The Rhino Wars
I have heard the sounds made by a wounded rhino, seen hapless calves defending the corpses of their dead mothers against the pangas of the poachers. The fight for the survival of the species is a war, and the casualties are piling up. Statistics reveal that the poaching syndicates are now slaughtering more rhino than the number of calves being born. This may be a “tipping point” in the struggle of the species for survival.
The SA statistics are illuminatingly gloomy: 668 poached in 2012, 1004 in 2013 and already 558 poached by July 2014. What then is the economically and ecologically sustainable solution to the situation? The concept “sustainable” is an overworked and often meaningless one. Adam Werbach says in his book, Strategy For Sustainability, “A sustainable business means thriving in perpetuity”. He goes on to say that true sustainability has four co-equal components: Social (acting as if other people matter); Economic (operating profitably); Environmental (protecting and restoring the ecosystem, and Cultural (protecting and valuing cultural diversity).
Given the context of rhino poaching on a wholesale basis, the social aspect of this definition needs to be expanded to embrace all that live, including both animals and people.
The strategies for curbing poaching are many and varied. Most of the slaughter has taken place in the Kruger National Park. Some argue for the dehorning of rhino in all large reserves, but the cost of doing so would seem to be prohibitive. In smaller reserves that are privately owned this strategy is resorted to in order to save not only the rhinos but also the staff who work with them. The trouble here is that this operates as a disincentive to ownership of rhinos. Who wants to keep, visit or photograph a rhino that has no horn?
Then there is the notion of taking the fight to the poachers. Nearly half of the SA rhino population is found in the Kruger Park, an area the size of Israel. 72% of all rhino poached in 2011 where in the Kruger Park. This year alone, 242 of the 350 rhinos butchered have been in the Kruger. So the issue is: can the authorities effectively, economically and efficiently police so large an area with a view to stopping the poachers in their tracks? As an Honorary Sanparks Ranger, I have been directly involved in training game rangers in the combat skills they need to confront poachers.
So, we are taking the fight to the poachers. However, escalating the war against the poachers will push up the value of horn and thus incentivise subsistence farmers and war veterans in Mozambique to take their chances on the rich pickings available because of the insatiable demand for horn.
The idea of educating the end users of rhino horn, most of whom live in China, Laos and Vietnam is problematic. They regard the horn as a traditional medicine. Changing a long tradition, one which may have no more than a powerful placebo effect, is a big ask. Even if as few as 1% of the population of China use horn it means that 13,5 million customers are out there seeking rhino horn. While Malherbe does not dismiss the notion that education can help, it is a long term project and the rhino need more urgent assistance.
I am not convinced that poisoning the horn is a solution either. Implemented after research into the idea of using ectoparasiticide to put off purchasers, the treatment costs between R8000 and R12000 per rhino, depending on terrain, numbers and the possible use of helicopters in the exercise. Naturally, the price of unpoisoned horn would rise if poisoning is resorted to widely. However, the ornamental use of horn is growing, as it is used for jewellery and dagger handles, so poisoning the horn is no deterrent.
Then there is the thorny issue of legalising the trade in rhino horn. In 1977 CITES put a ban on the trade in rhino horn. This ban, like prohibition before it, serves to fuel the organised crime that flourishes whenever a ban is put on the sale of any sought after commodity. Southern Africa could supply as many as 676 horns a year from the naturally caused deaths of rhino. Moreover, horn stockpiles amount to about 5,000 horns. It these are trickled into the market at a suitable and controlled rate then, according to the research Malherbe relies on, it would take 19 years to exhaust the supply at present rates of demand. However, for international trade in rhino horn to be legalised, CITES needs to approve a change in its rules. For this to occur 66% of the 175 member countries of CITES or 116 countries need to be persuaded to vote in favour of the change. Another big ask.
I believe CITES is driven more by political game playing than by logic. A lot of hard lobbying will be needed in the run up to the next CITES conference in Cape Town in 2016. We need to learn from the mistakes that were made by the once off selling of stockpiles of elephant tusks. The buyers in China and Japan colluded to keep the price low. They are now selling off the stockpiles sold at huge profits. We need to be able to sell horn off at low volumes, add the value in Africa, so that it can be re-invested into rhino conservation and create jobs.
Hunting as a form of conservation is a potential source of revenue to support the continued existence of the rhino as a species. The Professional Hunters Association of SA claims that the hunting industry brings in revenue of R8 billion per annum and that about R 7 million goes directly towards conservation projects. I spoke to the director for Wildlife Management at the University of Pretoria, Professor Wouter Van Hoven, who explains that in 1965 Africa’s wildlife was decimated with only some 500,000 animals left. Trophy hunting was used to kick start game ranching. Today there are about 20,000,000 animals – a 40 fold increase, due in large measure to the popularity of hunting. Only 100 legitimate rhino hunts are allowed annually, they bring about R90 million back into conservation. Only non-reproductive cows and old bulls are legally hunted. This promotes sustainability along with the tourism and ownership value of rhinos.
If government were to invest heavily in the destruction of the crime syndicates that drive rhino poaching along with a host of other illicit activities then a viable solution to the situation is possible. The political will to get serious about the downside of organised crime needs to be generated in order to put a stop to a form of crime that is not only dangerous to the survival of the rhino, but also threatens to fell at the knees the form of society contemplated in our Constitution.
What can we each do as individuals to fight this war?
There is no such thing as a single solution. We need to work together – if we unite all the rhino action groups and strategies we will have a powerful army, with which to mobilise mass action. Research the subject so that you have an well-informed opinion. Lobby governments, organisations to take action. Spread the word. Name and Shame. Know where your money is going when donating to various rhino causes so that you can be sure it directly benefits rhino conservation.
Do One Thing (DOT) to make a difference, and get involved in some way in the fight to save our rhino.