Johannesburg - South Africa’s “Mr Fix-It”, Mavuso Msimang, was enticed out of retirement to decide the fate of the country’s threatened rhino populations. And for him, “it’s not over till the fat lady sings”.
For the past five months, as the Department of Environmental Affairs’ rhino conservation issue manager, he has led often-fractured national dialogues that have delved into rhino stockpile management, population management and international engagement.
But as more than 400 rhino have been killed this year, it’s his verdict on whether SA should request the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) to overturn its global ban on rhino horn trade that is, perhaps, most anticipated.
From his solar-equipped home, nestled on a plot on the outskirts of Midrand, Msimang, who turns 71 next month, gives some clues about the report’s contents, which will be given to Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa in October. “We’re in the thick of preparing our report and it’s going to be quite substantial, taking in as many of the views as possible, but eventually to distil these into something readable.”
However, it will not be complete, he says, by October 4, which is when SA will need to have submitted a request to Cites to change the rhino from the Appendices I and II, the levels afforded to its protection. The critically endangered black rhino is on Appendix I and white rhino on Appendix II.
“We didn’t want to be stampeded into (the process) … the consultation was serious. If we come to the conclusion that there’s no need to apply for trade then that’s what we’d say.
“We couldn’t have been involved in this exercise to justify a position that’s been taken already. It was an investigation and when they asked everyone who was pro-trade, against and the neutrals, it was really to look at the weight of the arguments. The government has the right to support the sustainable use of wildlife and trading is part of that.”
He goes to sleep at midnight and wakes up at 5am and his life has been consumed by rhino issues. “Normally, with other work I do, I’d clear my inbox every day. Right now, I think I’ve got more than 1 200 e-mails and 90 percent are about rhino. For me, it’s been up in the morning and you think about not much else than rhino… It’s been busy and exciting.
“I’ve had people come to me and say ‘why are you wasting time? – there are so many problems in South Africa in education and health’. But I say, it absolutely [is worthwhile]. We’re not saying rhino are more important, not even more than buffalo, and we’re not saying anything about people. But this is such an asset, heritage.
“I’m still having a great time,” he smiles. “It’s not over till the fat lady has sung and then we’ll start seeing the curses. I think there’ll be some people who will be very upset with the report, but that’s part of the deal. We just have to be true to ourselves. I think the majority will be happy. Some will be impatient and wish for more… You don’t want people saying your report is prejudiced by your own ethical or moral things.”
He is somewhat critical of pro-trade advocates like Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife CEO Bandile Mkhize, who earlier announced he will lead the trade push ahead of the Cites meeting in March.
“It’s not an intelligent thing at all. I don’t think it does them a lot of good to, in the middle of a discussion, when you’re investing your confidence into a process in which you’ve been invited, to be going out and saying, we want this. Quite frankly, I think it’s a little amateurish.
“The effect of this precipitous rush to talk about something cannot help your cause. Cites is a controlling body of which we are a member. Is the whole point to make money or to save the rhino?”
It was while former Home Affairs director-general that Msimang was dubbed Mr Fix-It, but it’s a nickname he doesn’t define himself by.
His team of three are incredibly competent and he has enjoyed working with the department. “We developed a really good relationship. One gets an appreciation of the things they do and also that people could work a little more… a little harder in some cases. If it’s 4.30pm, you’re not going to find anyone there. If there’s an event or something important to happen after hours or on the weekend, you might as well forget it.”
The former SANParks chief executive knew very little about rhino before his appointment. “I worked in parks, generally, there were among other animals, rhino, but to focus on this animal and its fate has just given me such wonderful insights.”
The discussions have been dominated by rhino conservation groups, scientists and lobby groups. “We also have people more or less on the periphery who argue that whatever you do, you must treat wildlife ethically. If you’re not careful you could save the rhino by turning them into tame animals. You wonder if it’s still a rhino… I don’t think we’ll ever approve the wholesale farming of rhino, but if that’s a way of ensuring these things survive, in limited measure you would say, perhaps it should be done.
“I think what really bedevils this whole thing is that we really don’t understand the market. It’s easy to theorise and say if we free this thing up (to trade), the price (of horn) will stabilise. But we just don’t know.”
At $64 000 a kilo rhino horn is now worth more than gold. “Until you break their syndicate and they haven’t really been broken, then you don’t quite know their ways. There have been high-profile busts… but I don’t know that anyone can claim that went to the heart of the operation.
“I think people (in Vietnam) will never be convinced rhino horn has novalue medicinally. Try tell people here who believe in sangomas and their potions that it doesn’t work.
“The enduring theme is that there isn’t really a silver bullet – you’ve got to try combination of things. It’s a huge dilemma - there are just so many variables that affect the outcome.
“We’re really on the cusp of doing many great things or failing to.
“We could as SA claim to humanity forever that we’ve saved the rhino. We might also say we failed. But if 90 percent of the world’s rhino are here, our obligation to human beings now and in the future, is so enormous.” - Saturday Star