Fragmented approach to poaching not helping

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PN_rhino0 REUTERS A white rhino and her calf walk in the dusk light in Pilanesberg National Park in the North West. Picture: Reuters

IN BUSINESS, reaching your annual sales or production target with more than 20% of the year still to go is usually the sign of either an extremely skilled team or a very conducive business environment.

Alternatively it could be that the competition underperformed or the targets set were rather modest. What do we make of the fact that rhino poachers have reached a record number of 448 rhino poached in South Africa last year with more than two months of the year still to come?

If all of those who identify themselves as committed to rhino conservation can be regarded as the opposition or competition of rhino poachers, it is clear who is winning the game. We are losing market share badly. We are being outcompeted on a daily basis. Any good MBA student would be able to analyse the failing “rhino enterprise” and identify the weaknesses in our approach.

Firstly, we don’t have a common vision for rhino conservation.

Secondly, the business environment favours the poachers as a rhino is worth more dead than alive.

Thirdly, our rhino conservation team seems to lack a sound management system.

Finally, any analyst is likely to reflect on the nature of the leadership in the sector.

On the lack of a common vision, there are many opposing views on whether rhino trade should be legalised or banned as the ultimate solution to the problem. While these are both legitimate potential solutions, the reality is that our competitors are focused and ruthless in the execution of slaughtering rhinos while we endlessly debate the best way forward in stopping them in their tracks.

The rhino conservation community seems to be divided into at least three “camps”.

The most publicly visible group can be described as “The Enforcers” and they insist on enforcing the law and oppose any trading in rhino horn. They typically call for more security officers, better equipment and electric fences and border control. This group would not allow any trophy hunting and would typically like to destroy existing stockpiles of rhino horn.

A different group is best defined as “The Traders” who believe that opening up the market in rhino horn is the most likely strategy to enhance the economic value of rhino and thus ensure their survival.

This approach will encourage more private rhino owners to breed rhino or even farm with rhino horn. This group believes selling existing stock-piles of rhino horn into the market will reduce the price of horn and make poaching less lucrative.

A more nuanced approach can be described as “progress with caution”, which is based on the belief that trade could eventually be a key part of the solution but that it is important to first understand the likely impact on future demands for rhino horn.

This group believes no rhino hunting permits should be issued to nationals from countries with weak rhino controls and that trade should be limited to horn only from stockpiles and natural deaths.

The prevailing economic model is a second major enabler of the performance of the rhino poachers. The fact that the horns from a dead rhino are worth more than double the value of a live rhino bought at auction summarise the economic advantage of the poachers.

The key demand is to obtain rhino horns and sell them into a demanding market. It doesn’t matter if the horns are obtained from legal hunting, robbery or illegal poaching.

It is worth noting that private rhino owners in South Africa own and protect more rhino than there are left in the whole of the rest of the world. The increasing cost to keep their rhino safe and the decreasing prospect of earning income from their animals by legal means are providing powerful disincentives for farmers to expand the number of rhino on their land.

The poachers therefore face a favourable economic climate of a ready supply of illegal horn at increasingly inflated prices due to the ban in legal trading while the conservation agencies and rhino farmers experience tough economic times with no incentive to invest in expanding rhino numbers.

Thirdly, the need for a sound management system is evident from the slow progress made in catching and prosecuting poachers as well as the legitimate concerns of those who fear that legalising rhino horn trade could open the floodgates to unregulated and unlicensed trade.

By being able to match the DNA profiles from rhino horn recovered from a poacher to individual rhino on the database, it becomes possible to implement a comprehensive management system.

Once the DNA from every rhino horn is on a single database (whether from the stockpiles or live animals), it becomes feasible to differentiate poachers and traffickers from legitimate rhino farmers.

The DNA profile will enable poached horns to be returned to the rightful owners if recovered and the court case can be watertight in terms of matching horns seized from traders with crime sights.

DNA cannot be altered or destroyed, thus providing a powerful traceability tool.

Incidentally, the need for effective law enforcement and the need for a functional management system are just about the only principles the three schools of thought outlined earlier agree upon. A comprehensive database of the DNA profiles of each rhino is recognised as essential in both strengthening the records of evidence in court cases and proving legal ownership of rhino during potential trading activities.

This is why the newly formed SAB Boucher Conservation trust aims to focus on raising dedicated financial resources for the Rhino DNA Index System (RhODIS) established at the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of Pretoria.

Finally, the lack of leadership in the sector reflects on all of us, and not just conservation authorities and private rhino owners. Too much money is raised for the rhino cause that never ends up on the ground or ever touches the life of a rhino.

The passion for the country’s natural environment motivated the South African Breweries (SAB) and Mark Boucher, a well-known international cricket player, to join forces and to single-mindedly focus on the DNA database as one of the key pillars required for a sustainable solution to rhino poaching.

Every cent raised will be spent on the rhino cause and not soaked up with administration or diverted to private interests. It is time for those committed to the rhino enterprise to show the leadership and courage required to talk straight and admit we are losing the game.

By making reality our friend we will be in a position to commit to a common effort to get back into a winning position. It is essential to stand together for a common vision, to change the economics in favour of the rhino, to show leadership across the different rhino interest groups and to fearlessly implement the required actions based on a solid management system.

Because we are seeing similar trends with other species that are in danger of exploitation – such as the elephant and lion.

But surely the prospect of the Big Five becoming the Tragic Two is enough to inspire even the most lethargic decision-makers into doing the right thing?

l Fourie is head of sustainable development at South African Breweries. Boucher is an ex international cricket player and keen conservationist. They are joining forces to launch the SAB Boucher Conservation NPC.


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