Rhino Trade Panel: Window dressing by the DEA
Martina Polley
15 July, 2014

The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) has finally issued an invitation to stakeholders to participate in its exploration of Rhino Horn Trade Feasibility. The long-awaited invitation supposedly represents a one-time opportunity for concerned parties to present their arguments to a 10-member Panel of Experts but is this Panel really going to listen to opposing views or is this just an attempt to legitimize an opaque process?

“There have been a number of other processes, such as the Rhino Issue Management meeting and workshop after workshop where concerns about the legal trade were raised and ignored,” says Karen Trendler from Working Wild. Trendler has worked in the field of rhino conservation for over twenty years and intends on participating. “This process is good and people must take part but my concern is that the DEA have already made up their mind.”

Indeed the POE already appears to have exceeded  it’s mandate , since in its own invitation it states that the “DEA was authorised by Cabinet in July 2013 to explore the feasibility of South Africa tabling a proposal for the legalization of commercial international trade in rhino horn…” and “the Panel of Experts was established to Assist the Inter-Ministerial Committee appointed by Cabinet to deliberate on matters relating to a possible trade in rhino horn “ yet the panel is now exploring  “rhino  horn trade feasibility “ Is this a case of the tail wagging the dog one might ask, or was there ever any real intention to evaluate the  the pros and cons of trade, or indeed to take cognisance of the widely held  view that legalising trade will simply fuel demand and increase poaching.

The DEA argues that they have been misrepresented as pro trade by ‘mischievous’ media, yet in a press release dated 6 June 2014 they state unequivocally  “South Africa believes that legalising the trade in rhino horn will in no way contribute to increased poaching.” – A simple sentence nullifying any intention to hear opposing views and cementing the Department’s position.

So who exactly are the members of the Panel of Experts you may ask? The appointment process has not been public or transparent and the names of the ‘shadowy panel’  apart from the Chairperson  Fundisile Mketeni, a Deputy Director-General of Biodiversity and Conservation in DEA, have been withheld, despite repeated requests to the Department that have been ignored. However investigation has uncovered the names of  four other members :Sam Ferreira, Mike Knight, Keith Lockwood and Michael t’Sast Rolfes., all of whom are avowedly in favour of trade. The simplistic economics of rhino trade as espoused by these experts has been widely criticised by international economists yet despite this it appears that they still retain the ear of DEA and on their advice the future of wild rhino will be determined.

Respected conservationist Colin Bell urges stakeholders that have a position to participate despite these concerns. “I don’t think it’s ever futile to participate. The minister (Edna Molewa) has been surrounded by people who are pro-trade orientated and that is all she’s ever heard. If you hear it often enough you begin to think it’s true,” explains Bell. “I don’t think the minister has ever been adequately briefed about the many compelling arguments against trade, nor considered the very real risk of a legal trade increasing demand or even the risk its pro-trade stance could have on South Africa’s reputation and branding internationally, and how this could affect our tourism industry.”

The final decision on the whether South Africa will or will not be allowed to trade rhino horn lies with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) an international governing body with 180 member countries who meet in 2016 in Cape Town. International opinion is against trade with the head of CITES John Scanlon, stating in a March interview that “ rhino horn, elephant ivory and tiger parts should not be traded commercially.” SA faces an uphill battle to garner the two thirds of votes required to obtain approval for trade, risking huge international embarrassment should the bid fail.

The road to CITES is a long one and is based on whether the DEA continues to pursue trading rhino horn, despite objections and international opinion against trade, or drop the case altogether. As Trendler points out, “We have learnt so much over the last three years, there’s been so much more research done, we know a lot more about the market, the uses, the risks and one hopes that will be taken into account.”

Main Photo: (Ian Turk)