Should rhino horn be traded? These two conservation stalwarts think so
It's the best way to save the rhino, they say as the debate on how to stop poaching resumes
With just six weeks until the bell sounds for the next round of a 41-year-old slugging match, two battered conservation veterans have re-entered the ring to push for rhino horn to be legally traded.
Dr George Hughes, a 79-year-old former game ranger and ex-head of the SA wildlife agency that rescued the southern white rhino from extinction, argues that selling rhino horns legally to China and other Eastern nations is the “unavoidable and pragmatic solution” to curbing the brutal annual poaching of more than 1,000 rhinos.
Sharing a platform at the closing session of a national conservation symposium near Pietermaritzburg last week, Hughes and former Zimbabwe Wildlife Department ecologist Rowan Martin spoke out against what they regard as well-intentioned but “disastrous” attempts to protect rhinos and elephants through rigorous global trade bans.
Hughes, retired chief executive of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and the Natal Parks Board, says rhino horn trading was banned in 1977 at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
“We have lost over 100,000 rhino in Africa since that ban, so you have to be out of your mind to think it has been a success.
“I am not a member of the CITES fan club. I have been to four meetings as a member of the SA delegation and it was extremely difficult talking to walls.”
Twenty years ago, at the 10th CITES meeting in Harare, SA pushed back against the horn trade ban, and lost by just a single vote.
Four years ago, late environment affairs minister Edna Molewa appointed a committee to advise on the possibility of pushing for a limited resumption of legal international trade in rhino horn at the 17th CITES meeting in Johannesburg in 2016.
Though the committee made a number of recommendations that did not rule out trading, Molewa did not put the issue to the test at the Johannesburg meeting, leaving Swaziland to submit a last-minute proposal that was soundly defeated.
Meetings of the 183 CITES member states are held at intervals of between two and three years, and now the bell is about to ring again for the 18th meeting in Sri Lanka in May 2019.
However, CITES requires proposed amendments to be submitted well in advance and, if SA is to submit another attempt to overturn the ban, a formal submission has to be submitted before Christmas Eve this year.
Hughes said he was “reasonably optimistic” that SA would submit another proposal to meet the deadline for the Sri Lanka meeting, but following the recent death of Molewa, acting environment minister Derek Hanekom has not given any firm signals on the matter.
Hughes believes the massive costs of fighting rhino poaching syndicates are unsustainable, noting that SA lost nearly 8,000 rhinos over the past 12 years to poaching.
In financial terms this translated to a loss of R2bn (based on a conservative estimate of R250,000 per rhino).
Additional security costs to combat poaching had cost another R2bn, excluding the expense of dehorning hundreds of rhinos at intervals of 18 to 24 months (at a cost of up to R10,000 per animal).
“Over 400 poachers have been killed over the last 10 years. This is not nature conservation. We don’t want to have to kill people to protect our rhinos. It is a bloody disgrace!” Hughes declared, departing from his normally measured tone.
“Every time we shoot a rhino poacher we make a thousand enemies. Now we hear some politicians claiming that the government cares more about rhinos than people ... So [if the trading ban was lifted] we seriously couldn’t be any worse off than we are now. I have spent half a century working with these animals and I would like a solution that allows them to continue to survive – in the wild, with their horns.”
The alternative, he suggested, was intensified costs for a perpetual form of fortress conservation in which wild rhinos are guarded 24 hours in smaller spaces that can be more easily defended against poachers.
Martin, who developed a community-based wildlife management project known as CAMPFIRE and who has also represented Zimbabwe at several CITES meetings, said he believed that sustainable and regulated trade in wildlife products would support conservation.
There seemed to be a widespread belief that no wild species should ever be traded under any circumstances, but this argument did not recognise the conservation success of captive-breeding and ranching projects that took poaching pressure off wild species such as ostrich, crocodile, salmon and trout.
Controversially, Martin concluded by suggesting that SA, Zimbabwe, Namibia and possibly Botswana should pull out en bloc from CITES at the next meeting if proposals to trade in ivory and rhino horn continued to be rejected.
“It would have a huge impact and it would get into every newspaper in the world,” he suggested.