Minister’s panel of experts all favour the selling of rhino horn
Sharon van Wyk
25 August, 2014

The Department of Environmental Affairs is clearly scratching around for the ‘good story’ in relation to rhinos. In its latest attempt to solve the poaching problem it had to claim successes from more than 50 years ago in order to excuse it’s failure to address the Kruger Park’s current epidemic.

In a media briefing this week, Minister Edna Molewa said in 1960 Kruger had no rhinos at all and that the reason they still existed was due to the translocation of 351 animals from the Hluhluwe-uMfolozi game reserve back then as well as South Africa’s ‘exemplary’ conservation record.

That may be true, but was difficult to connect with the fact that Kruger’s white rhino population has slumped from 12 200 in 2010 to somewhere between 8 400 and 9 600 animals, a probable loss of 3 800 animals to poacher guns.

Backed by Dr Sam Ferreira, large mammal ecologist for the Kruger Park, the minister claimed that South Africa knew how to save rhino because it has done it before. Dr Ferreira amplified this fact to a rather bemused audience who, he said, needed to lighten up and laugh a bit more.

But there was little to laugh about, including Ferreira’s insistence that Kruger’s rhino population had stabilized.

“The birth rate for Kruger’s rhinos is 8%,” he explained. “The natural mortality rate is 2% and poaching accounts for another 6%, meaning that the population has stabilized.”

Quite how a population which is being  decimated by an accelerating poaching rate can be considered stable was not explained. Instead, Molewa and her advisors chose to focus on the four pillars of the integrated strategy about to be implemented – compulsory interventions, increase in rhino numbers, international and national collaboration and co-operation and long-term sustainability measures (meaning the government’s ill-advised push to legalise the trade in rhino horn).

Molewa played down the criticism of her tenure during which rhino poaching spiralled out of control in the Kruger National Park.

Anyone criticising her or her pro-trade stance has been described as irresponsible.

Asked to name the panel of experts established by the Inter Ministerial Committee to investigate the feasibility of trading in rhino horn, Molewa refused and requested patience as, she said, the panel’s selection process was not yet finalised.

She seemed to have forgotten that this panel of experts had already been selected, had met on a number of occasions since April 8 this year and was now calling on ‘stakeholders and interested parties’ before making its recommendation to Cabinet.

A little digging, however, has revealed the identity of half of these ‘experts’. They are the deputy director-general of biodiversity and conservation for the DEA, Fundisile Mketeni, who chairs the panel,  conservation economist Michael t’Sas Rolfes, Dr Sam Ferreira,  Dr Michael Knight of the IUCN’s African rhino specialist group, economist Keith Lockwood and chairperson of the Private Rhino Owners Association Pelham Jones.

Several of these, in defending an attempt to undermine the CITES ban on horn trade, have cited the principles of sustainable utilisation of natural resources enshrined in the Constitution. It has been suggested that, in essence, this is the principle of ‘if it pays, it stays’.

This is a willful misreading of the Constitution. Section 24  states that the environment must be protected “for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that prevent pollution and ecological degradation; promote conservation; and secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development”.

So, how can the government prove that a legalised trade in rhino horn promotes conservation of the species, is completely sustainable and promotes economic and social development which will benefit present and future generations? Certainly not by appointing a Panel of Experts who are all in favour of trade? Indeed the Areas of Work  defined by the panel of experts and to which stakeholder presentations have been invited, are so restrictive as to exclude any meaningful input on the many well-documented risks of trade.

It is no secret that selling rhino horn would be of financial benefit to both the government, with its stockpile of 22 tons of rhino horn, as well as to an elite group of rhino owners.

What hope does this give for the survival of rhino in South Africa? The only glimmer is provided in Molewa’s nod to “strategic translocation” and the creation of what she described as “rhino strongholds” both in South Africa, and in neighbouring states. While on the surface this plan appears to have some merit, the much publicised sale of 500 of Kruger’s rhino to undisclosed buyers in secret locations raises some serious issues, not the least of which is that there will be no way to know who will be benefiting. Expecting the public to trust that in this process the government will put the best interests of rhinos above enriching ‘insiders’ would, under the circumstances, be naive.

Sharon van Wyk is an award-winning conservation writer and wildlife documentary maker and works with the Conservation Action Trust. Sharon was born in Cambridge United Kingdom, and qualified there too. Sharon has been involved in mainstream journalism and media for 30 years, starting out as writer/production editor at music magazines in the 1980s, progressing to daily newspapers, where she spent the latter part of the 80s and all of the 90s. She is a freelance travel writer and has her own media company, Painted Earth Productions.

Main Image: © Corbis