INTERNATIONAL rhino conservationist Ian Player has defended provincial conservation agency Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s decision to sanction the hunting of a R1 million white rhino bull at the Makhasa Community Reserve near Mkhuze.
Commenting on the recent controversy over plans to allow an unidentified hunter to shoot the animal as a trophy at a cost of R960 000, Player said yesterday that legal hunting had made a significant contribution to the recovery of the formerly critically endangered species.
Almost hunted to extinction by European hunters in the 19th century, the species had recovered rapidly in the early 20th century through intensive protection and a ban on hunting, followed by controlled hunting from the 1970s.
“Ironically, that is the bottom line. The rhino population began to explode because of financial incentives and because ranchers started to buy land for wildlife. They (hunters) have played a big role in the recovery of the white rhino,” said Player.
Reacting to comments by rhino activist Simon Bloch and other critics of Ezemvelo CEO Bandile Mkhize to allow a hunt in the middle of SA’s worst rhino poaching crisis, Player said that the Makhasa community had given up almost 1 800ha of land to establish a community wildlife reserve.
“You cannot expect the community to do that for nothing. I have spent my life protecting the rhino, but as far as Makhasa is concerned, it would be a very serious mistake not to help those people. I really believe that if they make a success at Makhasa, this will be the new frontier for conservation and will encourage other communities to bring in other land for conservation,” he said.
“That is the vision of Dr Bandile Mkhize and I’m 100 percent in favour of this, and I would imagine that everyone wants to see more land set aside for conservation.”
Player, who played a central role in Operation Rhino, a project launched in the 1960s to multiply the species rapidly by moving survivors to game reserves across SA and the rest of the continent, said he believed there was a distinction between sentimentality and emotion.
“I am very emotional, but that is very different to sentimentality,” he said.
While his comments are set to intensify the debate on the future of rhino conservation, loopholes in hunting regulations and the unprecedented wave of illegal poaching by international criminal syndicates, at least two other conservation groups have argued against banning rhino hunts entirely.
Responding to calls for a possible moratorium on rhino hunts raised last year by Environment Minister Edna Molewa, Endangered Wildlife Trust chief Yolan Friedman and Wilderness Foundation chief Andrew Muir have cautioned that a moratorium could have “unintended and negative consequences which are prejudicial to the southern white rhino conservation as a whole”.
In a joint statement issued in October, Friedman, Muir and Pelham Jones, of the Private Rhino Owners Association, said most state-run parks in South Africa were reaching the end of their productive carrying capacity and there was a need to remove “surplus” rhinos.
“To allow the continued expansion of rhino range and numbers, and so enable overall numbers in the country to grow… the private sector and communities have to provide the new conservation land. The extent to which they do so largely depends on economic incentives and the perceived risk of managing rhinos.”
A moratorium on hunting could also result in a drop in rhino prices and encourage owners to sell more of their animals.
However, Friedman, Muir and Jones also raised several concerns regarding the need for stricter controls on rhino hunts, and also called for a new quota system to reduce rhino hunts and for hunt permits to be regulated nationally rather than provincially. 8P9