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Swaziland’s rhino horn trade bid defeated at CITES – but what are the alternatives?

In the last of his series on the rhino horn trade debate, Professor Keith Somerville calls for a new and effective solution to protect these endangered animals. He says the ban on all trade, which has been in effect for 39 years, has not worked and maybe the answer is a more realistic mix that includes biting the bullet of adopting regulated trade that brings in funds to make conservation self-sustaining.

Swaziland’s proposal to trade in rhino horn has been decisively defeated by member states of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).

In a secret ballot on 3 October 100 members voted to reject the country’s request to sell its stocks of rhino horn and small annual quantities resulting from natural morality. Twenty-six voted for and 17 abstained. It is believed that Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe (which have the majority of Africa’s black and white rhinos) supported the Swazi bid, while states like Kenya, which has a small and threatened population, voted against.

According to Ted Reilly, who heads the country’s parks, Swaziland would have used the funds from the sale to increase protection and conservation measures and provide incentives for local people to support their efforts.

In an emotional speech to the conference in Johannesburg, he appealed for a vote in favour of the trade, reminding delegates of the financial and human and costs of protecting rhinos, notably the number of wildlife rangers killed by poachers. He said the ban wasn’t working and a regulated trade was the only answer.

Swaziland’s official bid claimed ‘proceeds from the sale of stocks will raise approximately $9.9 million at a wholesale price of $30,000 per kg. That amount will be placed in an endowment fund to yield approximately $600,000 annually’, which would make a huge difference to resources available for protection, development of wider conservation programmes in protected areas and benefit staff and local communities. Private rhino owners is South Africa are currently fighting their own government in the courts to get a moratorium on domestic trade in horn lifted. Their success would enable trade within South Africa but not legal exports of horn.

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Ted Reilly (left) on top of a 60 foot ranger watchtower in Mkhaya Royal National park, Swaziland

NGO’s welcome continued ban
Western conservation and animal welfare NGO’s were jubilant about the vote against Swaziland’s proposals. Kelvin Alie, director of wildlife trade at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), said ‘At a time when rhinoceros are more under threat than ever from poachers due to rapidly increasing black market prices in their horn, this decision by parties to deny Swaziland’s request to trade in white rhino horn is to be applauded.’ He didn’t, however, say how the fight to conserve rhinos could be sustainably financed without a legal trade.

The IFAW view and that of other NGOs is best summed up by a speech by Will Travers, head of the Born Free Foundation based in London. Debating the issue at London’s Royal Institution, he made it clear that he and many other NGO activists in the conservation field would never support a legal trade – even in natural mortality horn or horn removed without injury to the rhino to deter poachers from killing the animals (see The Conversation).

He believes Western governments and NGOs should finance conservation and enhanced anti-poaching in Africa range states – something which disempowers those states and hands power over their wildlife resources to NGOs and foreign governments. But this would add to local populations’ sense of alienation from wildlife. In addition, it may increase the likelihood that they will help poachers as they feel that have no power over their own wildlife and receive no benefit from it. Voicing the concern for a lack of sustainable income for conservation Tom Milken, the veteran monitor of international wildlife trade and its effects, said after the vote, ‘The underlying issue is, who pays for it?’

The answer is the NGOs that support a ban on all rhino horn trade. They are a major source of funds for conservation and use the funding, or the denial of it, to persuade countries to adopt anti-trade policies and move away from community-based, sustainable use approaches to wildlife. As the former head of the Natal Parks Board, David Cook and veteran South African conservationist John Hanks, told me recently, this approach denies countries like Swaziland, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, greater influence over rhino conservation policy and the chance for self-funding conservation and rural development.

What next?
The CITES vote against legal trade comes at a time when a brief period of optimism that the rate of poaching was being reduced by anti-poaching operations is being replaced by evidence of a sharp rise in poaching in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). Just before the CITES meeting opened Edna Molewa,  South Africa’s minister of environmental affairs, confirmed 702 rhinos had been killed in the country as a whole this year, compared with 796 in the same period last year. She said between January and August 458 poached rhino carcasses were found in Kruger compared with 557 in 2015. But there is growing evidence that poaching has not been halted. It has been diverted from Kruger to other areas – particularly the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in KZN.

On 23 September (Wold Rhino Day) the Hluhluwe Park reported that six rhinos had been found dead that day with their horns removed. This brought the number poached there to 113 this year – up 20 per cent on 2015. Twenty were killed in September alone. When I visited the park in early September, the head of rhino protection, Cedric Coetzee, said poaching gangs were switching to the park because of the tightening of security in Kruger National park and because, as I saw when I toured the park, the rhinos are easy to find. He said that whereas a poacher in Kruger might take two to three days to kill rhinos, in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi they could be in and out of the park in two to three hours having killed and removed the horns of several of the animals.

The KZN wildlife authorities are fighting back. Last month they announced that three poachers had been shot dead there. A spokesman for KZN Ezemvelo Wildlife (which runs the park) said in addition, so far this year rangers and the police had arrested 91 poachers, compared with 49 for the whole of 2015.

This demonstrates that with rhino horn fetching $65,000 a kilo in Vietnam and China, the illegal trade will persist. Poor rural dwellers, former professional hunters, corrupt ex-staff of wildlife parks and even some current wildlife personnel are part of a complex mix of people who work with criminal syndicates to poach rhinos and smuggle their horn. Anti-poaching patrols can kill or catch poachers but have had little success in smashing the syndicates, as Kruger Park’s chief ranger Nicholus Funda told me recently.

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Black rhino in Mkhaya Royal National Park, Swaziland

A more realistic mix, biting the bullet of adopting regulated trade that brings in funds to make conservation self-sustaining seems to me the only answer in the long run. The rejection of the Swazi bid will not end attempts to find solutions involving the reintroduction of legal and regulated trade, despite the emotively-expressed opposition of wildlife NGOs. Rhinos are in danger and new methods are needed, as the 39 years of a ban on all trade has not improved protection of the rhino. It has only created a continuing demand, hiked prices and encouraged poaching. Something new and effective is needed – fast!

3 Comments

  1. Michael Eustace says

    The CITES ban has not worked. All it did was to push the trade underground, where it thrives as a highly profitable criminal monopoly. South Africa could satisfy, sustainably, the demand for horn from stocks, natural deaths and harvesting horn, which re-grows. It is absurd not to support a regulated trade where Far Eastern governments collect taxes on the trade and have an incentive to close down the criminal trade. A “Smart Trade” may well not eliminate poaching but it would greatly reduce it.

  2. I quite agree Michael, the problem is that I have not found a fully joined-up approach to how a trade would work and this is an absolute necessity to win over those who might agree to a trade if its is properly regulated, monitored and cannot be easily used to launder illegal horn or the proceeds of the drug trade, people smuggling etc. Many of those controlling the smuggling and transport of poached horn between poachers and retailers/buyers in Vietnam and China are professional criminals linked to large and diffuse criminal networks or syndicates; they cannot be “legitimised” because rhino horn is not all they are involved in. I agree with the broad approach of having a Central Selling Organisation-type cartel saelling to registered buyers but much, much more work needs to be done and legitimate importers (countries as well as merchants/traders/sellers) need to be brought on side. Taking a view, as some I spoke to in South Africa and Swaziland recently did, that lets push for legalisation and then work out how we will trade rhino horn will not work in garnering international support and defeating the anti-trade arguments.

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