Durban - KwaZulu-Natal’s rhino horn reserves were stored in a high security “secret location somewhere in the province”, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife chief executive Dr Bandile Mkhize said last week.
Mkhize, who was reacting to the theft of 112 pieces of rhino horn with an estimated value of R168 million from the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency, said the burglary highlighted the need to legalise the trade in rhino horn.
But Mkhize said he was “very confident” that KZN’s rhino horn reserves were being kept in a “very safe place, and security around it is very tight”. He said security included CCTV surveillance cameras, an electric fence and security guards.
“It is a lot of horns, but I can’t say what the value is because the value is relative. There is no official value of rhino horns,” Mkhize said.
However, Mkhize said that as a “staunch advocate” for legalising the trade in rhino horns, the recent theft had only reinforced his argument that this was part of the solution to fight rhino poaching.
“These are the horns I am always saying we must trade in, because why are we sitting on these things and looking over our shoulder all the time when we could use the proceeds for conservation?”
“Things like this (theft) happen and nobody gets anything except poachers, who get the upper hand,” he said. “The poachers make a fortune and we are left with nothing.”
Mkhize said a government task team was exploring the possibility of legalising the trade in rhino horn and of making a proposal at the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), which will be hosted in South Africa in 2016.
“This is the solution because this problem is not going to go away any time soon. We are putting millions into solving this problem.”
Mkhize said funds from the sale of the stolen rhino horns could have gone a long way to strengthen the fences around game reserves, invest in intelligence and technology, like long-vision cameras, and in specialised combat training for game rangers.
“We have got to try everything possible to fight this scourge of rhino poaching. That includes using the resources that come from the rhino themselves, otherwise we are running out of time.”
Mkhize said 26 rhinos – eight from private game reserves – had been poached in the province so far this year. This was already higher than the number killed this time last year. Last year 1 004 rhinos were poached nationally – including 85 in KZN – up from 668 in 2012.
More than 270 rhino have been killed already this year, almost half in the Kruger National Park.
The director of Outraged SA Citizens Against Rhino Poaching, Allison Thomson, said the organisation was opposed to legalising the trade.
“It is completely and utterly unsustainable to open up trade in South Africa where we don’t even have the capability to secure our stockpiles.”
Thomson said the country had only managed to arrest and convict one poaching kingpin, Thai national Chumlong Lemtongthai, who was investigated and arrested in a joint operation between Sars and the Hawks.
“We don’t have capability to manage international trade. Corruption is terrible with the police and the rangers and in every single aspect in wildlife.”
Thomson said the government’s recent estimate of a rhino population of between 7 500 to 9 000 in national parks as well as a small population on private reserves was insufficient to meet the insatiable demand for rhino horn if trade was legalised. The total rhino population in South Africa is estimated at 20 000.
Thomson added that when wildlife groups offered the Asian Saiga antelope to the Chinese as an alternative to poaching rhinos in the early 1990s, more than a million of the animals were slaughtered.
“We can’t meet the demand. It doesn’t stop the poaching. It just gives them a means to launder illegal horn with the legal trade,” Thomson said.
Save the Rhino deputy director, Susie Offord, said the organisation had not established its position on whether was a viable solution.
“We are about protecting all five species of rhino across Africa and Asia and at the moment the only country proposing it is South Africa,” Offord said.
“There needs to be further research into this and all avenues need to be looked into – how would it work and how would it affect rhino in South Africa and outside?”
Offord said there were also concerns about how the illegal trade would be policed.
“There are lots of risks involved. In theory things could work, but you have to tackle the corruption aspect and do a lot more research. And a proposal needs to be worked out before anyone can make a decision on whether it is a feasible option,” Offord said.
“All options should be discussed because at the moment the escalation of poaching is horrific.”