Pres­sur­ing the poach­ers

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

At one of Hanoi’s prici­est restau­rants, a group of Viet­namese busi­ness­men meet their new Amer­i­can part­ners to cel­e­brate their lat­est ven­ture. “A toast!” some­one ex­claims. They raise their glasses, filled with the finest scotch, which has been sprin­kled with a fine pow­der. Not gold pow­der, as lesser moguls might of­fer, nor even the purest co­caine. No, this is far rarer and costlier: it is pul­verised white rhino horn.

A half-cen­tury ago, white rhi­nos abounded in Africa. To­day, the In­ter­na­tional Union for the Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture es­ti­mates that only 25,000 still roam the con­ti­nent, mostly in South Africa, with a hand­ful in Namibia and Kenya. The pop­u­la­tion of ele­phants – an­other of Africa’s most iconic an­i­mals – is also dwin­dling fast, hav­ing fallen from 10-20 mil­lion a half-cen­tury ago to just 470,000 to­day.

The prox­i­mate cause of th­ese pre­cip­i­tous de­clines is poach­ing. But the real rea­son is those busi­ness­peo­ple in Asia. Thanks to de­mand from peo­ple like them, the go­ing rate for ele­phant tusk in Asian mar­kets is around $1,500 per pound. Rhino horn fetches $45,000 or more. With prices like th­ese, it is no sur­prise that poach­ing has be­come a $20 bil­lion mega-busi­ness, reach­ing high into the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship of many African coun­tries.

The World Wildlife Fund es­ti­mates that roughly 400 tons of ivory – taken from about 50,000 ele­phants – was traf­ficked in 2013. There are now about 50,000 ele­phants left in all of Cen­tral Africa. Far­ther east, Tan­za­nia’s ele­phant pop­u­la­tion de­clined by two-thirds, or more than 25,000 an­i­mals, from 2009 to 2014, while Mozam­bique’s fell by 40%. All of Mozam­bique’s white rhi­nos have al­ready been wiped out.

Con­ser­va­tion­ists have been sound­ing the alarm for years. But the poach­ing in­dus­try has only grown. Far from a bowand-ar­row af­fair car­ried out by lo­cal tribes, it has be­come a kind of mech­a­nized war­fare, fea­tur­ing gangs equipped with AK-47s, elec­tronic track­ing gear, and some­times even he­li­copters. This in­dus­trial-scale de­struc­tion of an­i­mal species is en­abled – in­deed, en­cour­aged – by col­lu­sion with na­tional park au­thor­i­ties and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials.

The num­bers clearly il­lus­trate this trans­for­ma­tion. In South Africa, Save the Rhino In­ter­na­tional re­ports that poach­ers killed 1,215 rhinoceroses last year – one ev­ery eight hours – com­pared to just 13 in all of 2007. At this rate, the or­gan­i­sa­tion predicts, deaths will over­take births as early as next year, mean­ing that, for South African rhi­nos, ex­tinc­tion is not far off.

The mil­i­tari­sa­tion of poach­ing makes it in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult for con­ser­va­tion groups to pro­tect an­i­mals, even within wildlife sanc­tu­ar­ies. For ex­am­ple, armed guards must pa­trol Kenya’s Ol Pe­jeta Con­ser­vancy 24 hours a day to shel­ter the 133 rhi­nos liv­ing there (the largest herd in East Africa, and one that in­cludes three of the world’s last four north­ern white rhi­nos).

But there is rea­son for hope. Last month, Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping and US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama agreed to im­pose a near-to­tal ban on the ivory trade. While the agree­ment will not be im­ple­mented overnight, it rep­re­sents im­por­tant progress, not only be­cause China is the world’s largest ivory con­sumer, but also be­cause this is the first time that the US and China have made a spe­cific joint com­mit­ment to pro­tect wildlife.

There is also progress on the ground. In Kenya, rhino poach­ing fell by nearly half last year, claim­ing only 34 of 1,024 rhi­nos; in the first nine months of this year, poach­ers killed only six rhi­nos. Fewer of the coun­try’s ele­phants are be­ing killed as well. In 2013, roughly 60% of the coun­try’s ele­phants died at the hands of poach­ers; this year, that pro­por­tion has been about one-third – a sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment, if hardly a pretty pic­ture.

In Kenya, this progress can be ex­plained partly by the need to re­vive tourism, which has been badly eroded by se­cu­rity threats in the last two years. But it may also be a re­sponse to grow­ing global scru­tiny. As Richard Vigne, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Ol Pe­jeta, put it, the gov­ern­ment “got em­bar­rassed.” Re­in­forc­ing this in­ter­pre­ta­tion is the re­cent re-ap­point­ment of Richard Leakey, the no-non­sense con­ser­va­tion­ist who founded the Kenya Wildlife Ser­vice, to head the agency.

An­other ma­jor driver of progress in Kenya has been a strate­gic shift at the lo­cal level. Many of the coun­try’s pri­vate con­ser­van­cies (which ri­val its na­tional parks in terms of wildlife) have aban­doned their old “fortress men­tal­ity,” which pro­hib­ited hu­man in­cur­sions, in favour of a com­mu­nity ap­proach. Ol Pe­jeta, for ex­am­ple, al­lows herders to graze their cat­tle within its bor­ders dur­ing the dry sea­son; in ex­change, the herders and their com­mu­ni­ties must re­port poach­ers in the area.

This in­no­va­tive ap­proach to polic­ing has al­ready pro­duced re­sults. Ol Pe­jeta has not lost an ele­phant in many years, and only a very few rhi­nos have been killed.

Ac­tion at the in­ter­na­tional, na­tional, and com­mu­nity lev­els is of course good news. But if poach­ing is to be lim­ited to the point needed to en­sure the long-term sur­vival of Africa’s rhi­nos and ele­phants, ac­tion must also be taken at the in­di­vid­ual level. Peo­ple – say, those wealthy Asian busi­ness­peo­ple, or their Western part­ners – must not only refuse to pur­chase prod­ucts de­rived from poach­ing; they must also re­ject them when they are of­fered.

Just as fin­ger-point­ing helped to spur real ac­tion by Kenya’s gov­ern­ment, in­di­vid­ual sham­ing could help bury the point­less tra­di­tions that fuel poach­ing. Add to that ef­forts to give lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties a shared stake in saving en­dan­gered wildlife, and one has all of the el­e­ments of an ef­fec­tive strat­egy – call it “blame, shame, and share.” With ele­phant and rhino pop­u­la­tions dwin­dling fast, there is no time to waste in im­ple­ment­ing it.

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