I try to make sense of it all by writing an op-ed at the end of every year where I share my experiences from the front lines. But 2017 was hijacked by a prolonged legal battle involving the supposed silver bullet or final bullet depending on who you’re talking to in that complicated rhino world: domestic trade in rhino horn.
Whatever one read or heard or watched on rhinos this year had to do with domestic trade. Very little was mentioned about other aspects of the effort on the ground in mainstream media. And even I am focusing this year’s op-ed on it. Despite all the coverage, it’s very confusing to understand.
One group in the rhino fight believes that it will save our rhinos from extinction in the wild, and the other that it will have the opposite effect and guarantee their slaughter in the wild, solidifying their existence only in zoos or on private rhino farms.
I’m sure you love the giant, grey beasts as much as I do. This is, after all, our heritage that we are talking about, so if you can stick around, I will try and dissect this for you as easily and as simply as I can.
Unfortunately, as in the Sound of Music, in order to paint a clearer picture we have to start at the very beginning: international trade in rhino horn gets banned by Cites in 1977 (the big scary word is basically an agreement on paper between governments to ensure that trade in animals and plants does not threaten their survival).
South Africa continues to allow domestic trade after the Cites ban, but no rhino horn is allowed to leave our borders.
Asians buy rhino horn in South Africa in the early 2000s and export the horn illegally out of the country.
In February, 2009, the South African government reacts by placing a moratorium on domestic trade in rhino horn in an attempt to stop these fraudulent activities.
Rhino rancher Johan Kruger challenges the moratorium in court in 2012, with the world’s largest private rhino owner, John Hume, joining forces with him in 2015.
The farmers win, and in November 2015 the High Court sets aside the moratorium with immediate and retrospective effect (retrospective will influence the syndicate cases that are currently in court, effectively lessening several charges against the accused).
Minister of Environmental Affairs Dr Edna Molewa fights the lifting of the moratorium with an application for leave to appeal, which the High Court dismisses. So she then petitions the Supreme Court of Appeal for leave to appeal, but also gets dismissed in May, 2016.
She subsequently applies to the Constitutional Court in June 2016 for leave to appeal against the decision.
In April last year, the Constitutional Court dismisses the application for leave to appeal and it is once again legal in South Africa to trade in rhino horn.
A set of draft regulations for the domestic trade in rhino horn is published by the Department of Environmental Affairs for public comment in February 2017.
South Africa’s first legal online rhino horn auction takes place in August 2017.*
And this is pretty much where we find ourselves now. The online auction was a first of its kind, garnering huge attention worldwide, even attracting animal rights activists who hacked the site, disabling it for hours.
There was even speculation among those advocating against trade that the ramp-up in illegal rhino horn seizures at OR Tambo International Airport was due in part to the legalising of domestic trade.
Although the Department of Environmental Affairs had issued draft regulations for domestic trade earlier in the year and had even issued the permit for the online auction, there was now a delay in handing the permit over to the owner of all the horns up for auction; that owner being none other than John Hume, the co-plaintiff who had joined Johan Kruger in the courts to successfully overturn the moratorium.
As Hume told me, they “bluntly refused” to hand the permit over for the online auction, and for him it was back to the courts yet again where his legal team managed to get the permit on the Sunday before the auction was due to start.
In the end, all the delays derailed the online auction, with only a small number of buyers registering, and the few horns that were sold are still in limbo, leaving Hume in a fume: “The past year was a landmark where the Department of Environmental Affairs lost their legal battle to stop the legal trade in rhino horn, but it also proved that they can still interpret, manipulate and frustrate the legal process i.e. the permit system, in such a way that it extends and prolongs the murdering of my rhinos,” he said.
I asked the department for comment and was told the answers to my questions needed sign-off from the ministry and so, despite phoning and messaging several times as well as sending numerous e-mails, I am still waiting.
This, I have to say, is unusual as the department has always been good at responding to my requests.
Hume’s way of auctioning rhino horn is one way of selling, but it clearly comes with challenges, which I’m told is why the department delayed, as there is difficulty in determining when ownership transfers.
After taking on the role of guinea pig for other “pro-trade” rhino owners, establishing a "trade desk" is the way forward, according to Pelham Jones, the chairperson of the Private Rhino Owner Association (Proa). With this model, private rhino owners will give the organisation their horns through a trade desk or central selling organisation.
The horns will be kept at a central storage facility for the owner’s account until a sale has been made which, of course, will need the necessary permits from the department.
Once the buyer becomes the legal owner, they will assume all costs of keeping the horn secure or transporting the horn (not across the border, just yet).**
I’ve interviewed rhino horn users in Asia who desire a steady flow of horn, but domestic trade cannot get legal South African horn to the illicit users in Asia because international trade in rhino horn is still illegal.
And, just to be clear, the government has not indicated they will be opening up their massive stockpiles for domestic trade or joining Proa’s trade desk in any way.
But at the Cites meeting in Bangkok in 2013, it was rumoured that China would be South Africa’s preferred trading partner if international trade were to happen.
And at last year’s Cites convention, which took place in Sandton, Minister Molewa told me and several journalists trailing her there was a very good chance that South Africa would put forward a proposal for international trade in 2019 at the next Cites meeting.
But the private rhino owners I have spoken to throughout the year are confident there is a market in domestic trade, telling me they have even been contacted privately by Asian buyers based in South Africa.
Only time will tell if there is an actual legal domestic market for rhino horn. Jones is adamant that Proa’s trading desk will open on the January 22, in turn making them the next guinea pig for the government’s future plans in trade. I hope you aren’t confused!
But at the end of it all is an animal that is suffering. Even scientists are saying that the desire to trade illegally in rhino horn is affecting population dynamics, and we now have orphan rehabilitators speaking of post-traumatic stress in the surviving populations.
I hope that at the end of next year, my op-ed will be less about the intertwined rhino politics and more about the future of the species.
* Bonné de Bod is an award-winning television presenter and film-maker who is passionate about all things rhino. She is currently in edit on a three-year feature documentary on the rhino poaching crisis, called STROOP (‘Poached’), due for release this year. All information for the timeline is from the Department of Environmental Affairs (‘The Viability of Legalising Trade in Rhino Horn in South Africa’, first published and printed in 2014)
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.