Once found throughout southern Africa, the southern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) was widely considered to be extinct by the late 19th century… Trophy hunters and traders had shot them out of existence. A small population was discovered in the Umfolozi-Hluhluwe region of Kwazulu-Natal (South Africa) in 1895. The global population increased slowly but never recovered. Another collapse to a few hundred white rhinos occurred by the 1980s. Decades of poaching, bush wars and instability within their, by then, restricted distributional range had annihilated most local populations. At the time the largest-remaining population of white rhino was still KwaZulu-Natal. Surprisingly the second largest population on earth at the time was Texas.
Today, there are around 20,000 free-living white rhinoceros. They are classified as Near Threatened - the last-remaining non-endangered rhinoceros species. Alarmingly, this year we may lose as many as 1,000 rhinos in the Kruger National Park (South Africa) alone. Worse still, at some point in March or April this year the last of 300 rhino living in the Mozambican side of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (adjoining Kruger) was shot. Almost every week new carcasses are discovered. Even worse are the now regular discoveries of rhinos dying of shock and blood loss after waking up to find their horn removed by a chainsaw. Once again we need to react or we stand to lose free-living rhinos in Africa. Is the sale of R1 billion (or $100 million) of stockpiled rhino horn the way to react?…
South Africans care about rhino conservation!
South Africa has always been at the forefront on rhino conservation from the beginning. My most important personal experience as a kid was tracking rhino near the Kruger National Park. Getting close, hiding behind a termite mound, holding my breath… I had been in the presence of a wild rhino in the African bush and this changed my life. Here in South Africa the government and general public are committed to solving this problem. The media is counting every rhino death. Charitable donations are rolling in. We have no choice. We have to do something now. Every month the total number of rhinos killed climbs even higher. Conservation authorities and private landowners are setting up anti-poaching units armed with the latest weapons and reconnaissance technology. Drones are being deployed. Interpol and customs authorities are coordinating efforts to halt the smuggling of rhino horn into important markets like Hong Kong, Singapore, China, and Japan. Still, year on year, the total number of rhino deaths increases…
Why can’t we stop the killing of rhinos?
Do we need more funding?
Is it politics?
Is it human rights?
Is the sale of R1 billion (or $100 million) of confiscated rhino horn the solution?
Is this not a bit like a Cape Parrot conservationist selling wild Cape Parrots to fund conservation or a swordfish conservationist selling swordfish?
Do we need wild rhinos in Africa?
Will selling $100 million of rhino horn at market price grow the market to a size that we cannot control?
To sell or not to sell?
In 2008, the Convention in Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) gave the go ahead for the legal sale of ivory stockpiles by four southern African countries to China and Japan. Within a year elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade boomed to its highest levels in history. More than 25,000 elephants were slaughtered in Africa last year. Gabon lost 11,000 forest elephants. They could be extinct in the Democratic Republic of Congo within a decade. This reads like statistics from a war zone. Are we going back to the dark days of the 1980s and 90s when hundreds of thousands of elephant and rhino were massacred. This slaughter annihilated wildlife populations throughout Africa. We have still not recovered from this uncontrolled killing.
When ivory stockpiles were sold to China and Japan, the word put out by ivory traders in China and Japan was that there was now a legal source of elephant ivory. The message brought home by customers was “elephant ivory is now legal” – an easy way to remember a confusing message. Why would the authorities sell ivory and rhino horn if it was not legel? The wholesale price per kilogram of ivory tripled from ¥4,500 to ¥15,000 between 2006 and 2011. Organized crime was attracted by the lucrative practice of laundering illegally-sourced ivory through legal markets. Their involvement has boomed. Grace Gabriel, Asia Regional Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), points out: “CITES (ivory) stockpile sales were supposed to reduce the illegal trade and the slaughter of elephants by saturating the market with legal ivory; but in fact, the exact opposite has occurred.” She went on to say: “Legal ivory imports have provided opportunities for illegal ivory to be “whitewashed” in China. The insatiable demand for ivory as an investment has tripled the wholesale price of ivory. Massive currency influxes have created a lethal combination that is decimating wild elephant populations.”
At the 178-nation CITES meeting in Bangkok this year, Burkina Faso and Kenya cited the “merciless slaughter of elephants” in support of a pledge not to sell ivory and rhino horn stockpiles before 2016. The proposal was, however, rejected due to being “legally flawed”. South Africa has since supported the sale of ivory stockpiles, thus ratifying the existing trade in rhino horn as a health tonic, aphrodisiac, and unproven cure for cancer. This stance accepts the market price for rhino horn and any mass sale would fuel a market that could grow to hundreds of millions of people if ivory and rhino horn is perceived to be legal.
Asking rhinos to save rhinos…?
By selling rhino horn we are transferring the responsibility for funding rhino conservation to rhinos. Private landowners used to invest in rhino, but rhino horn and trophies have limited value today due to the CITES bans. Coupled with very high poaching levels, a sound past investment is now a liability and very risky. Around $100 million cannot be ignored on a continent searching for funds and investment to better manage land and natural resources. A catch-22. Dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t. Do we actually need $100 million to save rhinos in Africa? Should we allow private landowners sell “harvested” rhino horn? Can modern society not see a way to properly fund the protection of rhinos and other endangered species based on their intrinsic value? Is it a case of out of sight, out of mind? Why should we care about the welfare of a species or place that we will never see or interact with? Has the world moved on?
Africa unite behind wildlife conservation!
There are less than 50 West African lion and the global population has now dipped below 30,000. Nearly a century ago there were over 200,000 lions living in the wild in Africa. Lions have vanished from over 80% of their historical range having gone extinct in 26 countries. Lion populations are not secure anywhere and only 7 countries, including Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, have more than 1,000 lions. Lions and people do not mix. They are being hunted for trophies and persecuted by farmers. The lack of tigers has established a thriving trade in lion bones for “tiger bone wine”. West African rhino are almost extinct with less than 5 remaining. West African leopards are rarely seen. Hippopotamus, giraffe, buffalo, cheetah, wild dog, and almost everything else has disappeared from much of their historical range. We are just about to pull the trigger on our wildlife resource, following all other nations that have chosen a rapid development path with few restrictions on mining, logging and natural resource use. Like the United States through most of the 20th century, China is now the most polluted country on earth. The air and the water has become toxic, reducing the life expectancy of Chinese by over 5 years. Do we want this in Africa? Do we want to lose the main thing that makes us special, the amazing wilderness areas that still remain. Millions of tourists come to Africa to see how the world used to be. Amazing wildlife, clean air and intact ecosystems. Africa needs to be proud of our natural heritage and protect what we have left.
How big will the market get?
The sale of massive stockpiles of rhino horn and ivory will bring in welcome funding for wildlife conservation. We will be able to pour millions of dollars into the establishment of new conservation areas for rhino and boost law enforcement. There are, however, huge risks when flooding the market with a valuable, storable commodity like ivory and rhino horn. Syndicates buy it all and manage supply. We have no idea how big the potential market for ivory and rhino horn really is? China alone has more than 1.3 billion people. Some human population experts put China’s population at over 2 billion! How can you possibly census over 1 billion people? If we continually kickstart “legal trade” in ivory and rhino horn, we need to prepare for the day when overpowering market demand and soaring price tags accelerate current rates of elephant and rhino poaching. We could create a market that we cannot control and shoots this iconic species to extinction.
At least 50% of the funds raised from the sale of rhino horn and ivory must be invested into accreditation systems, forensic investigation, detection at borders, policing and prosecution in source countries and end markets, and education programs for schools and general public in most significant markets for products from ivory and rhino horn. We need to be very serious about how income from the sale of rhino horn is spent. We need to be ready for the reaction from the market and make sure all funds raised go directly to active conservation, anti-poaching, new protected areas, education programs for schools, and media campaigns for the general public.
Can we police the ivory and rhino horn trade forever?
As long as we support this trade by selling stockpiles at market prices, the next generation and the generation after them is going to have monitor and police the ivory and rhino horn trade and the associated poaching forever. As global populations reach unbelievable levels with 9 billion approaching fast there are some things that we will just have to do without. These includes rhino horn, ivory, whale blubber, bear skins, tiger bone wine, big cars, air conditioning, coal power, red meat, burgers, baths, and much else. We are in a rapidly changing world. We must now decide whether our perfect future includes free-living rhinoceros, elephants, lions, tigers, polar bears, bison, wolves, blue whales, California condors, dugongs, and hyacinth macaws, or not? I would like to think it does…