Why won’t South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs stand up for rhinos?


South Africa is playing a dangerous double game with rhinos, and it’s time to ask why. The South African Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) doesn’t appear to have a clue how to save these animals from impending extinction.

Last week the DEA presented to South Africa’s Parliament its future plans for rhino “protection.” After 84 PowerPoint slides and the drone of attempted explanation, Mohlopi Mapulane, the Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Environmental Affairs, delivered a stinging rebuke:

“We are running out of time. I am not satisfied with the answers of the department. We don’t have enough knowledge and a sufficient base to know what is supposed to be done. We don’t have enough information on the criminals. We are happy that the poaching numbers have slightly declined, but it’s not enough. We don’t know what will make it go down and this is what we need to discover. We need a solution and I did not hear any solutions this morning.”

His irritation is understandable. The DEA appears to be playing a double game and is tying itself in knots trying to explain it.

Part of the DEA’s presentation was on what it plans to present to the 2019 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Sri Lanka. According to the terms of the convention, rhinos fall under what’s known as Appendix 1, and may not be traded internationally for commercial gain.

A few meetings back, South Africa and Swaziland convinced CITES they had a robust rhino population and were granted an exception, allowing commercial trade of live rhinos under Appendix 11. What became clear in the parliamentary presentation is that the department now wants to push CITES further, asking to be allowed to trade in rhino horn as well.

in 2015, an extraordinary legal spat between the DEA and commercial rhino breeders ended with a judge lifting the ban on the domestic trade in rhino horn in South Africa on a technicality (he said the state had not followed due process regarding public consultation before imposing the moratorium). The DEA incurred about 15 million rand [over one million United States dollars] in legal costs appealing against this decision, but strangely has made no attempt to correct the technicality, which could surely have been done for a fraction of the cost.

Rhino horn only has value in Asian markets, but its trade is illegal under CITES. So why anyone would want to buy rhino horn in South Africa is hard to imagine, unless they wish to trade it illegally. In other words, legalizing horn sales within the country undoubtedly feeds illicit markets.

Example of a rhino horn and traditional Chinese medicine containing rhino horn. Image credit International Fund for Animal Welfare, CC BY-SA 3.0.

But wait! Could it be synchronicity or careful planning that this week saw China’s government announce that it would legalize domestic trade in tiger bone and rhino horn, reversing a 25-year-old ban? This new position will allow bone and horn products to be traded and used from captive-bred animals.

The DEA’s approach is what it calls “demand management.” There are more than a billion people in Asia. Not all of them buy rhino horn, of course, but even a small increase in the percentage wishing to do so would be disastrous to wild rhino populations. Selling legal horn will signal that it’s ethically acceptable to buy it, boosting sales. The stocks of the few rhino farmers and state horn stockpiles would soon be diminished and poaching of wild rhinos would rise from already shockingly high levels.

The only sensible approach is to reduce demand in every way possible. Without detailing how it intends to do so, the DEA told Parliament it would instead attempt to manipulate Asian consumer behavior to choose legal horn over poached horn. Plans for this mammoth Public Relations task were not detailed, but maybe the DEA knew that China planned to legalize bone and horn sales.

What’s clear is that the DEA is angling to increase the sale of rhino horn while cracking down on poaching — eliminating illegal trade while at the same time stimulating a parallel legal market. In simple terms, stop the bad guys so the good guys can make a profit. This has never worked, which is why CITES has called for the elimination of domestic ivory markets. Where legal markets exist, it has proved impossible to eliminate illegal markets.

A white rhino mother and calf, seen in South Africa. The mother has had her horn removed to deter poachers. As long as there is a demand for rhino horn, wild rhinos are in danger. Image credit Andy Morffew, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The DEA’s plan seems to be to keep the demand going until we are ready to supply the product. This has all the hallmarks of a war between poachers, backed by foreign syndicates, and rhino farmers, backed by the DEA. It’s all about who gets the money. The department claims its stance is in the interest of conservation and sustainability, but has absolutely no evidence to prove this.

Of course, there’s a hidden back story, and questions need to be asked. Was the 2015 court case, which opened the sale of rhino horn, a serious attempt by the DEA to prevent horn sales, or a cover story to allow it to permit sales without taking responsibility? Why is the department prepared to brook international criticism, particularly from CITES, for a position that is blatantly market-driven and not prioritizing conservation?

What is the current size of the government horn stockpile from confiscations and natural deaths? Right now it’s worthless unless international sales are permitted. If this is a part of what the DEA hopes to sell, it will go up against a CITES requirement that confiscated horns may not be sold.

It’s hard to imagine that, at the 2019 CITES Conference of the Parties (COP) in Sri Lanka, CITES will allow the sale of rhino parts. At the 2010 COP, the clause on trade in elephants was amended to include the “Closure of domestic ivory markets that contribute to poaching and illegal trade.” At the 2016 COP, Swaziland’s proposal for unlimited trade in white rhinos was roundly rejected, and resolutions favored reduction of demand, not “demand management.”

A rhinoceros sculpture used during the opening ceremony of the CITES COP 2016 in Johannesburg, South Africa, with musician in background. Image credit GovernmentZA, CC BY-SA 3.0.

But parties at COP are known to trade favors (a pro whale hunt vote for a pro rhino trade vote, for example). South Africa got around the 2016 COP resolution forbidding the export of wild lion bones by permitting export from captive lion breeders. Why, exactly, did the DEA permit an annual quota of 1,500 lion skeletons? As a result, there are now lion slaughterhouses, with some breeders happy to grossly underfeed their lions because only their bones are needed.

Positions like these align with the purely commercial goals of mainly independent operators and have little to do with the DEA’s core function of conservation. As justification, the department cites sustainable utilization, a term increasingly used by trophy hunters that sanctions the often extremely cruel practices by game farmers as “conserving” lions.

In his dissatisfaction with the DEA’s parliamentary submission, the always-insightful chair, Mapulane, stuck his knife in precisely the right place: “You cannot ignore that the more Asian countries become rich, the more the illegal demand grows. How are you going to deal with this?”

Mapulane went on to say that the time had come to rethink the whole notion of sustainability: “I think ultimately this is what needs to change.”

Read the original article here.

Featured image: A black rhinoceros. The market for rhino horn is a key piece of why this species is critically endangered today. Image credit Lawrence OP, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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