On the horns of a dilemma

With poach­ers win­ning the war, should SA le­galise the trade in rhino horn?

Saturday Star - - OPINION -

A BABY rhino cry­ing next to its butchered and blood­ied mother as vul­tures cir­cle.

That is the emo­tive scene that doesn’t tug, but rips the heart­strings of any­one who is even vaguely con­ser­va­tion savvy, yet the slaugh­ter of rhi­nos con­tin­ues un­abated.

And loom­ing on the hori­zon is the equally emo­tive bat­tle as to whether le­gal trade in rhino horn should be al­lowed. Due to the huge se­cu­rity costs in pro­tect­ing rhi­nos, their value at auc­tions has all but col­lapsed. Most pri­vate game re­serves now re­move the horns on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

A meet­ing is be­ing held in Eswa­tini (Swazi­land) next Fri­day by Le­gal Trade For Rhino Sur­vival (LTRS), which will look at whether a le­gal cap­tive-bred rhino in­dus­try could be sus­tain­able, and whether it could save the species from ex­tinc­tion.

At­tend­ing this high-level get-to­gether will be Eswa­tini min­is­ters and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, diplo­matic corps mem­bers, sci­en­tists and some lead­ing con­ser­va­tion­ists.

This comes shortly af­ter China lifted its ban on the do­mes­tic trade of rhino horns and tiger bones for sci­en­tific, med­i­cal and cul­tural pur­poses.

Last Mon­day, the Chi­nese State Coun­cil an­nounced “un­der spe­cial cir­cum­stances, reg­u­la­tion on the sales and use of th­ese prod­ucts will be strength­ened and any re­lated ac­tions will be au­tho­rised, and the trade vol­ume will be strictly con­trolled”.

This will in­clude the use of pow­dered forms of rhino horns, and bones from dead tigers, to be al­lowed in qual­i­fied hospi­tals recog­nised by the Na­tional Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Tra­di­tional Chi­nese Medicine.

The an­nounce­ment caused shock waves across the global wildlife con­ser­va­tion in­dus­try, with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) ex­press­ing its “pro­found con­cern” and call­ing on China to main­tain the ban on rhino horn and tiger bone trade.

WWF Wildlife prac­tice leader Mar­garet Kin­naird said: “It is deeply con­cern­ing that China has re­versed its 25-year-old tiger bone and rhino horn ban, al­low­ing trade that will have dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences glob­ally.

“The re­sump­tion of a le­gal mar­ket for th­ese prod­ucts is an enor­mous set­back to ef­forts to pro­tect tigers and rhi­nos in the wild.”

The be­wil­der­ment over the Chi­nese move was also com­pounded by the fact that 10 months ago, China closed its do­mes­tic trade on ele­phant ivory, a move that got a big thumbs-up around the world and was seen as a ma­jor step for­ward in ele­phant con­ser­va­tion.

Save The Rhino In­ter­na­tional


de­scribed the Chi­nese un­ban­ning of cap­tive-bred rhino horn and tiger bones as “a Pan­dora’s Box that should never have been opened”, with chief ex­ec­u­tive Cathy Dean say­ing: “The ram­i­fi­ca­tions for this an­nounce­ment are huge. Not only is it show­ing China’s lack of sup­port for rhino con­ser­va­tion or putting an end to the il­le­gal wildlife trade, it cre­ates loop­holes for the il­le­gal rhino horn trade.”

She asked how, af­ter be­ing re­moved from of­fi­cial tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine lists 25 years ago, rhino horns and tiger bones could now be made avail­able for med­i­cal re­search?

“We fear this move is mo­ti­vated by money. The now open trade will make it much harder for law en­force­ment of­fi­cials tasked with tack­ling the de­mand for il­le­gal rhino horn.”

Un­der a Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species (Cites) agree­ment, in­ter­na­tional trade in rhino horn is banned. There are more than 180 sig­na­to­ries to Cites, with its next con­fer­ence sched­uled for May next year in Sri Lanka.

While some con­spir­acy the­o­rists may be­lieve there’s a pos­si­ble shady sub­ter­ranean link be­tween the Chi­nese an­nounce­ment and the LTRS meet­ing sched­uled for next week, Kwazulu-natal con­ser­va­tion le­gend Dr Ge­orge Hughes has put his sup­port solidly be­hind the move to le­galise in­ter­na­tional trade in rhino horn.

He has been out­spo­ken on the is­sue for many years, say­ing it is the only way to save the rhino from ex­tinc­tion.

“A le­gal trade would re­duce the il­le­gal trade, and at the same time would re­duce poach­ing pres­sure on for­mal pro­tected ar­eas and pri­vate sec­tor rhino hold­ings.

“The in­come de­rived from le­gal trade would ac­crue to both for­mal con­ser­va­tion agen­cies with le­gal horn re­sources, and most cer­tainly for the pri­vate-sec­tor own­ers, who have in­vested time and money in rhi­noc­eros man­age­ment,” he said.

Hughes added that once le­gal trade was es­tab­lished, “there would be a slight in­crease in de­mand be­cause of the fact that it would be le­gal. The rhino re­source in South Africa alone is large enough to cater for a much larger de­mand”.

He said that in many the province’s pri­vate re­serves, rhino horns were cropped every 18 months from liv­ing rhi­nos, which could pro­duce 1kg of horn.

Hav­ing been a pow­er­house at the for­mer KZN Parks Board, Hughes also lamented the killing of many rangers in the war on poach­ers.

It is es­ti­mated that well over 1 000 have died while pro­tect­ing rhi­nos and ele­phants in Africa.

“This is not what na­ture con­ser­va­tion is all about, and it is a tragedy that such things hap­pen in an ever-in­creas­ing fre­quency for a prod­uct that can be supplied with­out killing any­thing or any­body.”

Some cyn­i­cal com­men­ta­tors have said mas­sive prof­its from the le­gal trad­ing of horn would sim­ply move from il­le­gal poach­ing syn­di­cates to a few well-to-do pri­vate game farm own­ers.

Or is some out of the box think­ing re­quired to be the last-ditch plan in sav­ing the rhino ?

While the De­part­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Af­fairs was opaque in its re­sponse to the Chi­nese un­ban­ning of rhino horn trade, say­ing “dis­cus­sions will need to be held” with China, and that it (the South African gov­ern­ment) had “ef­fec­tive ac­tions” in place to com­bat rhino poach­ing, it was a fact that more rhi­nos were be­ing poached than were be­ing born.

Well-re­spected wildlife vet­eri­nar­ian Dave Cooper, who will be in New York next week to re­ceive an award from the Wild To­mor­row Fund for his tire­less ef­forts to save the rhino from ex­tinc­tion, said he also backed le­gal­is­ing the trade in rhino horns.

Hav­ing spent years at ground zero, he has first-hand knowl­edge of just how close to the abyss rhi­nos now stand. His ap­proach is prag­matic.

“It seems a pity to have to breed rhi­nos, but we are los­ing the fight. We can’t carry on the way we are now. The pri­vate sec­tor was very sup­port­ive of rhino con­ser­va­tion, but they are los­ing hope and dis­in­vest­ing, they just can­not sus­tain the huge se­cu­rity costs.

“Rhi­nos don’t have value any more as they are too ex­pen­sive to pro­tect. The last auc­tion I went to, hippo and buf­falo got higher prices.” .

Cooper high­lighted that the real chal­lenge would be reg­u­lat­ing the le­gal trade of horn, and that, if prop­erly done, it could pro­vide much-needed in­come for lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties and gov­ern­ment con­ser­va­tion bod­ies.

“It’s sus­tain­able util­i­sa­tion, the an­i­mal is not be­ing killed. It can be to ev­ery­one’s ben­e­fit if it’s done prop­erly and trans­par­ently. There must be in­cen­tive for com­mu­ni­ties in terms of a levy on the sale of the horn so that they are will­ing to pro­tect rhi­nos. It won’t be a cake walk. But those who are op­pos­ing this are those who haven’t ever been on the ground with the rhino.”

And he should know, he has at­tended more poach­ing scenes than any other vet in the coun­try. He and his team have felt the wrench­ing heartache every time they find a be­wil­dered baby rhino try­ing to cud­dle up to the blood­ied re­mains of its mother. All for a piece of horn.

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