And looming on the horizon is the equally emotive battle as to whether legal trade in rhino horn should be allowed. Due to the huge security costs in protecting rhinos, their value at auctions has all but collapsed. Most private game reserves now remove the horns on a regular basis.
A meeting is being held in Eswatini (Swaziland) next Friday by Legal Trade For Rhino Survival (LTRS), which will look at whether a legal captive-bred rhino industry could be sustainable, and whether it could save the species from extinction.
Attending this high-level get-together will be Eswatini ministers and government officials, diplomatic corps members, scientists and some leading conservationists.
This comes shortly after China lifted its ban on the domestic trade of rhino horns and tiger bones for scientific, medical and cultural purposes.
Last Monday, the Chinese State Council announced “under special circumstances, regulation on the sales and use of these products will be strengthened and any related actions will be authorised, and the trade volume will be strictly controlled”.
This will include the use of powdered forms of rhino horns, and bones from dead tigers, to be allowed in qualified hospitals recognised by the National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
The announcement caused shock waves across the global wildlife conservation industry, with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) expressing its “profound concern” and calling on China to maintain the ban on rhino horn and tiger bone trade.
WWF Wildlife practice leader Margaret Kinnaird said: “It is deeply concerning that China has reversed its 25-year-old tiger bone and rhino horn ban, allowing trade that will have devastating consequences globally.
“The resumption of a legal market for these products is an enormous setback to efforts to protect tigers and rhinos in the wild.”
The bewilderment over the Chinese move was also compounded by the fact that 10 months ago, China closed its domestic trade on elephant ivory, a move that got a big thumbs-up around the world and was seen as a major step forward in elephant conservation.
Save The Rhino International described the Chinese unbanning of captive-bred rhino horn and tiger bones as “a Pandora’s Box that should never have been opened”, with chief executive Cathy Dean saying: “The ramifications for this announcement are huge. Not only is it showing China’s lack of support for rhino conservation or putting an end to the illegal wildlife trade, it creates loopholes for the illegal rhino horn trade.”
She asked how, after being removed from official traditional Chinese medicine lists 25 years ago, rhino horns and tiger bones could now be made available for medical research?
“We fear this move is motivated by money. The now open trade will make it much harder for law enforcement officials tasked with tackling the demand for illegal rhino horn.”
Under a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) agreement, international trade in rhino horn is banned. There are more than 180 signatories to Cites, with its next conference scheduled for May next year in Sri Lanka.
While some conspiracy theorists may believe there’s a possible shady subterranean link between the Chinese announcement and the LTRS meeting scheduled for next week, KwaZulu-Natal conservation legend Dr George Hughes has put his support solidly behind the move to legalise international trade in rhino horn.
He has been outspoken on the issue for many years, saying it is the only way to save the rhino from extinction.
“A legal trade would reduce the illegal trade, and at the same time would reduce poaching pressure on formal protected areas and private sector rhino holdings.
“The income derived from legal trade would accrue to both formal conservation agencies with legal horn resources, and most certainly for the private-sector owners, who have invested time and money in rhinoceros management,” he said.
Hughes added that once legal trade was established, “there would be a slight increase in demand because of the fact that it would be legal. The rhino resource in South Africa alone is large enough to cater for a much larger demand”.
He said that in many the province’s private reserves, rhino horns were cropped every 18 months from living rhinos, which could produce 1kg of horn.
Having been a powerhouse at the former KZN Parks Board, Hughes also lamented the killing of many rangers in the war on poachers.
It is estimated that well over 1000 have died while protecting rhinos and elephants in Africa.
“This is not what nature conservation is all about, and it is a tragedy that such things happen in an ever-increasing frequency for a product that can be supplied without killing anything or anybody.”
Some cynical commentators have said massive profits from the legal trading of horn would simply move from illegal poaching syndicates to a few well-to-do private game farm owners.
Or is some out of the box thinking required to be the last-ditch plan in saving the rhino ?
While the Department of Environmental Affairs was opaque in its response to the Chinese unbanning of rhino horn trade, saying “discussions will need to be held” with China, and that it (the South African government) had “effective actions” in place to combat rhino poaching, it was a fact that more rhinos were being poached than were being born.
Well-respected wildlife veterinarian Dave Cooper, who will be in New York next week to receive an award from the Wild Tomorrow Fund for his tireless efforts to save the rhino from extinction, said he also backed legalising the trade in rhino horns.
Having spent years at ground zero, he has first-hand knowledge of just how close to the abyss rhinos now stand. His approach is pragmatic.
“It seems a pity to have to breed rhinos, but we are losing the fight. We can’t carry on the way we are now. The private sector was very supportive of rhino conservation, but they are losing hope and disinvesting, they just cannot sustain the huge security costs.
“Rhinos don’t have value any more as they are too expensive to protect. The last auction I went to, hippo and buffalo got higher prices.” .
Cooper highlighted that the real challenge would be regulating the legal trade of horn, and that, if properly done, it could provide much-needed income for local communities and government conservation bodies.
“It’s sustainable utilisation, the animal is not being killed. It can be to everyone’s benefit if it’s done properly and transparently. There must be incentive for communities in terms of a levy on the sale of the horn so that they are willing to protect rhinos. It won’t be a cake walk. But those who are opposing this are those who haven’t ever been on the ground with the rhino.”
And he should know, he has attended more poaching scenes than any other vet in the country. He and his team have felt the wrenching heartache every time they find a bewildered baby rhino trying to cuddle up to the bloodied remains of its mother. All for a piece of horn.
* Tanya Waterworth is the chief reporter for the Independent On Saturday.Independent On Saturday