It is with great relief that the conservation community heard of the South African Government ’s decision last week to not submit a proposal to the CITES CoP17 to legalize the international trade in rhino.
With the unprecedented and ever increasing poaching pressure on the rhino population in Southern Africa since 2008 there has been a debate raging around the value of opening the legal trade of rhino horn to combat the illegal trade. Unfortunately, this debate has been all encompassing, splitting the community whose common goal is rhino conservation and perseveration. The trade in an item like rhino horn is a complicated one, with many facets coming into play including difficulties in gauging black market demand size, which could easily explode with a legal trade, and governance issues in trying to implement a legal trade that is not abused and used to mask illegal horn trade.
With nearly 6,000 rhinos poached in Africa in the last 8 years, nearly 1,200 last year alone, and the poaching still not in control, conservationists and governments are needing to consider drastic measures to halt this demand. With current estimates at approximately 20,500 white and 5,000 black rhino we need to make sure these are sound and solid strategies. This is why the South African government took such deliberation with the consideration of a legal rhino horn trade and enlisted a Committee of Inquiry to investigate the feasibility of proposing this idea to the rest of the world. Now that all the permutations of trying to implement a legal trade have been considered and the decision made to steer clear of it, the focus is now on ensuring effective strategies are developed and implemented to combat the poaching and trafficking by international crime networks.
There have been a fair share of out of the box considerations already, like the efforts of a group to infuse the horn with toxic chemicals and dyes – with the hopes of rendering the horn chemically unfit for human consumption and to be visually tarnished. The mechanics of these horn infusions proved ineffective, and would have been financially exorbitant and only useful with those animals that you could catch and treat every few years. Rhino horn grows like your fingernails, so within three years any horn treatments would have effectively grown out – a reason why sedating a rhino and cutting off it’s horn is also not a long-term solution or feasible for large populations as it requires constant veterinary and helicopter expenses. There was also some confusion in this arena with hoax images of rhino and elephant sporting pink horns and tusks respectively – unfortunate digital manipulations that carried no merit.
When tampering or dealing with the rhino horn market, for example making fake horns like an industrious team in the USA tried with 3D printing, is that the end consumer is often not considered properly and what the knock-on effect of an attempt like this could be. In a case of a fake horn, albeit genetically engineered to be similar, we would increase the market size through the promotion of a legal ‘rhino horn’, while at the same time running the risk of increasing the status of real, wild rhino horn. The criminal syndicates might claim to be able to verify horn status with the result being an increase in revenue available for poaching of wild rhino and higher losses of rhino in the wild to feed this growing market.
It is against a backdrop of these issues and limited funding that we need to reconsider our position and strategies and ensure that we strive to improve what we know works. We need to adopt force multiplier strategies so we are more effective, while always looking to research and develop new ideas and innovations.
Some of the key strategies going forward:
Collaboration – we need to break through the traditional, hierarchical methodology of conservation operations and build relationships between state, private, civil society and communities. This will enable us to better counter the adaptable, well-resourced, international criminal syndicates driving the poaching of rhinos and other wildlife in Africa.
Anti-poaching – we need to ensure the people on the frontline of this war are not overstretching themselves, are sufficient in number and have support in place to cover their efforts and over-time. The teams need to have the right training and equipment to be able to perform at their best and access to sufficient funds to develop much needed informer networks. These considerations need to benefit all rhino, regardless of whether they are to be found in provincial, private or community-owned game reserves.
Law enforcement along the entire trafficking chain needs to be strengthened and the political will of all member states involved along this chain will be the only way to ensure that this can happen. With this needs to come improved judicial support and the establishment of dedicated wildlife and environmental crime courts. This will ensure effective prosecution of the criminal syndicates, not just the poachers on the ground, who are trying to take advantage of lax laws and low sentences in the illegal wildlife arena.
Community engagement – there is a dire need to improve on building awareness and supportive relationships with rural communities neighboring protected areas. These communities are the ultimate custodians of our world’s wildlife and without the buy-in and support of the people in these areas we will continue to face a barrage of exploitative use of resources in protected areas.
Demand reduction – To end this slaughter, however, we must ultimately stop the buying of rhino horn. Like ivory trinkets, we must show people who are using rhino horn as a status symbol that rhino horn is a product of death – not only of rare and fantastic animals, but of people killed in the illegal trade as well. Those who buy for perceived medical benefit must come to realize that use of rhino horn does nothing for their health. It is the same material as human hair and fingernails, and, like chewing one’s nails, is a bad habit with bad outcomes. We need to let these people know that they hold an amazing opportunity to turn the tide on one of the most appalling scenes occurring throughout Africa.
We must not underestimate humanity’s ability to overcome unjust beliefs. Consider racism, sexism and slavery, as examples of historical societal norms, which many believed would never be changed. Humanity can once again change the status quo and quash beliefs around the unsustainable use of animal products either by their own or neighboring societies – especially if it puts the future of any species at risk. It is only when we manage to generate a global consciousness about the plight of our wildlife will this be possible.
Simon Morgan is a Trustee from Wildlife ACT, one of the 18 Founding Members of Project Rhino KZN which was formed to unite a regional conservation community against rhino poaching threats. The Founding Members include the provincial government conservation agency, private and community-owned game reserves and leading conservation NGOs.