Adam Cruise
8th June 2015

Cape Town – At a conference here at the end of May, experts from around the world gathered to discuss responses and solutions to the poaching crisis facing South Africa’s remaining wild rhino. To date in 2015 almost 400 rhino have been poached, 20% up from last year’s record-breaking number that ended with an estimated 1215 rhinos slaughtered for their horns. The actual numbers may be even higher.

The onslaught has been driven by increasing demand for the product in Vietnam and China, and the gap between demand and supply is destined to grow. Since the sale of rhino horn is banned by CITES and individual countries including China, trade has been controlled by sophisticated criminal networks who have been able to operate with seeming impunity

Part of the discussion to provide solutions among the panel of speakers has centred on improving law enforcement measures. In the Kruger Park, where most of the rhinos have been poached, a special task force has been set up under the command of retired Major-General Johan Jooste .Jooste not only has boosted the number of rangers on the ground but has also provided special training and tactical expertise.

In 2014, according to the Department of Environmental Affairs, 386 poachers were arrested but, cautions Jooste, the rangers still have to deal with large numbers of heavily armed poachers infiltrating across a porous border of hundreds of kilometres. In 2014 there are believed to have been 4300 poachers entering the Kruger Park. At any given time, it is believed there are at least 12 poaching groups operating within the park with an average of 3 incursions across the border fence every day.

Mozambique, which borders the entire eastern boundary of the Kruger Park, is recognised as the base for poachers and rhino horn smugglers, although, according to Major-General Jooste, there is evidence that Mozambicans are now entering the Kruger from inside South Africa. This is due to more effective patrolling along the eastern boundary as well as the implementation of better law-enforcement measures from the Mozambican authorities (in April 2014 of last year). However, the number of arrests there has been even lower and convictions virtually non-existent. The latter is of particular concern in light of the country’s largest on record bust of ivory and rhino horn by a Chinese national based in Maputo.

Jooste reasons that despite improvements in training and technology, law-enforcement in the Kruger can only go so far. ‘The poaching problem’ he stated to the assembled gathering, ‘has to be cleared from outside the park.’

John Sellar OBE, formerly in charge of law enforcement for CITES, has suggested that South Africa and, especially Mozambique, could be more innovative in combatting the rhino poaching crisis. Sellar states that ‘there is no obligation, under CITES, to criminalize trade in species beyond fines.’ A change in law at statutory level is required but moves to re-address the statutory status of wildlife crime in Mozambique are a lengthy and cumbersome process. By the time these have been revised and implemented, wild rhino in South Africa may be living fossils.

The South African government has already used non-wildlife laws like racketeering statutes, and even aviation laws, to convict dealers caught with rhino horn – something Sellar commends, but Mozambique could benefit hugely from an innovative switch in statutory approach. If prosecutors utilize well-established, already effectual general criminal statues they could achieve better judiciary outcomes.

Sellar also says ‘that we need to reach out to the relevant law enforcement agencies’ and not rely solely on rangers. Rangers currently are required to do the bulk of the law enforcement and investigative work but do not have the training to properly investigate wildlife crimes. ‘Nor should they,’ says Sellar. ‘Illegal wildlife trade is a significant global crime, one on a par with the global drug trade.’ Police investigators in South Africa and Mozambique, as well as those in Asia, should be deployed and encouraged to communicate better and share information. Sellar firmly believes that a ‘multi-agency, multi-national sophisticated response in law enforcement is the primary solution to the crisis.’

Another solution promoted in recent years is the controversial legalisation of rhino horn trade. The thinking that if trade is legalised, the measure could effectively undermine illegal trade and as a result curb poaching. This is a stance favoured by the South African government and it is widely expected that the host country would push for a review on the legalisation of trade. In October 2016 South Africa will host the 17th CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP17).

Alejandro Nadal, a Professor of Economics at El Colegio in Mexico and an expert in wildlife trade markets and trends, warns that the South African Government is blinded by ‘a veil of ignorance’ when it comes to understanding the market for rhino horn. He asserts that there has not yet been a comprehensive and rigorous enough study of the market drivers and behaviours. It is possible, Nadal warns, that the Asian demand for rhino horn, could be a ‘runaway market’ and that a legalisation of trade ‘will accelerate the demise of rhino’. He cautions that any debate on legalising the trade is dangerous and should be rejected until a proper and thorough economic analyses has been carried out.

According to Dr. Paula Kahumbu, a prominent Kenyan Wildlife Conservationist, if South Africa goes ahead with a plan to propose a legal trade in rhino horn, the country risks tarnishing its international reputation and integrity.

There is widespread belief that such a proposal will not be passed by the 181 member state body that requires a two-thirds majority to pass a resolution. Just 54 member states need to vote against South Africa’s proposal and already it is known that the EU bloc consisting of 28 nations is dead against lifting the ban. That leaves just 26 other countries to follow suit. Will Travers, President of the Born Free Foundation and who has actively attended every triennial Conference of the Parties since 1989, reckons there are far more than 26 countries that would continue to support the ban on rhino horn trade. He predicts that ‘the CITES members will resoundingly reject South Africa’s proposal.’

Kahumbu feels ‘that a contrary campaign on South Africa’s own soil that flies in the face of international sentiment will be deeply embarrassing for the CoP17 host country’ Moreover, she says if the South African government somehow manages to obtain a legal trade in rhino horn, they will in effect ‘be lying to the people who buy it.’

Rhino horn is consumed as a panacea for a variety of ailments, including cancer, predominantly in Vietnam. The healing power of the substance has been widely discredited by Western medicine and there are initiatives from dozens of global organizations and agencies that try to convince Vietnamese consumers that horn provides no benefits.

But, shows Kahumbu, if South Africa gets the green light to trade they are inadvertently sending a contrary message to consumers that rhino horn does have medicinal benefits. Not only does this undermine the efforts of global initiatives but, as Travers points out, how would the global community view South Africa if they willingly participate in gross consumer exploitation. ‘Imagine if an elderly Vietnamese woman is suffering from cancer’, says Travers, ‘and her children, in desperation to save her, place their life savings in buying some rhino horn in the belief that rhino horn will make their mother well again, but it doesn’t.’ South Africa, by promoting trade in a product that blatantly and erroneously declares health benefits for an export product, is in effect ‘cynically and shockingly exploiting consumers.’

Both Travers and Kahumbu believe that, as a regional leader, South Africa should take more responsibility by removing the spectre of trade. ‘Trade,’ as Travers points out, ‘will isolate the country, they will be out of step with the other member states who will be quick to condemn and slow to forget.’

Kahumbu, who runs a successful anti-trade campaign for elephants in her own country (Hands off our elephants), is calling on South Africans to persuade the government to think about their responsibility and challenge them not to table the proposal not only for the reputation of the South African Government but for the reputation of all South Africans.