Regardless of resistance, SA will still trade horns
Adam Cruise
21 June, 2014

The South African Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) has been having a difficult time of late. Over the past five years they have been unable to stem the exponential escalation of rhino poaching – particularly in its flagship game reserve, the Kruger Park. The department, however, believes it has the solution but insists that their hands are tied by an international law banning the legal trade in rhino horn.

The DEA is convinced that opening even a limited trade in horn will reduce the price of the product in Asian markets and consequently reduce the levels of poaching. They have alluded to this formula on more than one occasion. A recent comment by the department’s minister, Edna Molewa speaking during an interview with a foreign news agency at the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between South Africa and Mozambique, intensified the media attention. She remarked that that ever since the 2008 once-off sale in ivory, not a single elephant has been poached in South Africa. Her idea was to strike a parallel with the trade in rhino horn and indicates the government’s clear intention of their position.

Naturally, this contrary stance has drawn the attention of local and global media, and some considerable heat from various conservationists, economists and scientists especially in lieu of the London Declaration, which reflects the international consensus that all trade in critically endangered species ought to be banned outright.

Yet, despite the Minister’s obvious leanings, the DEA’s spokesperson, Eleanor Momberg in an attempt to drop a veil over the official stance, stated in a press release on the 6th June that “While the Department of Environmental Affairs was authorised by Cabinet last year to explore the possible legalisation of trade in rhino horn with CITES at the 17th Conference of Parties in 2016, no final proposal has been compiled, or decision made, regarding the future legal trade in rhino horn as an additional intervention to reduce the levels of poaching.”

On face value the message seems clear that the department have yet to make a formal decision. But have they? By all accounts the Minister’s statements indicate a clear bias toward a pro-trade policy. Momberg again thinks otherwise. The same press release reprimanded the media: “Recent media reports on the issue of possible trade in rhino horns by South Africa have been mischievous and have evidently been playing to the gallery by seeking to create confusion with regards to the government position on the proposed trade in rhino horns.”

It seems, though, it is the DEA that are seeking to create confusion. Certainly, they wholeheartedly supported the once-off ivory sale in 2008, and it is unlikely that position has changed. The DEA thus already have their minds made up and are simply awaiting the inevitable endorsement from a ‘panel of experts’ of their choosing. One of these experts is Sam Ferreira, an ecologist working for the South African National Parks (SANParks) and overseen by the DEA. Ferreira has released a ‘scientific’ report compiled by another 30 experts entitled the Management Strategies to Curb Rhino Poaching: Alternative Options Using a Cost–Benefit Approach. The report concludes that “An expert-based risk–benefit analysis of five different rhino management strategies was undertaken to assess their potential for delivering upon agreed rhino conservation objectives. The outcomes indicated that benefits may exceed risks for those strategies that in some or other format legally provided horn for meeting demand.” Ferreira et al, therefore, are unashamedly advocating a legal trade in rhino horn.

Momberg, however, wants us to know that “until all the questions related to the trade in rhino horn have been comprehensively debated and investigated”, they do not advocate trade. Far from being comprehensive, though, Ferreira admits that he and his colleagues are “mindful that our results are dependent upon subjective assessments and understanding, as well as the persuasive powers of participants.” This is a blatant acknowledgement that their conclusions are not based on scientific evidence, and can thus be discarded as too subjective. But Momberg persistently insists “the proposal to be tabled to CITES in 2016 to be based on sound research” and “will not be influenced by any individual wanting to line their pockets or any group opposed to South Africa’s sustainable utilisation policies.”

Sustainable utilization is a euphemism for commercial trade in rhinos. This is the approach the London Declaration all but rejected. By stating that any group opposed to the policy will not partake in the ‘comprehensive debate’, Momberg plainly asserts that anyone who is anti-trade may not participate. It’s another clear indication that the DEA are waving the pro-trade flag.

Her comment about the individuals wishing to line their pockets is an attempt to counter the widespread opinion that the DEA is influenced by a pro-trade lobby intent on receiving financial gain from sales of private rhino horn stockpiles, something the department seems to be seeking too as it sits on a national stockpile worth millions. This is an accusation not without merits. Rudi Van Aarde, a professor from the University of Pretoria and a renowned expert on elephants, recently lambasted the department when he said:  “Calling for trade in ivory or rhino horn is a call for the continuation of corruption – it feeds the search for such goods.” Van Aarde accused the DEA’s pro-trade stance as political rather than ecological, a comment Momberg was also quick to claim as “mischievous.”

Mischievous or not, Momberg inadvertently mentions that“South Africa believes that legalising the trade in rhino horn will in no way contribute to increased poaching.” So despite fulminating against reporters and professors who are accusing them of being pro-trade, Momberg’s press release is riddled with contradictory inconsistencies.

Why the mendacious propaganda then? Either the DEA pins its colours to the mast and admits its stance on legalizing the trade in rhino horn, or it does not. The fact that they persist in this tardy attempt to deny their inexorable position perhaps means they are trying to curry favour with international opinion – and much needed finance. South Africa’s no-show at the London Declaration in February this year and subsequent rebuff of the 10 year moratorium on trade in ivory and rhino horn by Molewa was a blow to South Africa’s prestige in conservation circles. The DEA now appear to be scrambling to get some shine back on their tarnished image. But they are not fooling anyone. As Momberg’s press release plainly reveals, the DEA’s have made their minds up. No-matter the outcome of the proposal by the panel of experts (which, as we have seen with Sam Ferreira et al’s report, is to tow the party line) South Africa will go to the next CITES CoP in 2016 bent on proffering the strategy that rhino horn to be traded.

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.