CITES and the Fate of Africa’s Rhino.

As expected, Swazilands brave proposal for permission to sell its stockpile of 330kgs. of legal rhino horn i.e. horn recovered over many years from natural mortalities , was roundly defeated at the recent CITES Conference of the Parties  – 100 votes against, 26 for and 17 abstentions.

So what are the implications for rhino conservation , arguably  South Africa’s most iconic animal , flowing from this decision and what can South Africans expect in the foreseeable future? (Sensitive readers are warned – the following passages contain depressing news!)

Firstly it means that the 39 year old ban on trade – the most extraordinary example of a mind- numbing  persistence in the use of  a failed strategy responsible for the death of thousands of rhino across the African continent ,will continue for at least another 3 years. Yes, with the exception of those too fatigued to bother anymore brace  yourself for another 3 years of pictures of mutilated rhino, their faces hacked off, and pitiful scenes depicting rhino calves standing forlornly next to slain mothers .

Next, in the interval of 3 years before that next CITES conference, South Africa the Goliath of world rhino conservation by a considerable margin, having let slip the opportunity of a lifetime after a fateful cabinet meeting when the SA Govt.  resolved not to submit a rhino horn trade proposal can, at current rates of poaching  expect to lose at least another 3000 rhino. Employ all the spin you like – the statistics simply reveal that the annual increase in our national wild rhino population is being inexorably overhauled by losses to an obdurate poaching menace which has defied every protective measure we have deployed much to the embarrassment of the authorities who insist on claiming  with the announcement of every new- fangled strategy or high tech. gadget that they are “winning the war”.

No, the fact is we are not winning this war; at best we are merely dragging out an inevitable extinction process! As an aside, the net worth of those dead animals – were they to have been spared the poachers bullet –  is some R750 million. Add the price of the horns at USD 65000 per kg   and you can add an estimated USD 487 million to that number – a rather industrial  sum of money by any standard every cent of which will go tax free into the pockets of criminals and poachers instead of accruing and paying for the upkeep of our natural heritage , enhancing human welfare and even providing some relief to a #feesmustfall challenge (Pravin Gordhan please take note as you set about finding solutions to our ailing economy.)

Never mind the purists will crow from their high moral ground – no wild animal should be valued in commercial terms; it is contrary to mankind’s moral and spiritual obligation to nurture and protect nature’s bounty regardless of cost. Let the State foot the bill the animal rightists insist. Only passive, recreational use, like game viewing,  is permissible. Great! If only the poachers and criminals would behave accordingly. But of course in the everyday real world – the world we would prefer not to think about  – the criminal syndicates march to a totally different tune.

They are instead motivated by darker imperatives like sustaining, via a middleman, a lucrative 300 –year- old cultural myth in the Far East. And if you are an impoverished rural inhabitant, feeding your famished family with generous payoffs from poaching,  who cares a continental about noble protectionist ideology. Any bets on who is going to win the battle between the high minded preservationists and  common man?

Locally ,upholding the ban through the implementation of various protective measures – militarised anti- poaching efforts, improved law enforcement, higher penalties for the few poachers apprehended and convicted, translocating rhino to so called “safe” areas, all comes at a very high cost to the tax payer ( some estimate R1 billion per annum) to say nothing of the estimated 300 odd private rhino owners who must foot the crippling cost of rhino security themselves. So expect disinvestment – already in progress-  and a retreat of the once surging expansion of rhino on private land.

If you are a tourist visiting our famous wildlife destinations expect to see fewer rhino (some with horns removed to discourage poaching – not that that is any guarantee of safety) , in fewer parks as protective measures limit the so- called “safe” areas the authorities can afford to allow rhino to remain in. Which triggers a random thought ; is this not a perverse reversal of what the old Natal Parks Board strove to achieve, and succeeded in doing,  over some 40 years – the distribution of white rhino to its former historical range in Southern Africa?

Thinking long term,  for those South Africans who  will constitute members of society born after 2035 ,the news is that African rhino  at present rates of decline will have joined those other unfortunates found only in zoo’s . No prospect then of these future generations experiencing the privileged  spectacle of  wild rhino’s  gambolling about a mud wallow in a wild place or grazing peacefully in open grassland in primitive freedom – that is set to become a distant memory.

Nearer at hand, expect your purse to be placed under siege from a wide range of donor based organisations – many with international networks of skilled fundraisers – making tear-jerking calls on your compassion in helping to “save rhino”. Looming over CITES stands a massive multi -million dollar industry, the very existence of which depends on keeping trade bans in place and species on the endangered list as long as possible and reinforced with  fevered opposition to any attempt to  introduce  economic solutions  such as a regulated legal trade in horn. Instead, prepare to be assailed by weird concepts like “demand reduction” ie. persuading a billion or so Chinese to give up a 3000 year old cultural belief and stop using rhino horn , heartrending  appeals to support rhino orphanages , soliciting money for a growing range of  costly poaching – deterrent projects ( some quite useless)  and get ready to participate and earn the tee- shirt in a rash of  fund raising events ranging from  run/walk/cycle – for –rhino to  becoming a corporate eco-warrior and paying a storm of money to join a celebrity sportsman or woman in attending ( and being photographed) at a daring rhino  immobilisation/translocation event. It’s a form of volunteerism and is very, very chic to be involved in you know!

Finally and probably the most tragic consequence of the CITES  anti trade resolution on legal trade in horn is the negative humanitarian impact –  the plight of hundreds of thousands of  rural people living in abject poverty on or near the boundaries of protected areas. Have pity on them. A regulated trade in horn harvested from sustainably managed rhino populations would have not only raised their economic prospects and respect for wildlife by a quantum leap but  would have nullified their vulnerability to criminal syndicates recruiting poachers and placing lives in danger. So, the interests of indigenous people being overruled by we –know- best imperialist dogma persists.

The price to be paid as a consequence of the CITES ruling against legal trade in rhino horn is something history, when it is written, will undoubtedly reveal as a travesty of justice , a squandered opportunity to save a cherished species from its second encounter with an  extinction event. In the 1960’s it was rescued, restored to its former native habitats in the tens of thousands  and now faces a very uncertain future at the hands of an international conservation bureaucracy completely out of touch with African reality. One may be forgiven for borrowing the now fashionable call for “de-colonisation” in urging  African states to take back control of their heritage, set their own goals and restore a relationship that for hundreds of years ensured the survival of man and beast in  mutually beneficial relationships; where humans prosper so too does biodiversity – let that be the guide to the future.

Come on Africa !  wake up and free yourself from the stifling patronage of western powers intent on capturing and dictating how we should conduct our world class wildlife conservation policies. Something positive to think about – and to act upon.

David Cook


David Cook is a former Deputy Director of the Natal Parks Board with over 54 years of conservation experience.