Changing Tack: The New Anti Rhino Horn Trade Strategy.

One can understand the collective eye brows of South Africa’s wildlife conservation community being raised, probably accompanied by a huge sigh of relief, on reading the news published in Peter Borchert’s online “Talking about Africa” column in February. It boasted a “ground breaking” truce – and a common vision – struck to “bridge the divide” negotiated at a Cape Town hotel between the pro and anti rhino horn trade camps.

Those of us who have followed closely the collisions between these two opposing conservation factions over the past 5 years or so realised instantly that the meeting was no less than an attempt to divert attention away from pro- trade arguments and undermine the current investigation by the Dept. of Environmental Affairs into the feasibility of legal trade in rhino horn prior to CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP) in 2016 ; this was the subject of a three day stakeholder conference held in Johannesburg over the 25 /27 March when the pros and the cons around trade were thoroughly ventilated in over 50 presentations in front of the panel of 21 experts appointed by the Minister. Good for the Minister – it brought the whole debate into perspective.

So what did the pre-emptive Cape Town mini debate achieve ? Instead of competing for advantage on ethical , economic or ideological grounds it cleverly shifted the debate into the realm of political improbability by predicting ,with emphatic certainty, a negative vote at CITES in 2016 on lifting of the trade ban. It then went on to underpin that negative forecast with an estimated decade long time timeframe for the establishment of the envisaged bureaucratic structures to become effective, in the unlikely event of trade ever being approved. Nothing like casting a spell of doom over prospects !

That done, the strategy hammered out by the four peacemakers under a common vision turns out to be – wait for it –a revised concoction of those same anti poaching measures the public have been entreated to believe will succeed since the upsurge started in 2008 , a 6 year long saga that has seen over 3500 rhino’s killed. Connect this fact with unofficial reports indicating that 2015 poaching success is on track to exceed the 2014 record tally of 1215 and the prospect of South Africa losing even more rhino in future assumes even greater validity. Worse still it brings the spectre of a tipping point in rhino survival in the wild into even sharper relief. Searching for some positives – as some have tried – from the current situation by citing a decline in the year -on-year rate of loss is at best of academic value only. Reduction in the number of rhino actually lost to poachingnot the annual rate of poaching, is the only true measure of effectiveness of a campaign aimed at staving off extinction.( For what it is worth the decline is more likely due to dwindling target populations rather than a loss of appetite for poaching ; by all accounts poaching remains as robust and aggressive as ever.) The strategy makes no mention whatsoever of the uncertain ability of state authorities and private rhino owning entities to sustain the current anti poaching campaign into the future

But who were these truce negotiators? On the anti trade side the names of Ian Michler and Colin Bell come as no surprise – fair enough. Both actively oppose trade in legal rhino horn and have campaigned accordingly. Like so many of their fellow anti trade types neither have any practical background in the protection , management and administration of wildlife conservation particularly those programmes developed to combat the current rhino poaching tsunami. Both appear to be strongly opposed to any suggestion of an economic intervention by way of trade in horn as a weapon against poaching and seem to harbour a visceral dislike for any commercial utilisation of wildlife other than conventional tourism.

But facing them, representing pro trade at the truce table, is where jaws might have dropped. Dawie Roodt, is a highly respected economist and frequently heard commentator on Government finance and monetary policy , agreed , but an authority on scarce commodity trade and wildlife economics ?Hardly.

His partner ,Braam Malherbe is Director of the Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa and although he declared his support for trade at a meeting with the late Dr. Ian Player a few years ago he hardly qualifies as a champion of the cause among the ranks of those pressing for change. Again, neither of these pro trade spokesmen have any practical field experience and wildlife conservation background of the kind which many engaged in fighting the menace are confronted with on a daily basis. Perhaps if they had the meeting might of produced a more dynamic result.

The mediator at the truce, Adv. Jacques Joubert, cast in the role of a conflict resolution facilitator must have grinned to himself when the pro trade duo fell meekly into the lap of their opponents on the grounds that continued division and acrimony between the two camps was counter- productive and played into the hands of the criminal syndicates. This may be perfectly true but for purposes of achieving an outcome accommodating the fundamental principles and beliefs of the respective camps it must remain a ruse designed to get pro trade arguments off the table. Thus this nine point strategy carries no mention whatsoever of a trade in legal horn as a logical weapon against poaching , no reference to the Minister’s current investigation into feasibility of trade or as a high value option with massive potential benefits for conservation regardless of whether CITES agrees or not.

Regrettably, and with all due respect, the two pro trade negotiators had no mandate whatsoever from the wider spectrum of organisations battling to have trade put to the test and cannot therefore be taken seriously.

But the proverbial elephant in the room was the omission at the table of any representation by the disadvantaged communities living adjacent to areas with viable rhino populations who stand to gain most from a legal trade. In this day and age any deal struck, no matter what natural resource is at stake, which excludes the views and interests of poor rural stakeholders smacks of elitism and is destined to not only fail but also inflict damage on the very image of conservation. A critical opportunity for high level consultation with a vital set of stakeholders on whom the very survival of rhino’s could well depend was thus missed and at some cost when it comes to forging positive relationships between wildlife and local people in the future ! Glaringly obvious also, is that the negotiating team featured no one from the considerable body of eminent professionals ,scientists, economists and wildlife experts on the subject of sustainable utilisation and who support a legal trade in rhino horn. All in all these failures leave the credibility of the truce in grave doubt.

What are the nine strategic points agreed upon then?

  1. Enacting an immediate cessation of hostilities between the anti and pro trade camps in favour of rallying around a common vision.

Everyone will agree this is desirable but not when the vision is contrived on the back of a theory thumb sucked to lure the pro trade negotiators into agreement that expectations of a trade concession from CITES were“unrealistic”, sweetened with a rider to the effect that even if a SA Government proposal to trade at CoP 2016 were to be approved it would take 10 years to implement on account of bureaucratic procedures . By which time rhino will be extinct ! Ten years ? How is that figure arrived at and what was the source? As for being unrealistic the anti trade lobby would do well to bear in mind that SA’s proposal to CoP in Ft. Lauderdale in 1997 , to trade in horn lost by only one vote !

This exclusion from the vision of an economic intervention in the market using legally acquired horn – a strategy that has never been tested and at very least merits a mention as one of a suite of demand reduction measures gives the lie to the one sided nature of the so called truce.

What seems to have been entirely overlooked is the application of the ten year time frame to the 37 year old set of anti poaching/ demand reduction measures advocated in the nine point strategy. As the past six years reveal only too graphically, that path is most definitely leading to extinction.

  1. .Establishing efficient effective , focused and sustainable fund raising     campaigns for rhino security and conservation.

All indications are that the public are growing tired of repeated appeals for more money and want results that show real dividends from the considerable sums they have already donated to the anti poaching campaign.The anti trade lobby is at liberty to collect money wherever it is offered and by whatever means it thinks best but donor funding is not a bottomless treasure chest of goodwill . Far better would be for rhino’s to contribute to their own protection.

  1. Promoting public education primarily in Asia and worldwide to reduce demand for rhino horn.

Of course this should continue. But all indications point to the fact that these programmes alone, the main thrust of some of the western conservation NGO’s for over 37 years and the flip side of the CITES trade ban , will not succeed in time to prevent extinction. We should not be continuously reinforcing a failed strategy at the expense of trying a new approach that accepts this reality.

  1. Increasing the extent and efficiency of security and monitoring measures.

Security has always been a fundamental pillar of wildlife management and so it should be. But lately we have turned our Protected Areas and private rhino reserves into war zones. Do we really want to subject these former havens of peace and tranquillity to even more disturbance in perpetuity and at what cost to the biological management of the environment when a disproportionate share of resources are being committed to a programme that has simply failed to thwart the poachers and stem the tide of poaching ? The negotiators should take time to speak privately to some of the field rangers engaged in the battle. Many very experienced field officers are labelling the fight, armed with all the latest technology , a lost cause while the cost of protecting rhino under private ownership is proving prohibitive and unsustainable. Disinvestment looms.

  1. Centralising the application and issuing of permits to hunt rhino.

This reference to improved regulatory control by the official authorities is acceptable provided it is done in consultation with the various private rhino owning NGOs whose livelihood and the means to justify the extraordinary costs involved in maintaining security through commercial activity is recognised. Anyway, what has legal hunting got to do with a anti/pro trade debate ? Psuedo rhino hunts are now a thing of the past under Government regulation and have no place in the debate. Was this but a veiled attempt to tarnish the controlled hunting industry?

  1. Establishing of a whistle- blowers fund and increased anti poaching law enforcement.

By all means but nothing new. It is standard practise among the formal conservation agencies -and always has been- to incentivise people to come forward with incriminating information. But it has serious limitations when the stakes are as high as USD 65000 per kg., the risks associated with exposure rather daunting and always there lurks the element of corrupt manipulation of the players involved.

  1. Securing Community Buy-in and co-operation in rhino conservation of rhino especially among people living in close proximity to rhino.

Essential. But all the evidence points to the fact that poor rural communities living adjacent rhino inhabited areas require real, tangible economic benefits before embracing those orthodox wildlife conservation values, the obsession of many western mainstream NGOs . Currently in many critical areas we have seen that it is more attractive for a rural dweller to cooperate with a poaching syndicate than with the anti poaching forces. Only when these disadvantaged people have been introduced to commercially orientated wildlife management involving actual ownership of the wildlife assets, such as has been successfully introduced in Namibia and Zimbabwe and demonstrated so vibrantly on private land in South Africa, can we can expect the situation to improve. The inclusion of rhino farming in the suite of commercial incentives is paramount.

  1. Being more proactive in targeting the middle-men in the criminal chain of command.

This is easier said than done in the present climate of governance. The trade in horn rivals that of the drugs trade .The stakes are just as high and the ability of organised crime to side step the authorities has been a feature of the criminal underworld for decades. Trade in horn follows the same familiar pattern and will continue so long as there is no competition from a legal, well regulated source.

  1. Increasing the deployment of sophisticated technologies that can detect poachers long before any animal can be shot.

For the past six years we have been treated to any number of anti poaching innovations, some frankly bizarre , raising expectations around a combination of technological and militaristic solutions to the problem. The tally of rhino’s poached clearly indicates that these have not been sufficient to reduce the poacher’s success while many are in any event out of reach of many private rhino owners. Again it points to the fact that the truce negotiators are simply out of touch with the reality on the ground. Just about everything that man can currently devise has been thrown at the poachers and still they are able to circumvent the anti poaching forces.

Let it be said that pro -trade advocacy groups such as The Conservation Imperative have never denied the need for, or marshalled resistance against demand reduction programmes , maintenance of effective law enforcement and all the other conventional approaches advocated by the anti trade lobby . We firmly believe that protective measures on the ground will always be necessary. All we ask is that South Africa , and any other similarly inclined range state for that matter , is granted an opportunity to put trade in horn to the test along with all these other measures and that our Government gets support for an exercise that costs very little to apply, has the potential to stifle the incentives to poaching and better still inject much needed financial gains into state, community and private rhino owning entities. Is that too much to ask – without us having to kill a single rhino ? South Africa’s case in going to CITES would have been much so much stronger had the anti camp agreed to but add legal trade to the strategy; but clearly other agenda’s are at stake.

Which begs a final question.

In the event of a legal trade in horn being introduced and it were to prove successful in reducing poaching would the anti trade lobby withdraw its objections ?

This is the simple enquiry that requires an answer and is dodged every time it is posed. Why? Because the objections and negativity mustered by the anti lobby masks a deeper, concealed sentiment – a common repugnance for any commercial utilisation of wild animals. Contrary to the provisions of the SA Constitution ( 24 (b)iii ) it seems that preserving an outdated preservationist ideology – the mantra chorused by many first world NGOs – is more important than saving our wildlife even if it means subordinating that resource to serving mans welfare on earth in the process.

David Cook – is Chairman of the Conservation Imperative Group , the producers of the documentary film “Rhino’s in Crisis: A Blueprint for Survival” now showing across the world ,and is an ex Deputy Director of the former Natal Parks Board.


Rhino sunset.