Officials on the horns of a dilemma
Adam Cruise
28 July, 2014

The conservation of wild animals is a wrangle that has divided opinion into two diametrically opposed camps, writes Adam Cruise.

As today is World Nature Conservation Day, it is fitting to bring up the current but somewhat prickly dispute regarding the conservation of wild animals. It is a wrangle that has divided opinion into two diametrically opposed camps.

Both sides vociferously claim that theirs is the best strategy while denouncing the other’s lack of accreditation when it comes to preserving the world’s wildlife heritage.

One school of thought takes the notion of “conservation” at its most simplified: maintaining the survival of a species, no matter the cost. Ensuring the continued existence of a species, especially those that are critically endangered or facing extinction, appears to be a good conservation principle.

One may wonder why anyone would refute it, except that it both ignores the welfare and rights of animals and opens up the possibility of turning wild creatures into, well, creatures that are no longer wild. This is why such emphatic objections have been raised to such policies.

The dispute is nowhere more marked than in South Africa, primarily because the country is currently facing an unprecedented attack on its wildlife by highly organised and prolific global crime syndicates.

The most newsworthy wild animals under threat are rhinos. Already 2014 is set to break yet another consecutive record for the number of rhinos killed. However, the government and many conservationists believe they have found a solution to the crisis – sustainably utilising them.

Ostensibly, the idea is to give in to the demand for horn by allowing the product to be traded. It is hoped that, by allowing trade, the demand will be met as well as managed.

Prices of rhino horn could be driven down, since it will be more freely available and the devious criminal masterminds would be put off trading illicitly as this would no longer be cost-effective.

Yet they can’t implement sustainable utilisation, as legalised trade is forbidden by an international Cites (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) resolution.

Cites has decreed that, because both species of African rhino are endangered, rhino horn is not allowed to be traded. International consensus is therefore opposed to South Africa’s strategy. Why?

One reason is that legalised trade has been attempted before – with disastrous consequences.

In 2008, Cites temporarily lifted the ban on trading ivory by allowing the southern African bloc to sell over 100 tons to China. That triggered a tsunami of illegal poaching that saw elephant numbers decimated across most of the continent. The demand was fuelled, not so much by more available ivory on the Chinese market, but because millions of law-abiding consumers were suddenly brought into the market with the advantage that they could buy at more affordable prices.

Another reason why sustainable use has been met with opposition has to do with the welfare and rights of wild animals. For example, sustainable utilisation must consent to the practice of canned hunting, as well as the notion of zoos and all forms of corralling of wild animals.

The government has recently admitted that canned hunting is legitimate. They are right – under a policy of sustainable utilisation, it is. As long as lion numbers are being preserved, lions may be bred in cages and then released, only to be shot by well-paying international clients.

Money accrued goes into further breeding of lions, with the added benefit that the government, the breeder and maybe a nearby community can enjoy a capital spillover.

It’s an all-round win-win situation – except if you are a lion.

By the same token, rhinos may be rounded up and bred in captivity so as to harvest their horns, and cheetahs and pangolins kept in the confines of zoos to prevent them from becoming extinct.

All of this is done in the name of nature conservation… except there is no “nature” part. Preservation of numbers it is, but conservation of wildlife it is not.

Nature conservation ought to respect the natural environment and its intrinsic wildness. It is not about transforming wild animals into mere commodities that can be shot, farmed or gawked at from behind a fence.

Adam Cruise a published travel writer, photographer, adventurer and student in philosophy specialising in environmental ethics.  He specialises, and is passionate about, the environment and the impact humans are currently having on the natural resources throughout the sub-continent.