It’s been one of the thorniest and most polarising issues in rhino conservation for years: should the government petition the global wildlife trade authority to overturn the 42-year-old ban on the international trade in rhino horn?
For Pelham Jones, the answer is clear. “The reality is that the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) trade ban has not worked by any reasonable measure and has, on the contrary, helped create a vast illegal market dominated by transnational crime syndicates that remain untouchable,” said the chairperson of the Private Rhino Owners Association.
Of the 8000 rhinos slaughtered in South Africa since 2008, 1300 were killed on private reserves, where the value of rhino has plummeted. Annual rhino security costs on private, provincial and national reserves was an estimated R2billion a year, he said.
“Who will help cover these costs? If we’re allowed to trade in rhino horn, rhino will become the most protected and valuable animal in Africa. It’s possible to meet the demand from well-regulated trade, as substantial stockpiles do exist and the ability to dehorn without killing is what could save the species.”
Trade of the local stockpile, of which two-thirds belong to the state, could generate R60bn over a five-year period, “bringing much needed revenue back to conservation and reducing poaching pressure on our wild populations”.
But Jo Shaw, the manager of World Wide Fund for Nature-SA’s rhino programme, does not see a role for the international trade in rhino horn presently. Shaw and Jones were members of a committee of inquiry tasked with investigating the feasibility of South Africa tabling a proposal for a trade in rhino horn, or not.
“During 2015-2016 prior to Cites CoP17, the then-minister established a committee to decide whether South Africa should submit a proposal for international trade in rhino horn or not.
“The committee identified areas which required action to create an environment conducive for conservation - security, community empowerment, biological management, responsive legislation and demand management.
“WWF continue to support this process and believe sustainable use can only achieve its stated goals under scenarios of good governance, which have yet to be evidenced in South Africa and particularly in other key countries associated with rhino horn trafficking and consumption. For these reasons our position remains unchanged.”
Jones said private owners were “angry and disappointed” South Africa did not table a trade proposal for the upcoming 18th meeting of Cites in Sri Lanka (CoP18). The decision was “unacceptable, illogical and indefensible”.
“This year would have been the perfect time for a trade proposal together with Eswatini (Swaziland) and Namibia.”
Namibia is proposing to downlist its white rhinos to Appendix II, to allow only international commercial trade in live animals and hunting trophies, while the proposal from Eswatini seeks to allow unrestricted international commercial trade in all its white rhino population, currently included in Appendix II.
South Africa’s position, claimed Jones, contradicted statements by late environmental affairs minister Edna Molewa and the Department of Environmental Affairs of “the need to incentivise and assist private owners, the recommendations of the Scientific Authority to table a trade proposal and totally ignoring requests for international trade from the wildlife industry.
“We expected a trade proposal in 2016 at CoP17. Again to be let down for CoP18 means our next chance is CoP19 in 2022. This is a terrible decision and will have far reaching negative effects to our rhino conservation burden.”
But Albi Modise, spokesperson for the department, said following the commission of inquiry, several recommendations on minimum requirements that must be met to create an environment conducive for rhino conservation were made.
“This was to effectively address rhino poaching and the illegal trade in rhino horn, and to reach a point where any potential trade would contribute to conservation outcomes. Subsequently, the rhino lab was established, and the recommendations of the commission were developed into initiatives that involved national departments and stakeholders and were interrogated at this platform.
“After the process, and taking to account the rhino lab initiatives were not fully implemented, it was decided that Cites CoP18 will not be the appropriate CoP for such a proposal due to among other reasons that there is no adequate system in place to manage illegal trade and the department is still amending various legislation to improve the management of legal traded rhino horn.”
A private rhino owner in the Eastern Cape, who did not want to be identified, did not support the legalisation of the rhino horn trade. "Pelham Jones doesn't represent all rhino owners ... Many private rhino owners have a handful of rhino at best. What would we stand to get out of it?
"The initial figure could be substantial, but after that you're just harvesting bits and pieces of horn. Is it worth going down that route to generate potentially an average income but putting other wildlife at risk such as rhino in other countries and elephant and pangolin, which can't be farmed? The market is just so unknown. It could be a short term reprieve ... a sticky plaster that comes off and then we've opened up Pandora's box," said the landowner who lost a rhino to poaching days after it was dehorned last year.
Dr Andrew Taylor, wildlife trade and ranching project manager at Endangered Wildlife Trust, said its main concerns around legalising trade were that exporting and importing countries will not be able to regulate the trade sufficiently to prevent large-scale laundering.
“We do not know how the markets for horn (including criminals running illegal markets) will react to legalising trade. Increased poaching is a plausible outcome, but so is decreased poaching.”
Save the Rhino International said: “No one can know what the real impact of opening up such a trade would be, and there are plausible arguments that it would be positive or negative Beware anyone who makes definitive statements about an uncertain future. When the stakes - the survival or extinction of rhinos - are this high, everyone’s nervous about making the wrong decision.”
Andrea Crosta, of the Elephant Action League, termed the push for legal trade a “huge gamble in a market where nothing from nature can be really sustainable for long.
“It will send the message to Asian buyers that to buy rhino is okay, is legal and easily available. This will fuel demand and produce many new buyers, in a market of 2 billion potential buyers.
“To satisfy the demand, especially for the buyers who want wild rhino, all rhinos in Africa and Asia will become a target.”
Serious intelligence work on transnational criminal networks is the only way to truly disrupt the slaughter.
Legal Trade for Rhino Survival, a campaign initiated and funded by the Kingdom of Eswatini’s Big Game Parks, says an ethical, legal international trade in rhino horn will not only give rhinos their best chance of survival but will also unlock enormous much-needed funding for other important nature conservation needs.
"At the same time, it will bring meaningful benefits to the rural communities and economies of African range states. Since the ban on horn trade was put in place 42 years ago, only criminals have benefited from the consequential illegal horn trade. It is long overdue that African countries and their people become the beneficiaries of their legally owned and valuable sovereign assets."
Kim Da Ribiera of Outraged SA Citizens Against Poaching, warned legal trade would allow illegal trade to flourish.
She welcomed the announcement of a high-level panel which will review the implementation of the recommendations of the inquiry into the feasibility of a legal rhino horn trade and any future decisions affecting trade-related proposals to Cites.
“We should be less concerned about pushing for trade and more concerned about addressing corruption and putting our own house in order. We believe it’s time that a broader base of South Africans are allowed input to South Africa’s position on matters that impact on the future of our wildlife populations.
"Of concern is that part of the criteria for panel members serving on the advisory committee is that they must be persons who are ‘committed to and subscribe to the objectives and principles of conservation and sustainable use as enunciated in Section 24’. This criterion would in my opinion exclude anyone who does not support the view of the DEA with respect to ‘sustainable use’. If this is the case, we will be left with a panel who are not truly representative of all South Africans.
"A further criterion is that the panelists must all subscribe and commit to provincial legislation. How the panel will achieve this when provincial and national legislation are at times in conflict with one another is another matter."
SADC flora and fauna trading at $340M a year
In October last year at a parliamentary briefing on the preparations for Cites COP18, Mpho Tjiane, deputy director of Cites policy development and implementation at the DEA, said it had done a trade analysis for the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to highlight the importance of trade to the region.
The total financial value of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) listed exports from the SADC was estimated to be $340 million (R4.8billion) a year.
While it was expected most of the trading would be in plants and hunting trophies, the analysis revealed otherwise.
“The African grey parrot dominated the market, used as a pet in Asian countries and Middle East countries, estimated at $278 million. The aloe ferox, used for many plant-based products, and Nile crocodile skin, used for belts in European and Asian markets, were exported in large quantities.”
Animal welfare needed to be considered in decisions to trade wildlife, remarked Karen Trendler, the manager of the wildlife trade and trafficking unit at the NSPCA.
“Any proposals that involve breeding, farming, trading or live animals and parts will have a welfare implication. Cites is a trade organisation and does not focus or address welfare yet its decisions have a direct impact on the welfare of wild animals,” said Trendler.
Live trade and the export of wild animals is a major concern for the NSPCA in looking at Cites issues.
“Many of the countries where animals are being exported do not have welfare legislation. Rhino and lion, for example, are increasingly being exported with significant welfare concerns and cruelty.
Big Game Parks will lead rhino trade talks
At the upcoming CITES meeting in Sri Lanka in May, the Legal Trade for Rhino Survival, a campaign led by the Kingdom of Swaziland’s Big Game Parks, hopes to “sensitise the world to the real plight of Africa’s rhinos and encourage effective action to ensure their long-time survival”.
“It’s believed that an ethical, legal international trade in rhino horn will not only give rhinos their best chance of survival but will also unlock enormous much-needed funding for other important nature conservation needs, and at the same time bring meaningful benefits to rural communities and economies of African range states.”
The country is home to about 79 southern white rhino. It wants to allow limited and regulated trade in its legal stockpiles of around 330kg horn and to non-lethally harvest about 20kg a year.
The horn, it says, will be properly documented, certificated and recorded on a DNA database, a national register and with the CITES Secretariat to safeguard its integrity. At CoP17, parties, including rhino range states, rejected a similar proposal from eSwatini.
Analysis by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and wildlife trade specialists, Traffic, on eSwatini’s proposed amendment to CITES, finds it has the potential to stimulate trade as the rhino subspecies is in demand.
“It is unlikely that 20kg per year will meet global demand. It’s not possible to predict if legalising trade in rhino horn from one population will stimulate trade in other populations.
“While legal trade could replace some of the demand currently being met by legally obtained horn, legalisation could also lead to new consumers entering the market who had previously been put off by its illegality.
Few details are provided as to how the proposed legal trade will be carried out. “For example, it’s not specified which importing countries would permit a legal trade (China recently reaffirmed its 25-year ban on the use of rhino horn for traditional Chinese medicine) or how trade would be monitored throughout the trade chain to avoid laundering and who would fund this.
“Eswatini has provided some detail on precautionary measures they would implement, but it’s not clear what safeguards would be implemented by any anticipated trade partners or even which countries would be able legally to import the horn.
SA mulls trade listing of bitter aloe forex
Amending the trade listing of bitter aloe ferox, increasing the black rhino export quota for hunting trophies and asking for more time to register captive-breeding facilities for African grey parrots.
These are the proposals and documents that South Africa has submitted for consideration by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) at its upcoming COP18 meeting in Sri Lanka.
Tourists, says the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), are faced with “challenges” when they buy aloe-based finished products in the country and were unable to take them home immediately.
“Several resource assessments of aloe ferox and a biodiversity management plan is being developed,” said DEA spokesperson Albi Modise of the proposal to exclude finished products of aloe ferox, listed on Appendix II, from regulation under Cites.
“It’s anticipated that the amended annotation will still allow regulation of trade from wild populations but will facilitate the in-country processing of both primary and secondary extracts from A. ferox leaves.
“This should promote the sustainable and efficient use of wild harvested aloe resources. At the same time benefits to community livelihoods and local economies will be enhanced, and the regulatory burden on both importers and exporters will be reduced.”
The DEA also wants to increase South Africa’s export quota for black rhino hunting trophies from five adult male black rhino (0.2%) to a total number of adult male black rhinoceros not exceeding 0.5% of the total population of black rhinos, or about nine black rhinos a year, in the year of export.
“This quota maintains the percentage harvest at the level of population offtake that prevailed when the original quota of five adult males was approved.
"The biological status of the species has improved since the original quota was introduced,” said Modise. “The objectives of this cautious increase in the quota are: to expand the species’ range in South Africa through incentivising the keeping and protection of viable populations of black rhinos and to increase/maintain productive population growth rates through the offtake of surplus males.”
The third submission is to ask for the extension of the decision on trade in captive-bred African grey parrots to allow SA to register captive-breeding facilities. International trade in wild African-grey parrots was outlawed at COP17, but captive facilities are regulated under Cites rules.