation Trust. This, with tight surveillance and state-of-the-art security measures, has contributed to a remarkable record of no poaching incidents since March 2017.
While effective at growing the rhino population, our approach is not yet financially self-sustaining. It costs millions of rands to protect this crucial population and maintain an environment conducive to mating, rearing and flourishing.
Operations will be self-sustaining only when trade in rhino horn is legally permissible internationally.
Critical to our approach to secure the population is a painless practice similar to trimming your nails, where we trim the top portions of rhino horn whenever the horns start being attractive to poachers.
If international trade was legal, this horn alone could provide more than sufficient income to sustain and expand this project. If trade is made easy and legal, all private and state-owned rhino-populated protected areas would better be able to fund themselves and breed enough rhino to restock the whole of Africa.
We have to embrace the power of capital to protect and grow the rhino population.
If international trade were legalised, the KNP would be able to sell its existing reserves of rhino horn and the annual increment from natural mortalities.
Provided the revenue from such sales was ploughed back into the KNP, it would then be able to sustain a greater rhino protection effort and work towards not only conserving its existing southern white rhino population, but grow it. Such a template could be followed for other state-owned parks which are facing similar threats to KNP.
Critically, the legalisation of trade would spur on private sector efforts to protect and grow the southern white rhino population.
At present, protecting rhino populations against poaching is a loss-making activity.
Against considerable odds, we at Project 1743 have shown how poaching can be resisted and how it is possible to create the enabling environment for a rhino population to grow.
With other like-minded private sector initiatives, we have the ability to work towards restocking rangelands where the southern white rhino no longer exists. However, if there is no path to making this financially sustainable, options will be considerably limited.
While it is legally possible to trade rhino horn domestically, the process required to obtain the relevant permits to be able to trade is cumbersome and inefficient and, overall, a disincentive to trade.
Regardless, the market for rhino horn is not in South Africa, but in the Far East. Demand from that region drives (and finances) the syndicates that run poaching operations.
Legalisation can reduce poaching by making the procurement of rhino horn from legal sources easier, more reliable and regulated. Not only will this protect the rhino — because horn can be obtained without killing or hurting the rhino — but the financial resources generated will better protect our endangered populations.
The capital injection will enable the private and public sectors to grow the population, staving off an inexorable decline towards extinction.
Research suggests that the syndicates in the Far East will switch at least part of their purchases of rhino horn from unreliable and costly poachers, to a reliable supply of quality-assured legal rhino horn.
There are several routes to legal international trade in rhino horn. The first is for any registered captive breeding organisation, such as Project 1743, to acquire specific trading partners and together with those partners obtain the relevant import and export permits.
This would naturally require the buy-in of the South African government, which would need to work with its counterparts in the Far East. Such routes, if supported actively by the government, could take less than two years to establish.
The second route is to work to amend the schedule of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which prohibits international trade in rhino horn.
This would be a much longer process — likely to take up to five years — and of course would require the active involvement and support of the South African government.
The process would involve setting up a range of states meeting and passing a resolution recommending a change to the present schedule. Two thirds of CITES members would need to vote “Yes” for the relevant amendment to be effected.
A third route is for the government to act on the 2019 SADC declaration to ignore the CITES restriction on international trade in rhino horn.
Our view is that all routes should be pursued simultaneously, with other sector leaders, and we will make representations to the government about the urgency required.
It is unfortunate that the president’s State of the Nation Address last week did not contain any reference to the crisis facing the southern white rhino. The consequences of continued inaction on the part of the government will be disastrous, both for the species and for our country’s economy.
It has often been recognised that the rhino is the most marketable of the “Big 5” and is certainly the most visible. It is difficult to compute what the effect would be on our tourism industry were a foundational species removed.
International trade in rhino horn, though, is about far more than protecting the tourism industry. The benefits to South Africa’s economy would be vast. Not only would there be significant inflows of funds, but significant jobs would be created as industries in support of the trade — such as precious cargo handling and anti-poaching infrastructure — would be significantly boosted.
The time has now arrived for the government to take its head out of the sand and urgently address the declining southern white rhino population by driving the legalisation of international trade in rhino horn.
Not only will this grow the rhino population — it will also grow South Africa. DM
Jane Wiltshire is the founder and CEO of Project 1743.
"A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that's just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe It's a joke." ~ Søren Kierkegaard