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Is legal horn trade okay?

File picture: Tony Carnie

File picture: Tony Carnie

Published Sep 5, 2016


More than 6 000 rhinos have been killed in South Africa in the past eight years, writes Tony Carnie. Who will look after them if it becomes too expensive to protect them?

Durban - Whuump! Whuump! Two heavy slugs of flying lead slice through the thick skin of a two-ton rhino, shattering bones, tissue and vital organs.

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The animal slumps to the ground.

Long before its life blood has emptied away into the soil, a man with an axe is hacking deeply into the front of its head to rip away the two horns that once protected it from humans and other foes.

The axeman, the shooter and his assistants need to work quickly if they are to profit from these blood horns.

Though some poachers use silencers, the noise from the two heavy-calibre rifle shots normally needed to kill such a large animal will have alerted wildlife rangers, police and soldiers deployed in several wildlife reserves to curb the unrelenting slaughter of South Africa’s dwindling rhino populations.

More than 6 000 rhinos have been killed here in the past eight years and at the current poaching rate of almost 1 200 a year, conservation experts wonder how much longer this killing rate can continue before the species is driven to extinction.

Elsewhere in Africa, rhinos have become extinct already in more than 20 countries, and as the poaching noose is drawn ever tighter around the continent’s last southern strongholds, wildlife lovers remain sharply divided on how to end the butchery.

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Since 1973 it has been illegal to sell any rhino horns across international borders, yet 39 years later there is no sign that the poaching crisis is coming to an end.

If anything, it is getting worse. Despite the deployment of the army, night-time helicopter patrols, tracker dogs, thermal imagery and other interventions, the black-market price for rhino horns continues to soar.

Earlier this year, the cabinet was widely expected to put forward a controversial proposal to lift the world ban and reopen the door to the trading of old horn stockpiles and legally obtained horns to counter the black-market trade.

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The South African proposal has not been abandoned entirely, but was put on ice ahead of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) meeting to be held in Johannesburg later this month. Now the proposal is back on the Johannesburg table after Swaziland put in a similar, last-minute proposal to Cites to allow an experimental “pilot project” to sell off the kingdom’s stockpiles to depress the black-market trade and also raise revenue to protect its besieged rhino reserves.

Also read: Rhino poachers shift focus to KZN

Ted Reilly, head of Big Game Parks and main author of the Swazi proposal to Cites, acknowledges that many wildlife lovers strongly oppose or feel deeply uncomfortable about reopening the legal trade in rhino horns - yet he believes it is the only way to halt the slaughter.

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The 78-year-old conservationist and pioneer of Swaziland’s big game park network is a contemporary of South African rhino conservation icon Ian Player.

Shortly before his death in 2014, Player also stuck his neck out to express the view that reopening a legal trade should be debated urgently as a means to slow the poaching tide.

“Everyone wanted to hit me. There was a violent reaction when I said that the time had come to start talking about this (legal trading),” Player told The Mercury in 2013.

Like Player, Reilly draws a distinction between wildlife preservation and conservation.

He argues that the preservationist approach has been a failure in countries like Kenya, where hunting and other forms of consumptive wildlife use was not allowed.

Yet in several Southern African nations, which allowed hunting and the sale of wildlife products, the population of rhinos had grown rapidly over the past few decades.

“What astonishes me is that people can’t see this. So why persist with a system that has not worked for 39 years?” he said in an interview at Mlilwane wildlife sanctuary, near Mbabane, last week.

Is he not worried that proponents of a legalised horn trade stand to make a lot of money?

“What’s wrong with that? There are bad eggs everywhere, so there will still be poaching and laundering of illegal products - but who will look after rhinos if it becomes too expensive to protect them from poachers?

“We concede that love of money is the root of all evil. But you can’t eat without it. We use pigs and sheep and many other domesticated animals - so why not use rhino and elephants as well if there are surpluses? Of course people will be enriched - but what is wrong with making money? Everyone needs a salary.

“My question is: Do you allow the rhino to go extinct or do you try to do something new? If a new trading system does not work then it can quickly be suspended. We want to keep our rhinos, but if there is no money to protect them from poaching, then you will lose them. It is as simple as that,” he argues.

He also maintains that rhinos will only survive in countries where there is a strong political will to protect them.

“Swaziland is not suggesting that we impose our views on other custodian countries, but rhinos will disappear anyway from countries that cannot protect them. That is a fact. If our pilot trading scheme works, it could be a model for other countries to follow. But we will never know unless we try it. Surely a legal trade is better than the current 100% illegal trade?”

While some aspects of the Swazi plan have been described as “exceptionally vague” by the Traffic wildlife trade-monitoring network, the proposal calls for the sale of the kingdom’s 330kg stockpile and the creation of an endowment fund generating an annual income of $600 000 (R8.7 million) for rhino protection.

Reilly estimates that a further $600 000 a year can be raised from the sale of horns from animals that die naturally or from harvesting horns from live rhinos. He also points to Swaziland’s proud record in protecting rhinos over the past two decades.

“In the late 1980s we were caught with our pants down. Once poachers finished off most of Zimbabwe’s rhinos, they came here and killed 80% of our rhinos between 1988 and 1992.”

Since then, however, Swaziland has lost only three rhinos to poaching (compared to two every day in Kruger currently). Reilly attributes this largely to the support of King Mswati III, who supported new amendments to the country’s game conservation laws. The law was amended to provide for a minimum five-year sentence for all rhino-poaching offences, and a provision that poachers replace the financial value of any rhino they killed.

“If you could not repay the financial value of the poached rhino, another two years was added to the sentence, so the poacher ended up serving seven years, with no option of a fine or remission of sentence.

“But we are under no illusion. Once they have taken out the easy pickings elsewhere, we will be next. So we need money to ensure a continued high level of protection for our rhinos.

“Some people say that we should try to educate the Chinese and the Vietnamese to stop or to reduce consumption of rhino horn. But the next meeting of Cites (after Johannesburg) is three years away. Campaigns for demand reduction are not new and have not worked. We have run out of time.”

* TUESDAY IN THE MERCURY: Meet the largest rhino breeder in the world.

The Mercury

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