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When we talk about the commodities boom in Africa, with most of the extracted materials going East, we mostly think of minerals.
But a report by the conservation group Traffic this week has thrown light on rhino poaching by pointing out that the rising flood of raw materials flowing from Africa to Asia includes wild animals, including rhino horns.
This new perspective helps explain why, after remaining steady at an average of 14 a year for 16 years, the numbers of SA rhinos poached suddenly climbed to 83 in 2008, 122 in 2009, 333 in 2010 and 448 last year.
This year it will reach 532 if the rate until June 20 continues and could extinguish the populations of white and black rhino by 2050.
The new perspective, elaborated in the report, entitled The South Africa-Vietnam Rhino Horn Trade Nexus could just, perhaps, turn the tide.
It explains the alarming rise in poaching as largely being part of a rising demand for luxury goods in the economically-booming Asian markets, particularly Vietnam.
Rhino horn, it emerges, is now a luxury item, increasingly coveted by the Vietnamese nouveau rich for ridiculously indulgent reasons, not least just because it is rare.
It is being bought not only for its familiar, though mythical, aphrodisiac qualities, but also now as a (false) cure for cancer, a hangover cure for playboys and as an exclusive gift from the very wealthy to the very wealthy.
Rhino horn has now, sadly, become part of the Asian “cultural concept of ‘face consumption’, whereby extravagant usage of something rare and expensive becomes a means to flaunt wealth, status and success…” the report says.
The Vietnamese government has so far been not only negligent but even complicit in rhino poaching. A few years ago three officials in Vietnam’s Pretoria embassy were caught in possession of rhino horn.
Much of the poaching of rhino horns to Vietnam has been done through fake trophy hunting for rhinos.
Between 2003 and 2010, 657 rhino horns were legally exported from SA to Vietnam as hunting trophies, according to SA figures.
But the Vietnamese government figures only account for the import of 170 rhino horns, indicating 74 percent of them were used for illegal purposes.
Conservationists have also blamed the SA government for the slaughter of the rhinos, largely because Pretoria has done so little to prod the Vietnamese government into seriously tackling the problem.
Evidently, SA simply did not see the rhino poaching crisis from the demand side, as the Traffic report does.
The report elaborates on how much Vietnam has to do to combat the problem, including tightening up on enforcement and educating its people that all of the supposed benefits of rhino horn are spurious.
Now the negligence is starting to dissipate, but slowly.
SA has stopped issuing hunting licences to Vietnamese citizens because their government could not verify that the horns exported as trophies remained intact as trophies.
And last week Deputy Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Ebrahim Ebrahim and his Vietnamese counterpart Le Luong Minh agreed in Pretoria to increase co-operation between the two governments “in the field of biodiversity management, law enforcement, compliance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and other relevant legislation”.
The Traffic report authors are reported to be optimistic that the new activism from SA and growing collaboration between the two governments, could at last turn the tide in favour of our rhinos.
It is well that our diplomacy has at been properly mobilised to save them. For, apart from the inherent tragedy of losing these magnificent creatures, SA’s international reputation is at stake.
We saved the white rhino from the brink of extinction in the 1960s and now take care of 18 800 of them, representing 83 percent of Africa’s and nearly three quarters of the world's population.
We also conserve 1 915 of the now rarer black rhino, the Traffic report says, nearly 40 percent of the world's population.
This achievement is part of who we are as a nation.
And who we should fight hard to continue being.