Rhino horn trade central to draft government policy
Andreas Wilson-Späth
21 July, 2015

A legal trade in rhino horns lies at the heart of a proposed new government policy for the conservation of white rhinos in South Africa, despite the fact that an official position on the matter is only supposed to be taken pending the findings of a committee of inquiry appointed by the Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa.

The draft Biodiversity Management Plan for the White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) in South Africa, which was gazetted by Molewa on the 31st of March, notes that while conservation efforts starting in the 1960s brought the species back from the brink of extinction to a current population of about 18800 animals, it is under increasing pressure from an escalating poaching epidemic.

The document describes a vision of “a world with reduced poaching and demand for illegal rhino horn” and sets out a five-year conservation target of growing the South African population to at least 20400 by 2020. A number of measures are proposed to achieve this, including improved monitoring and protection, effective legislation and prosecution, national coordination and international cooperation, the establishment of new rhino populations in expanded conservation areas, as well as the management of genetic diversity and disease.

At the strategic core of the draft Biodiversity Management Plan (BMP), however, lies a doctrine of “sustainable use” which suggests that because rhino conservation is becoming increasingly costly while “the significant value of the rhino horn trade is currently captured entirely by organised crime”, it is time that “rhinos need to start paying more for themselves”.

The authors uncritically accept the central argument of the pro-trade lobby: that a stable supply of rhino horn offered to consumers via a legal market and sourced from stockpiles, natural mortalities and perhaps dehorning, will reduce poaching.

This assertion has, however, been roundly discredited by Mexican economist Alejandro Nadal whoseresearch indicates that markets in endangered wildlife are far too poorly understood to make such predictions with any degree of certainty, and that legalised trade may in fact have the opposite effect of stimulating poaching.

The authors of the draft BMP also believe that legal trade would generate “significant revenue” which would go towards rhino protection and conservation. No actual evidence is presented to support this optimistic assumption.

While the document is opposed to “zoo-type” captive-breeding and farming of white rhinos, it does leave the door open to “some more intensive operations” which “may provide an insurance policy” for wild populations by supplying horns to feed the market. Perhaps the authors have in mind something akin to South Africa’s burgeoning captive lion breeding industry.

The draft BMP suggests that legal trade will “provide some time for demand reduction efforts to work”, but the logic here is back-to-front. Concerted efforts to change consumer behaviour in Asia (the main market for illegal rhino horn) have shown surprisingly fast results, for instance in reducing the consumption of shark fin soup in China. By contrast, any actual legal trade in rhino horn is likely to take years to become a reality, even if South Africa can persuade the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to lift the ban at its 17th annual conference next year, which is itself exceedingly doubtful. South Africa’s official pursuit of a pro-trade policy is wasting time and misdirecting energy in the fight against poaching. Not the other way around.

While it articulates and endorses the position of the pro-trade lobby, the draft BMP makes no mention of the counterarguments presented by those opposed to legalising the international trade in rhino horn.

Finally, the draft BMP also reinforces official support for trophy hunting of “surplus bulls” which is suggested to have played a “pivotal role” in the conservation of the species – an oft-repeated assertion in the South African white rhino conservation narrative, but one that has increasingly come under fire from local and international animal rights activists and organisations.

Having offered nothing but staunch support for legalising trade, the authors note, rather farcically and in classically cart-before-horse manner, that the Department of Environmental Affairs’ decision on the matter will be informed by the committee of inquiry appointed by Molewa. Makes one wonder if the committee members have received their official rubber stamps yet, doesn’t it?

So who exactly are the people responsible for drafting this dubious policy document? The international NGO WildAid, in its formal response to the draft BMP written by its South African representative Adam Welz, notes that “some of the contributors […] have financial interests in the rhino industry or represent those with such interests”, making for a clear conflict of interest. Furthermore, the authors “seem to have pointedly excluded parties with differing views on the horn trade and rhino trophy hunting to themselves”.

As South Africans we can be justifiably proud of our history in the conservation of the southern white rhino. Let’s not allow a group of people with vested interests to sully this legacy by allowing them to manipulate the country into adopting an ill-considered and dangerous policy that puts financial profits before the welfare and survival of a magnificent species.