Opinionista Jane Wiltshire 7 June 2021

It’s time for a meaningful discussion on the future of rhinos and the trade in rhino horn

Discussing the future of rhinos without talking about trade in horn is akin to convening a discussion on the conflict between Israel and Palestine while taking the issue of religion off the table: Wonderful solutions will arise, but they will be unworkable in the real world.

It is encouraging when relevant sectors come together to hold constructive discussions on the future of rhinos. In this respect, it was uplifting to read Don Pinnock and Helena Kriel’s recent Daily Maverick article “The future of rhinos: What it will take to save an endangered ancient species” reporting on a meeting of rhino owners, wildlife vets, conservation NGOs, eco-economists, security experts and SANParks, facilitated by the Wilderness Foundation Africa.

Such discussions are long overdue, but we cannot, as Pinnock and Kriel suggest, be selective on the issues that we discuss, and the issues that are left at the door.

It is regrettably counter-productive to pursue these conversations and initiatives without dealing with the foundational issue of trade in rhino horn. The discussion held by DM168 and the Wilderness Foundation proceeded on the basis that trade in rhino horn would not be discussed. Any solution or initiative flowing from such a discussion will not be grounded in the realities of the situation and risks being undermined. If we are serious about saving the rhino, we need to once and for all collaborate in discussing the issue of trade in horn.

Discussing the future of rhinos without discussing trade in horn is akin to convening a discussion on the conflict between Israel and Palestine while taking the issue of religion off the table: Wonderful solutions will arise, but they will be unworkable in the real world.

Pinnock and Kriel’s article recognises that “compassion fatigue” has set in and that a tourism-driven approach to saving rhinos is not sustainable given its vulnerability to external shocks such as the Covid-19 pandemic. Any collaboration convened to discuss protecting and growing the rhino species cannot confine itself to recycling old arguments and presenting wish lists that will be ignored. It’s time for innovation that recognises the times we live in and accepts that we should consider embracing capital as a means to protect and grow the rhino population.

What is notable is the growing recognition that the private sector is best placed to protect and grow the rhino population. It is incontrovertible that private rhino owners have better anti-poaching records than public owners. They run efficient operations that are more resistant to co-option by organised crime and are passionate about their rhinos, their safety and wellbeing.

Yet, private owners are carrying a heavy burden. It is expensive to run consistent anti-poaching operations and more and more private owners are recognising that it is not sustainable to keep up their operations without any reasonable capital inflow. We know that a conservation and tourism approach to rhino protection and growth is not sustainable.

Mention is made in Pinnock and Kriel’s article of a levy on the trade in endangered species and carbon credits: These are creative ideas worth pursuing. Yet, how realistic will it be for these ideas to be realised in the next five to 10 years?

The truth is that donations would be needed to underwrite the cost of security and operations incurred by rhino custodians if no other option is on the table in the short term. Yet “compassion fatigue” will make such donations unlikely and the needed resources will not be forthcoming.

There is only one viable solution on the table in the short term and that is leveraging the power of capital within South Africa. This means selling and unlocking the value of rhino horn, a significant amount of which is held in stockpiles by both public and private owners. We need to put this solution on the table urgently and, in a collaborative way with all stakeholders, address how to make it happen while taking into account the valid concerns of those who fear it may be counter-productive.

Trade in rhino horn within South Africa is legal and can be used to protect and grow rhino numbers. The value of rhino horn can underwrite tradeable instruments that build liquidity for both private and public rhino owners. Funding from such tradeable instruments can be channelled to private and public owners to sustain their anti-poaching efforts and operations in cultivating the species.

Local communities living adjacent to public and private landowners can become stakeholders in the broader project, generating value and jobs from the effort to grow the species’ numbers.

The key to protecting and growing starts by unlocking the incentives for rhino owners to better protect and grow their populations. Thereafter, other initiatives such as carbon credits can and must be pursued.

It is high time that we stop avoiding the issue and have the real conversation about how to save the rhino species and, more importantly, grow the species to cultivate its impact on biodiversity. I will be liaising with Daily Maverick, Don Pinnock and other stakeholders to set up an initial conversation where we do put the issue of trade in rhino horn on the table. Yes, it will be a difficult conversation, but this country has a proud track record in difficult conversations that result in positive paths forward. Our rhinos deserve a real conversation that puts all the issues on the table.

Only then can we start dreaming about pulling the rhino back from the brink of extinction and watching them combat climate change as the “eco-warriors” we know they can be. DM

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All Comments 4

  • Good article. The trade ban came into being because some countries were unable to protect rhinos living in the wild.

    NW game farmer John Hume has well over 1500 white rhino and in the last decade and a half has lost comparatively few animals to poaching. Surely he could appeal to the Concourt to argue that he is being deprived of the right to sell by-products of his animals which he legally owns, and is legally allowed to keep, but where he is not allowed to sell horn by-product internationally. The analogy of sheep or angora goat farmers allowed to keep the animals but not being allowed to sell the wool or mohair is hardly helpful, but a legal argument could be made that Sanparks /Provinces and private individuals should be allowed to sell horn both nationally and internationally. This is because the CITES ban is irrational when applied to countries where the authorities are able to account for rhino horn being harvested in a sustainable manner. Whether picked up from natural deaths or from sustainable harvest with animals dehorned under sedation / anesthesia, but not, and this is the crucial part, from hunting because they are red data listed. Banning all so-called legal hunts of rhinos would be helpful in convincing the rest of the world to give this approach serious consideration.

    The Wilderness Foundation may want to sound out legal opinion on this. Let Sanparks and the Provincial conservation departments take this to the Supreme Court to ask judges to give a ruling against the rationality of the Cites trade ban because it is simply not working.

  • I am no expert in the field of rhinos and trade in rhino horn, apart from admiring everything that sprang forth as different types of life on earth.
    What I find amiss, is answers to the question ‘why?’ My understanding is that the horn is being either sniffed/smoked/ drank or injected to enhance sexual enjoyment, notably by the Chinese. Is this then not the starting point to stop its usage? What are the facts? If horn has this effect, it should then be managed. If it does not, should a comms campaign around these facts not be the essence of the fight to protect rhinos from getting wiped out?

  • I have three questions:
    1. The illegal trade in rhino horn is controlled by powerful crime syndicates. Do you really believe that you can easily and profitably muscle your way into the trade even if legalized?
    2. On the protection of rhino: Is it not easier and less expensive to protect compact herds of rhino on commercial farms than a population scattered over some 19,ooo sq km as in the Kruger? Commercial farming plays no part in the conservation of rhino or biodiversity.
    3. What part do rhino play in climate change? The only way to combat climate change is to stop using fossil fuuels.

  • A BAD article and misguided argument for trade in rhino horn. Trade develops new trade. Why trade in something with no medicinal purpose – and nowadays also a status symbol ? Should we also open trade in pangolin scales, perlemoen, ivory, cycads, donkey skins and lion bones too? How about human body parts? Of course not. John Hume took a business risk and must suffer the consequences of it not being viable – or ethical – given the (his) shenanigans with illegal provincial movement and attempted trade already. Better to educate the Asian brothers and sisters – China and Vietnam, et al, that their practices are not environmentally friendly and are misguided. Many Chinese citizens (and cartels) in Africa have much to answer for in terms of ‘environmental rape’ of Africa’s natural resources – fish, hard wood forests, wildlife. Say it like it is. The World needs to stand-up to China and its greed for scarce natural resources beyond system carrying capacity.

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