South Africa opens the door to the sale of wildlife parts


By Don Pinnock

There’s a thin line between the marketing of, and the genuine conservation of, wildlife. In the past few weeks that line was definitively crossed by the South African Department of Environmental Affairs.

Ignoring the findings of environmental organisations, its contractual compliance with CITES, a worldwide online petition and its own strategic plan for rhinos, the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) is about to open the door to the commodification of rhino horn. This follows the permitting of 800 lion skeletons a year to be exported for fake tiger-bone wine and regulations for the hunting of leopards as soon as the present year-long moratorium is lifted.

There is also an ongoing political spat concerning the “donation” of R100-million worth of animals from North West Province Parks to private individuals. The result of these moves means a good deal of money for well-placed individuals in the wildlife business.

Let’s start with rhinos. Last year, following the findings of a committee of inquiry into the feasibility of South Africa trading in rhino horn, the government announced that it was not in favour of this trade. Its position was reinforced at the CITES CoP17 meeting in Gauteng late last year where it was clear that a large majority of member states were against legalising the trade. The voting was 100 against, 26 in favour, with 17 abstentions on a proposal by Swaziland.

Last year the South African ban on rhino horn trade was challenged by private sector rhino breeders, who won on a technicality. The Environment Minister, Edna Molewa, took the result on appeal to the Constitutional Court and there it languished.

Then, on February 8, the South African government did a complete about-turn, announcing new draft regulations to permit legal internal trade in rhino horn and setting out conditions favourable for its export. If passed, each person will be able to buy, own, sell or export two rhino horns. The new regulations will render Molewa’s appeal redundant and is a total capitulation to the breeders. The public have 30 days from date of the gazette to make representations or objections.

But if it’s a capitulation, it’s been carefully framed. It brackets both black and white rhinos, though they have a different conservation status, and would permit the sale of two horns per person and their export by locals or foreigners as long as the conduit is OR Tambo Airport. It requires a freight agent and a raft of DNA, microchip and document checking which the DEA has no hope of administering. It will simply open the gate on wholesale laundering of poached horn by syndicates well versed in getting greedy officials onside.

You’d imagine the proposal would be related to hunting trophies, but though trophies are passingly mentioned, the proposal deals almost exclusively with horn as a commodity in itself and even discusses horn shavings, which have nothing to do with trophies.

Molewa seems unsure about how to explain the swerve to horn trade. She scheduled a briefing about it in Cape Town last week, changed it to Gauteng, then cancelled it altogether.

DEA biodiversity director Thea Carroll confused the matter even further. She told Chris Barron of the Sunday Times that the department’s decision was that a commercial trade in rhino horn “will not be introduced”. But a few questions further she said the DEA’s position was “to allow for domestic trade in rhino horn and to regulate that trade in rhino horn”. Excuse me?

The public is left with a number of questions:

  • Who did the minister consult in drawing up the draft regulations and how did she arrive at a figure of two horns per person?
  • How will an already stretched and under-funded regulatory and policing force cope with monitoring internal trade?
  • How will she ensure that the horns will not enter the illegal international markets?
  • And is this the first step towards South Africa putting forward a proposal for full international trade in rhino horn at the next CITES conference in 2019?


According to environmentalist Ian Michler, “There is no realistic way of ensuring that the two horns per person do not end up being traded. The follow-up regarding trophy horns taken to other countries has been pathetic.

“I don’t think any country, including the US, has ever systematically followed up on trophy hunters who have exported legally hunted horn out of South Africa to check that they still have them and have not sold them on. We should demand that the Minister present evidence of this follow-up and not just say that it’s happened.

There’s another problem with the proposal. It includes black rhinos in its scope, but these are listed as Appendix 1 by CITES so they (or parts of them) may not be traded internationally. But the DEA regulations would permit sale of their horns internally which, realistically, means exporters are sure to cheat because only a DNA test can tell the difference.

All this is hot on the heels of another startling proposal by the DEA: the sale of lion bones for the manufacture of fake tiger-bone wine. In a move clearly supporting the canned lion hunting industry, the DEA plans to permit the annual export of 800 skeletons for this purpose. It’s a lifeline to an increasingly discredited lion hunting industry that’s hurting following a US ban on the import of trophies from the country.

The move has come under fire from a wide array of local and international environmental organisations and follows an ongoing controversy about South Africa’s lion breeding industry that promotes cub petting, lion walks, canned lion hunting and the supply of lion body parts.

“The decision is misguided and shameful,” said Audrey Delsink, Africa’s director of Humane Society International. “Breeding captive lions is not only cruel and contrary to the global shift against captive wildlife, but is a potential threat to wild lions.”

Pippa Hankinson, the producer of the film Blood Lions, said the quota appears to lack the requisite scientific basis and was arrived at without consideration of proper welfare or conservation protocols. There was no formal document to support how the quota of 800 skeletons was arrived at or how it would be enforced.

“South Africa [is showing]complete disregard for the overwhelming response by key global conservation leaders calling for the termination of captive lion breeding,” she said.

According to Michelle Pickover of the EMS Foundation, there should be a moratorium on issuing any wildlife export permits because of the country’s extremely poor legislative and enforcement issues.

“The DEA does not know how the lion industry operates, who the breeders or bone traders are, how many lions are in the industry and how many ‘facilities’ there are.

“They leave this totally up to the industry itself. So it’s in essence secret and self-policed. There is also no transparency and this situation is worsened by massive corruption.”

For the DEA to think that farmed wildlife sale has no impact on those truly wild, it would have to ignore the fact that stimulating what are almost limitless Asian markets through the sale of limited goods soon bleeds into illegal procurement through poaching.

The leopard issue is more nuanced but equally worrying. There was celebration among environmental conservationists and no doubt grumbling among many farmers and hunters when the DEA accepted the negative non-detrimental finding (meaning it found it detrimental) to hunt leopards this year. But this was followed by legislation detailing how, when and where to hunt them as soon as the ban is lifted.

It’s worth stepping back from this legislative flurry and asking what’s going on here? A government department tasked with the protection of the environment appears to be engaged in assisting wealthy people to sell it bit by bit. Its reasoning appears to be its increasingly market-driven interpretation of sustainability, assisted, no doubt, by an industry keen to sell its wares. The core of the problem is an ambiguity in the definition in the Constitution.

While the Constitution states that citizens and future generations have the right to an environment protected from environmental degradation, it also promotes the “ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources”.

The former implies sustainable habitat protection in and of itself, the latter implies sustainability for human use. With regard to protection of a natural geographical area or to a wild species, they are not compatible.

Sustainable habitat protection recognises that life is a set of relationships that, over time, is self-regulating and that these relationships – in place and over time – are what it’s important to sustain as part or the fabric of life on this planet. This is the logic of true conservation, of wild parks left as much as possible to their own internal logic with minimal human interference.

Sustainable use is about the maximum you can crop without collapsing a system, species or herd. It’s essentially a farming concept applied to wildlife.

The DEA’s logic on the use of rhinos, lions, leopards or essentially anything under its protection is that these species only matter to the extent that they are useful to humans.

By this ethic, individual animals have no moral worth other than in terms of the money we can gain from their lives and their death. Sustainability is only about ensuring there will be species in the future that we can exploit.

Between legislative direction and eventual outcome, of course, lies the shadow. Sustainable use of high-value objects is soon undermined by a combination of oversight ineptitude, huge profits and a sophisticated criminal underworld alert to any gaps or weaknesses.

Poached rhino horn will soon sidle into legitimate sales, legitimate trophies will rematerialise in the East as high-priced products, lion skeleton quotas will be overtopped, CITES permits will be forged, officials will be bribed, leopard skins will become Shembe cloaks or floor mats in wealthy pads, and ivory poachers will benefit from shifty transit systems spiriting wildlife parts out of the country. All under the umbrella of sustainable use.

The question we are left with is why our environmental protection agency has increasingly shifted over into a market-enabling one. There are those who would seek the cause in brown envelopes passed beneath the table, but I suspect it’s a genuine belief by the DEA of the second interpretation of the constitutional imperative – sustainability for human use.

But if this is so, it needs to think deeply about who makes money out of rhino horn, lion skin or leopard pelt sales and vastly expensive hunts. It is certainly not “the people” defined in the Constitution. The biologist Ed Wilson warned us that “in the end, success or failure will come down to an ethical decision, one on which those now living will be judged for generations to come”.

That judgement, he added, may not be a positive one: “We have created a Star Wars civilisation with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.”

It’s now too late for concerned citizens to stop the lion bone regulations, but there are a few days left to object to the sale of rhino horn. It seems a good call.

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