Rhino issue manager Mavuso Msimang at the first national Rhino conservation dialogue held at the Midrand conference centre this week. Picture:Paballo Thekiso

Mavuso Msimang recalls it was the “theatre of the absurd” as he listened to the proposals to export live rhino to China and Vietnam to stem poaching and to start a domestic trade in rhino horn.

But the 70-year-old, who was dubbed Mr Fix-It during his time in the government, was not dismissive.

“We’d like to understand these kinds of proposals better,” he told the Saturday Star at the first national “rhino conservation dialogue” held this week.

“I’m taking notes copiously and capturing heads of argument, as it were. I’m asking for all the presentations that have been made today to see what the common threads are among the different papers, as there are similarities.”

The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism has coaxed Msimang out of retirement to be its rhino conservation issue manager, tasking him with convening a series of meetings over the next few months with those with vested interests in conserving rhino, to canvass their views on lifting the global moratorium on rhino horn trade, stockpile management, international engagement and rhino population management.

As the former chief executive of SANParks, Msimang could never have imagined how bleak – and how deadly – the outlook for rhino would turn.

“When I left (SANParks) in 2003, poaching was nowhere where it is today. In the past 10 years, it has grown to epic proportions and it’s extremely worrying. That is the reason why we’re here,” says Msimang, previously a director-general in the Department of Home Affairs.

“People are speaking (from) different angles and I have to put together a proposal that encompasses all points of view… So if we go to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), the suggestion for sales will be very well founded.”

Until May this year, Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa reiterated that SA would not approach Cites at its meeting in March next year to propose overturning the 30-year-old worldwide ban on the trade in rhino horn, as there were too many legal hurdles in the country’s path.

But then early last month, Molewa told Parliament that she was mulling over the trade.

SA has to submit its proposal to Cites by October. “Yes, the minister has stated we won’t approach Cites yet,” said Fundisile Mketeni, a senior biodiversity official in her department, this week.

“But don’t be surprised if by September, after these dialogues, she changes her position.”

This week’s dialogue revealed the fragmentation within the conservation sector over trade, in particular. The Private Rhino Owners Association (PROA), and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife believe a legal, controlled trade between SA and consumer countries like Vietnam and China would shut down the surging black market trade and stop poaching.

But Karen Trendler, a wildlife rehabilitation expert, stated that the dialogue needed to be guided by ethics. “Ethics is not about bunny hugging, and sanctimonious animal rights. We need to find a way forward to conserve rhino in the right way for the right reasons.

“What do we mean by trade? Is it right to take off a rhino’s horn, pack them tightly into farms? We need dialogue that is honest and responsible.

“What we do in South Africa and southern Africa impacts on the rest of the world – it will have an impact on Asian rhino populations.

“What we really want to see is our rhino bonking in the wild, rearing babies in huge areas that is good land for conservation.”

Dr Richard Emslie, of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Rhino Specialist Group, spoke about how the decline in the sale of live rhino and the subsequent reduction of conservation funding could threaten the rapid growth of rhino populations.

“We should judge ourselves not by how many (rhino) we are losing, but how many we are creating… We must grow our numbers rapidly as it gives that little buffer against poaching.”

Colonel Johan Jooste, of the Hawks, predicted that by year end, “maybe 556 rhino will fall”. “With the pressure we’re putting on the Vietnamese, they are getting people from the Czech Republic to come in one day, hunt and leave the next day. And where do the horns end up? In Asian markets.”

Syndicates are slick and interlinked. “You see the hunt today in Bela Bela and tonight you catch them at OR Tambo. That’s how quickly the horn moves,” he explained.

Pelham Jones, of PROA, said it was not going to allow rhino to “go extinct” on its watch, but that the private sector, which owned about a quarter of the country’s 21 000 rhino, was “carrying the burden” on its own.

“We’ve lost 1 300 rhino since the tsunami started some years ago – that is R650 million of direct assets lost. The current policy and strategy are failing – you just have to look at the poaching figures. Will doing more of the same work? I doubt it. We cannot sit while Rome burns.”

Affluent buy into ‘hot blood’ myth

It’s called the “Ferrari factor” and it is what’s driving the illicit use of rhino horn in Vietnam. And it’s all part of the ostentatious show of wealth among the country’s new elites.

The modern use of rhino horn has an “obsessive appeal”, explains Jo Shaw, the programme officer of East/Southern Africa large mammal trade at Traffic.

“Ten years ago there was no sign of it in Vietnam. But that is where we are picking up most of the rhino horn trade. Rapid economic growth has increased disposable income available.

“We know rhino horn was traditionally used for reducing ‘hot blood’, to reduce fever and eliminate toxins,” she says.

Today it’s used as a detoxifying beverage and body rejuvenating toxic. “If you eat too much rich food and drink too much, then you grind it into a powder, mix it with hot water or make rhino wine and you feel better.”

Specially made porcelain bowls with a rough serrated bottom for the home preparation of rhino horn are widely available.

“Rhino horn is being used to demonstrate high social status as it is difficult to get.”

It is also used by terminally ill cancer sufferers. – Saturday Star