The Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA) voiced strong concerns against trade as it risks exposing our few remaining rhinos to heightened poaching pressure.
The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) is considering requesting international wildlife trade regulator CITIES to allow restricted trade in rhino horn. It has established the Committee of Inquiry, a panel of trade, law and conservation experts to advise it on this proposal. DEA’s stance on this matter was evident when they elected a panel heavily weighted with pro-trade advisors, but later included more no-trade proponents after many conservation NGOs complained of its obvious bias. On Thursday, 26 and Friday, 27 March, the Committee of Inquiry heard public submissions from stakeholders and concerned organisations on this proposal that will have far reaching implications for conservation, community development and international relations.
WESSA warns that the current trade proposal carries an unacceptably high risk of being corrupted by the poaching syndicates and illegal horn traders, and that re-opening legal trade will encourage a growth in horn consumer demand and speculation buying. This will undoubtedly exacerbate rhino poaching above current levels, as was the case with the CITES approved once-off sales of elephant ivory in 1999 and 2008. Those ivory sales were intended to undercut the illegal ivory trade prices and hence discourage poaching, as well as to divert the illegal trade revenue into legally benefiting the conservation agencies that are protecting elephants. This is what pro-traders also intended with rhino horn trade. But global evidence shows that the very opposite occurred, with considerable stockpiles of poached ivory being laundered through loopholes in the legal ivory sales chain. It also relaxed social acceptance of ivory ownership in consumer countries, which in turn stimulated market demand for ivory. The Born Free Foundation reports that between 2008 and 2013 an estimated 30,000 and 50,000 elephants were poached each year.
WESSA is convinced that the South African authorities, authorities of other range and consumer states and CITES are highly unlikely to achieve the capacity and mechanisms needed to prevent the same situation happening through the legalising of rhino horn trade. Not even the extremely tightly controlled Kimberly Process has managed to adequately suppress the entry of blood diamonds into legal markets, nor has the severe South African copper trading restrictions prevented widespread copper theft. WESSA does not believe that the criminal syndicates will passively react to the threat posed by legalised horn trade. They are more likely to succeed in corrupting the proposed central horn selling organisation (CSO), to launder their illegal stockpiles.
Part of the proposed trading mechanism is for the CSO to sell horn at a regulated, discounted price, set low enough to discourage poaching and undercut illegal horn traders. The ivory sales example, where the supplier sale price was also set low, evidenced that ivory purchase prices for the ivory carving factories and that of the end products remained fairly constant, but with an increased price for poached ivory. Similarly, the foreign market for rhino horn price is predicted to remain so high as to still encourage widespread poaching of rhinos.
Pro-trade proponents argue that a CSO monopoly selling to a cartel of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) suppliers will be able to drive the price of horn down, which will reduce the appetite speculators now have for buying horn. WESSA is not in any way convinced that the TMC suppliers would sell at a much lower price than what they can currently get for it now – the price is likely to stay high enough to encourage poaching and speculation buying. If end consumer prices remain high, illegal suppliers will remain in business, just like with illegal cigarette smuggling.
Internationally traditional medicines sales are fading due to the availability of cheaper synthetic modern medicines, which are favoured especially by younger generations. Stimulating legal horn trade could set back this natural consumer trend which is acting in favour of endangered wildlife. Furthermore, creating legal access to horn risks reawakening demand in older markets, such as Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, and Yemen, where demand for rhino horn was prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s and has since decreased. If demand grows again in these markets, it will put upward pressure on the horn price, incentivising poaching. And it is not just South African rhino populations that DEA’s proposal places at such high risk, but also that of Indian, Javan, northern white, and Sumatran rhinoceros species. DEA’s trade proposal risks compromising the concerted international efforts and resources already made towards conserving these endangered species.
WESSA supports the principle of sustainable utilisation of natural resources. They recognise that the protection of rhino is incurring substantial costs, both financial and human, to public and private reserves stocking them. They support the right of game reserves to financially benefit from the consumptive and non-consumptive use of their wildlife resources; provided that it sustainable, humane, ethical and in accordance with best practice principals and relevant legislation. WESSA believes that revenue from ecotourism, increased hunting (where such is genuine, sustainable and without permitting the export of trophy horns or other rhino body parts), live rhino sales, as well as other uses of rhino products – such as innovative products like rhino horn infused wines and spa treatments – can offset rhino management costs.
Research conducted in 2014 amongst communities living in and alongside the Great Limpopo Trans-frontier Park, and that of experts working in this park, has illuminated concerning community attitudes towards the park and that of poaching wildlife. These include common feelings of being economically marginalised, anger towards the park, seeing huge financial and social status incentives for participating in or supporting poaching and perceived widespread corruption amongst parks and police officials acting in support of rhino poaching. Until community development and anti-poaching efforts are ramped up, and communities nearest the parks see it in their best interest to protect endangered animals, gaining greater traction through efforts to bring an end to poaching will be difficult.
Instead of going through the lengthy process of trying to get rhino trade approved, WESSA urges that the DEA and SANParks should rather address the more immediate issues of the affected communities who are facilitating the costly poaching of rhino in direct competition to their conservation efforts and investments. Responses to these community issues should not be dependent on income from rhino horn sales, rather they need to be conceived with community direction, implemented independently from political interference and be held accountable to their communities.
The horn trade proposal is complex, involving international-level legal systems, crime syndicates and foreign cooperation agreements; national-level issues of taxation opportunities, conservation budgets and endemic corruption across state agencies. It also interfaces with the local communities’ relationships with reserves and the status-seeking adventurism of youth at risk. The priority is to address local community factors which, unless effectively challenged, will see rhino populations fall to critical levels, before any trade mechanism can be put in place. WESSA hopes that the Committee and the Minister of Environmental Affairs will heed the submissions of stakeholders in which they caution that this down-listing proposal is premature. South Africa does not yet have a mature and accountable democracy that has a reasonable chance of implementing a horn trading system that can sufficiently restrict illegal trade. To trade now is to risk too much.
*Image courtesy of Chris Galliers, WESSA.About WESSA
WESSA is a South African environmental organisation with a mission to implement high impact environmental and conservation projects which promote public participation in caring for the Earth. With a remarkable history of almost 90 years, WESSA has a strong track record of delivering human capacity development projects by working in strategic partnerships, thus enabling people to make more sustainable lifestyle and environmental management choices. Critical environmental focus areas include the international eco labels of Eco-Schools and Blue Flag, environmental training, and eco-systems such as water, energy and biodiversity.
For more information on WESSA, visit www.wessa.org.za