SA’s rhinos: Not worth the price of a ticket to London?
Sharon van Wyk
20 Feb 2014
The State of the Nation address provided a perfect smokescreen to hide South Africa’s real reasons for not attending last week’s crucial gathering on poaching.

The government has finally let the proverbial cat out of the bag with the issuing of a media statement concerning the reasons why South Africa did not attend the pivotal London Conference on the illegal Wildlife Trade, which took place in the British capital last week.

The watershed conference, under the auspices of the British government, culminated last Thursday (13 February) in the signing of a hard-hitting declaration by 46 attending nations in a commitment to stem the tide of poaching which is killing thousands of Africa’s elephants and rhinos and other endangered species each year. It was attended by heads of state and high-ranking ministers from across the world and a glittering cast of royalty and concerned celebrities.

The statement issued on Tuesday by the Department of Environmental Affairs says that “unfortunately, South Africa could not be represented at a political level at the conference due to the opening of parliament.” But what follows in the same statement actually shows that reason to be nothing short of a failed attempt at subterfuge… Commenting on the ground-breaking London Declaration, Minister of the Environment Edna Molewa says that it is “in conflict with existing South African policy”. This is because it supports an outright, permanent ban on all trade in ivory and rhino horn, and the South African government is actively pursuing the legalisation of trade in rhino horn so that it can profit from stockpiles, which currently sit at more than 20 tons.

This means that had Molewa gone to the London conference she would not have been able to sign the declaration, leaving her with egg on her face and South Africa publicly shamed.

It seems that the wheels fell off South Africa’s involvement in the London conference before it even took place, when what Molewa describes as “political and technical discussions” between South African and Britain fell short of her mandate to pursue aggressively a legalised trade at the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP 17) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which takes place in 2016.

The discussions “failed to deliver agreement on a number of fundamental policy matters”, states Molewa. “Among others, this included the intended adoption of parties agreeing not to trade in wildlife products or the sustainable utilisation of natural resources, which would be in conflict with existing South African policy.”

Dressed up under the banner of “sustainable utilisation of natural resources” it’s a policy which threatens to make South Africa a pariah in the global conservation community, which is firmly committed to destroying stockpiles of ivory and rhino horn and stopping all forms of trade.

Molewa, however, is adamant that a legal trade is the only way forward, ostensibly in the name of helping to fight the unprecedented systematic slaughter of the same species she has spectacularly failed to protect.

The government’s policy is supported by several high-profile private individuals, who have much to gain financially, should South Africa be successful in its bid to have trade in horn legalised. One of those individuals is rhino farmer John Hume, who breeds the animals in the hope that he will one day be able to harvest their horns and sell them. This, he believes, is the only way to save the species. It’s also a way for him to make an incredible amount of money. And it’s that whiff of money which has doubtlessly tickled the nostrils of government, who have been sold on a plan to “sustainably utilise” rhino which could possibly also benefit communities – the same communities up in arms over the government’s inability to deliver on its promise of basic services and amenities.

It’s a flawed plan, based on supposition and economic thumb-sucks dressed with the appealing caveat of appeasing disenchanted communities in the process. More importantly, it’s a dangerous plan, one which the rest of the world has turned its back on and which now leaves South Africa morally isolated.

In the DEA’s statement, Molewa says that South Africa is fighting against rhino poaching, and not against “sustainable utilisation”. “Any default policy change leading to non-utilisation, done in the name of anti-poaching, is clearly problematic as it goes against our principles of sustainable utilisation,” she states.

Clearly the rest of the world disagrees, and is leaving South Africa devoid of support as it moves forward in the wake of the London conference. African nations like Gabon, Chad and Botswana are now taking up the mantle of leadership in the battle to save Africa’s iconic flagship species while South Africa seeks short-term profit from them – even though many economists believe that creating a legal market for ivory will allow criminal syndicates to expand demand and launder their illegal stocks through legal markets.

South Africa’s approach to the crisis has been coloured by its inability to adequately protect rhinos, largely due to a woeful lack of political will. This in turn has given impetus to its plans for a legal trade worth billions of Rands. It’s a troubling conundrum nobody wants to address, but one which surely needs to be tackled as the ink dries on the London Declaration.

Award-winning writer and film-maker Sharon van Wyk was born in England but fell in love with Africa at an early age, spending large parts of her childhood in Kenya, South Africa and what is now Zimbabwe. She began working in journalism in the early 1980s, with stints on newspapers and magazines in the UK before moving back to South Africa permanently in 1990, where she served a 10-year term at the Pretoria News before striking out as a freelancer, working regularly with the Mail & Guardian and Africa Geographic whilst contributing to a wide variety of newspapers, magazines, periodicals and digital platforms.

Sharon specialises in conservation and tourism and the inter-relationships between the two and is the recipient of a Siemens Profile Award for science writing and a Kudu Award for environmental journalism. A former tour operator, she also served as chairperson of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association’s Gauteng chapter.