Where are South Africa’s missing rhinos?
Hundreds of rhinos have been shipped from South Africa to disreputable zoos and breeding facilities across the world, despite losing more than 1000 rhinos a year to poaching.
Between 2006 and 2017, amid the onslaught of a national poaching crises, South Africa shipped about 900 live white rhinos overseas. These animals are now destined to live out their lives in the zoos and breeding facilities of China, North Korea, Singapore, Bangladesh, the US, Mauritius, Russia and Vietnam.
According to the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) Draft Biodiversity Management Plan for White Rhinoceros, a receiving rhino facility abroad should only be deemed acceptable to acquire South African rhinos if it can show a high standard of husbandry and veterinary care.
The facility should also be able to maintain animal record systems, have written conservation action plans in place, contribute to scientific studies, promote education and demonstrate a risk management plan.
In addition, keeping of any rhinos imported from South Africa in zoos or captive facilities for zoological, education, or awareness purposes must be limited to a maximum of five rhinos and should contribute to the conservation and preservation programmes.
These are the requirements, but with no hard and fast criteria for assessing these facilities, it is the responsibility of the importing state to approve what is appropriate and acceptable.
And while recent amendments to section 2 of the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act allow for the Department of Environmental Affairs to include minimum standards of well-being for threatened and protected species, there still remains no official set of standards and little follow-up inspection, so it’s impossible to say which, if any, of these points are being met, how many rhinos were received by whom, and where these rhinos are now.
According to Kim Da Ribeira of Outraged South Africans Against Poaching, “We are not aware that the DEA or any other South African bodies perform inspections to ensure the continued wellbeing of exported animals.”
Keith Lindsay, a collaborating researcher with the Amboseli Trust for Elephants in Kenya said: “If both countries say they are happy with the welfare aspects of the trade, no matter how genuinely inadequate, there is nothing anyone else can say.”
When pressed on this matter, Albi Modise, chief director of communication for the DEA, stated that, “The management authority of the importing country has an obligation to conduct follow-up compliance and inspections on the facilities in their countries.
“The department has no jurisdiction in any other countries, hence the multilateral environmental agreements as well as bilateral co-operations mechanisms. The responsibility of follow-up checks therefore rests with the receiving country management authority.”
However, once an animal has been exported to a facility in Vietnam, for example, there are no domestic laws that compel the importing facility to keep the animals on site and they can move or loan the rhinos to other zoos. One case of this occurring was seen in 2015 when 14 loaned rhinos ended up at a facility in Vietnam, allegedly responsible for mass animal deaths.
And while zoo owners in China are required by law to register births, deaths, trade and movement of the animals, the rule has proved in the past to be unenforceable. On visiting a new facility owned by the Chimelong Group in Qing Yuan, outside of Guangzhou, China, conservationist Karl Ammann stated that, “One of the buildings of the quarantine set-up seems to home a number of rhinos. Four white African ones and at least one one-horned Indian rhino.
“There seems to be no trade data available indicating where any of these animals might have come from
“The overall set-up is heavily guarded and the quarantine section surrounded by high fencing and razor wire more like a prison setting than ex situ conservation paradise.”
Modise encourages the public to speak out if they come across facilities that may not be complying with the norms and standards.
“Such reports will enable the department to further engage with the management authorities of the importing countries, and where necessary or feasible, to make follow-up checks on the reported facilities. We believe that the above approach is both proactive and reactive to manage the concerns,” he said.
However, there is also a lack of transparency regarding how many rhinos have been exported from South Africa or where they have been sent, with a number of inconsistencies clearly visible in the Cites public trade data. For instance, import and export figures simply do not line up and there are irregularities in the purpose codes used with some live animals even listed as hunting trophies.
On this note, Cites states: “Discrepancies between import and export figures in the Cites trade database may arise for a number of reasons including purpose codes are often reported using different, but equally valid, codes,” and that, “Many of the entries may be explained by exporters reporting on issued permits which are then not used or only partly utilised.”
Since 2000, Cites members have not been required to send wildlife trade export and import permit information to the Cites Geneva headquarters for inspection and correlation, however, instead only reporting their trade data once a year.
In South Africa, export permits are not issued through a central office but by each province, although applications relating to the authorisation of international trade in rhinos are required to be sent to the DEA before the permits are issued.
To date, “the process to institute an integrated national online permitting system is still to be finalised”, Modise said.
William Symes, a PhD student from the Department of Biological Sciences who recently published a study on the gravity of the wildlife trade, states that “while there is currently a database of legal trade in restricted species, it relies on the submission of annual reports which can be undermined by weak domestic legislation and governance, hence we are not getting a complete picture of the industry.”
However, it is this record that is supposed to influence decisions regarding the trade of rhinos and provide accurate public records of trade in the species. With the official trade database in such disarray, what hope does South Africa have when it comes to safeguarding the well-being and safety of these animals in the countries to where they are headed?
Introducing any corrective measures or trying to rescue the animals would be virtually impossible as the animals are now the property of the importing country.
It’s a process that passes through too many hands, resulting in massive inconsistencies, ineffectiveness to enforce the rules, unco-ordinated information at all levels, and ongoing insufficient recording of numbers.
These discrepancies have allowed the export of South Africa’s rhinos to go on for years, leaving one question left unanswered, “Where are our rhinos now?”
Avery is a conservationist and writer based in South Africa.