Are rhinos now a liability to South Africa?
Ian McCallum
27 June, 2014

I have recently read the May/June South African Journal of Science report on a Kruger National Park workshop aimed at finding a management solution to counter the escalation of the poaching of South Africa’s rhino population.

Compiled by Sam Ferreira (head of SA National Parks’ large mammal ecology unit), Michele Pfab and Mike Knight, it makes interesting but ultimately, rather depressing reading.

The date of the workshop is not stated but it was attended by 30 “experts” in varying specialities – resource economics, law, law enforcement and compliance, conservation science and ethics. Also included were “attendees (who) had a common interest in rhinos and (who) represented various value systems associated with conservation, animal welfare, animal rights, national and provincial government and private rhino ownership”.

Far from being a scientific report, it is instead a consensus-based economic report in the costs-benefits category that includes questionable subjective and rhetorical overtones, for example: “…Mindful that our results are dependent upon subjective assessments and understanding, as well as the persuasive powers of participants…”

In addition, the report states that “…there was uncertainty around the reduction in the price of horn, possibly stimulating further demand from a growing, wealthier Asian middle class, thus maintaining demand and poaching incentive”. Combining subjectivity with rhetoric and uncertainty, the ultimate conclusion of the workshop was to recommend the UNRESTRICTED TRADE of rhino horn as the best of all possible solutions.

In summary, it is a conclusion that opposes the stand of those who are against the legalising of trade of any source of rhino horn.

Returning to the report, I would be very interested to know more of the contribution of the four ethical “experts” in attendance at the workshop. The reason for this is that whether we like it or not, the present rhino issue is ultimately an ethical issue. Ethics is a complex subject because it immediately begs a definition of what is right or wrong and for who – the rhino, the conservation budget, the private or the communal land/rhino owners etc?

I will expand on this but not before highlighting the saddest and most challenging comment in the report: “Protection costs have soared… the rhinos are a liability to state conservation authorities…” In other words, are rhinos no longer an asset to our country and to our national parks? Are they now a liability?

As a conservation authority and a good one too, his report supports the view that the economic model trumps the human obligation to protect this animal – one of our national assets – unconditionally. I do not for a moment deny the concern of those present at the workshop for the future of this highly endangered species, even if the statutes at present don’t categorise it as such. At the present rate of attrition, it needs to be treated as critically endangered.

I have written elsewhere that I can only imagine how exhausted and demoralised the anti-poaching units must be with the present escalation in poaching. I can identify with their desperation to halt the bleeding of this iconic species.

But is the legalising of the trade of its horn really the answer? Who defines the legal market? Do we have any idea who the trading partners will be? These are questions that are continually asked and, as far as I am aware, they remain unanswered.

And even if we are able to define the market, why are we trading a commodity that fuels a thoroughly absurd, unscientific and superstitious pursuit? How ethical is this? Surely, there is no right way of doing the wrong thing.

Whether or not there were any other suggested ethical approaches I do not know, but the utilitarian approach – “the greatest good for the greatest number” – has to be understood as only one of at least four workable approaches. The other three include:

l Upholding the rights of the other (includes animal rights) of individual or group entitlement to pursue his/her particular interests, desires, goals.

l The upholding of justice – fair play – that which is decent, just, dignified and deserving of and for the other. Interestingly, the upholding of justice, fairness and dignity was Nelson Mandela’s unwavering approach to the political situation in South Africa, for which he was imprisoned and for which he was prepared to die.

l The upholding of an ethic that is based on care of the other… nurturing, conserving, protecting that which is closest to us or dependent on us. It is a standard that calls upon us to be a voice for the voiceless.

It is a fact that utilitarian morality often trumps the rights of others (for example: in times of war, or to counter terrorism, or to protect classified information, it is deemed acceptable that govern- ment intelligence has licence to tap into the private lives and communication systems of other individuals. Plea bargaining or compromise in the context of what is deemed to be the “greatest good”, is another example of the utilitarian approach.

And so, where to from here?

First of all, whether we are pro or against the trade of rhino horn, it is important that we acknowledge the common ground. In this instance, let us accept that both sides are anxious to protect and preserve our rhino.

Secondly, we have to acknowledge that ultimately there is only one decision maker in this entire issue – the South African government. That decision, irrespective of the inevitable objections and protest against it, is going to be an ethical decision. It cannot be otherwise.

My plea therefore is to the South African government: that it takes the lead in demonstrating to the world that this splendid creature is not only an asset but a national treasure that it is not for sale. Let South Africa be the first country to declare a state of emergency on behalf of these animals, their ecology and their right to remain wild. Let this be an emergency in the name of a legacy that we owe to our grandchildren and to the animals themselves.

Let justice, fair play, dignity, care and not least, the rights of this animal be the overriding motif in our attempts to save this irreplaceable asset. At the same time let us not forget that justice has another face. It is called retributive justice or, if you prefer, penal justice. Let it be written in law and widely known that the penalty for the poaching of our rhino is life imprisonment (or something very similar). How about that? Drastic? Indeed, but these are drastic times for the rhino and for all of us who abhor the sheer criminality of the present situation.

Sam Ferreira and his team in the Kruger National Park need all the help they can get. Let’s make their task easier. Stop the poaching first. Make the penalty a real deterrent and where the only relief for poachers will be the voluntary, utilitarian information gained from them resulting in the conviction and imprisonment of those higher up on the criminal ladder.

Secondly, do not underestimate the intelligence of the market, be it the Vietnamese or the Chinese people (considerable work is already under way in this regard) or wherever it exists.

Thirdly, I don’t think we should look too far beyond our borders for the criminal syndicates – they are closer to home than we think.

Finally, I want to quote something that Ian Player said to me a few years ago. It was his response to the thought of a world without rhinos: “Over my dead body,” he said.

Dr McCallum is a psychiatrist, poet, author, Wilderness Foundation executive member and member of the Conservation Action Trust.

Main photo: (By Hein waschefort) Wikimedia Commons. Sharing Service