CHINA has demon­strated to the world that the health of its cit­i­zens is of para­mount im­por­tance.

On Oc­to­ber 29, the Gov­ern­ment of China pub­lished a No­tice that it was re-open­ing do­mes­tic trade in rhino horn and tiger bones. The No­tice states that “rhino horns and tiger bones” must be used in “medic­i­nal re­search or heal­ing” and “can only be ob­tained from farmed rhi­nos and tigers, not in­clud­ing those raised in zoos”.

South­ern African coun­tries such as Eswa­tini, Namibia, South Africa and Zim­babwe have Cap­tive Breed­ing Op­er­a­tions (CBO) fa­cil­i­ties and CBO-sourced rhino horn stock­piles that they can sell to China.

Ar­ti­cle III of the UN Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species of Fauna and Flora (Cites) per­mits trade in oth­er­wise re­stricted wild an­i­mal parts for non-com­mer­cial pur­poses. The po­lit­i­cal par­ties in SADC coun­tries ought to recog­nise the so­cio-eco­nomic im­por­tance of the Chi­nese ini­tia­tive. SADC min­istries of en­vi­ron­ment need strong po­lit­i­cal sup­port. It was the African po­lit­i­cal par­ties that took the lead to fight against colo­nial op­pres­sion and ex­ploita­tion. The ANC also suc­cess­fully op­posed apartheid in South Africa and ended it.

Dr Mor­ri­son Mt­sam­biwa, one of Africa’s top ecol­o­gists and for­mer chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Ka­vango Zam­bezi Trans­fron­tier Con­ser­va­tion Area (where Botswana, Namibia, Zam­bia and Zim­babwe share their borders), praised China for tak­ing de­ci­sive ac­tion to buy rhino horn from CBO sources. He urged SADC po­lit­i­cal par­ties and gov­ern­ments to re­ject an­i­mal rights groups and an­nounce their readi­ness to sup­ply China’s needs.

A Hwange Ru­ral Dis­trict Coun­cil ecol­o­gist, Nx­ole­lani Ncube, said China’s re­open­ing of the rhino horn trade had made coun­tries with smaller rhino pop­u­la­tions “see the in­cen­tive for mas­sive breed­ing of white rhi­nos”.

The large an­i­mal rights groups – Save the Rhino Foun­da­tion In­ter­na­tional and the World Wide Fund for Na­ture (WWF) – in­stantly op­posed China’s ini­tia­tive, claim­ing that re-open­ing the rhino horn trade would in­crease poach­ing.

They still have not learnt the es­sen­tial les­son that a ban on in­ter­na­tional trade in wildlife prod­ucts has not stopped poach­ing af­ter more than 40 years of try­ing. Ein­stein is said to have ob­served that the sign of mad­ness is do­ing the same thing over and over again and ex­pect­ing a dif­fer­ent re­sult.

South­ern Africa needs to pay at­ten­tion to China’s lead in ex­er­cis­ing its sovereign right to buy rhino horn for the med­i­cal needs of its peo­ple.

Eu­gene La­pointe, for­mer Cites sec­re­tary-gen­eral (1982-1990) and pres­i­dent of the Switzer­land-based IWMC-World Con­ser­va­tion Trust, said: “We share a com­mon opin­ion with China… that the old or­der gov­ern­ing the trade in wildlife prod­ucts… is in need of ur­gent re­form.”

An­i­mal rights groups have for a long time been im­pos­ing their anti-wildlife prod­ucts trade agenda on Africa. Now it is time for SADC coun­tries to move for­ward. There­fore, it was strongly rec­om­mended to them at a meet­ing in Pre­to­ria in Au­gust 2018 that they should de­clare Cites de­ci­sions they deemed un­fair to their in­ter­ests as “null and void”, as the Cites treaty per­mits. In sup­port­ing the Chi­nese ini­tia­tive on rhino horns and tiger bones be­fore the 2019 Cites meet­ing, they will be tak­ing a fur­ther step to­wards align­ing them­selves with a wildlife pol­icy that makes sense to Africa.

Nearly ev­ery­one in SADC coun­tries knows that as long as rhi­nos do not have eco­nomic value to the peo­ple who live among them, there will be no need to pro­tect them from poach­ers. Giv­ing rhi­nos the kind of value the Chi­nese are now cre­at­ing pro­vides the rea­son to pro­tect them.

Koro is a Jo­han­nes­burg-based in­ter­na­tional award-win­ning en­vi­ron­men­tal jour­nal­ist

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