Secret panel will decide on future of South Africa’s rhinos
Cindy Tilney
22 September, 2014

The contentious issue of whether South Africa will apply to trade legally in rhino horn remains in the hands of a mystery Panel of Experts (PoE) which South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) is refusing to identify. The DEA announced earlier this year that it had appointed the PoE, but since then has consistently refused to identify the so-called experts and the basis on which they were selected, raising questions around whether the PoE is a truly objective body, or simply a puppet panel designed to push through the government’s proposal to apply for legalisation of the rhino horn trade.

At a parliamentary media briefing last month, the Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, again refused to divulge the names of the panel’s members, claiming that they were still undergoing a security investigation to confirm their suitability for the Panel. Only once they have been fully vetted will the DEA announce their names publicly, said Molewa. However, sources in the conservation arena have revealed that the PoE has already met on a number of occasions and have identified six of the 10 members as Fundisile Mketheni, Dr Mike Knight, Dr Sam Ferreira, Pelham Jones, Keith Lockwood, Mike ’t Sas-Rolfes – all of whom are vehemently pro-trade.

Terri Stander, Shadow Deputy Minister of Environment for the DA, called for the government to break the secrecy surrounding the PoE saying, “The Minister has consistently referred to this panel in her statements as being in operation since January 2014. I do not accept that a vetting process takes place after appointment and that such a process can last 9 months.” Stander then called for Minister Molewa to ‘act responsibly’ by providing the names, qualifications and affiliations of each of the members, as well as details of the process followed to identify and select them. She also questioned when the report would be concluded, and whether it would be made public.

‘It would be deeply concerning if the committee consisted of only ‘pro-trade’ or ‘anti-trade’ experts. We need a very robust, scientific discussion about the rhino horn trade in order to come up with a concrete plan on this important question,’ said Stander.

In South Africa this year alone, 771 rhinos have been slaughtered for their horn, making it clear that the government is losing the war against poaching. But despite repeated calls from conservationists for the government to amend legislation to enforce harsher sentences for poachers, less flexibility around granting of bail and properly engage with Mozambique and Vietnam the government has failed to address these crucial issues, instead gambling on legalising rhino horn trade to save the rhino.

Main Photo: (Michael Lorentz)