IN THE first four months of this year the rate at which rhinos were poached in the Kruger National Park escalated by 20% compared to last year. Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa says 749 have been killed so far this year, 544 in the park.
Roughly three rhino a day are slaughtered by well-armed poachers who enter the park illegally, many from Mozambique, in small groups.
Horns are hacked off immobilised rhinos, living and dead, and are then, in the words of Gen Johan Jooste, exchanged for “Checkers bags full of money” in the chain of organised crime that leads to lucrative markets for horn in China, Vietnam and Laos via middlemen in Mozambique and SA.
Jooste is in charge of antipoaching operations in the Kruger National Park. His rangers are taking on a well-organised army of rhino poachers, which he estimates to be 6,000 strong, in a low-intensity war aimed at conserving an iconic but endangered species.
Rhinos are one of the “Big Five” which attract eco-tourism to SA. Tourism accounts for the livelihood of one in seven South Africans. The rangers, on average, engage in two fire fights a week and managed to “neutralise” (Jooste’s term) 386 poachers in the past year.
Since 2008, there have been 220 poachers killed in the war to save the rhino from extinction. Jooste sees lack of proper crime intelligence as the weakest point in the operations he leads. He might well add that his rangers are under-resourced, over-stretched and outnumbered. The investigation and prosecution services of the criminal justice administration in SA are thwarted by a lack of forensic follow-through and laws that are overly generous when it comes to granting bail, but somewhat parsimonious when sentences are imposed on convicted poachers.
There is no extradition agreement in place with Mozambique, no political will to mount hot pursuit operations and very little global co-ordination of law enforcement efforts. Middlemen live with impunity on the border of the Kruger National Park in Mozambique; warrants of arrest for them issued in SA cannot be served.
SPEAKING at the Wildlife in Crisis conference in Cape Town in May, experienced independent environmental consultant John Hanks proposed a legal trade in rhino horn as a possible option for the long-term security of rhinos in Africa. He considers that dehorning rhino and feeding the harvested horn into a regulated market internationally are realistic and sustainable ways of saving rhinos from extinction.
Hanks contends that community beneficiation of the currently alienated folk who live adjacent to protected areas in dire poverty is the key to the survival of rhinos. He does, however, concede that the legalisation of trade will not end poaching.
It is the escalation in poaching that is the problem. The black market value per kilogramme of rhino horn is greater than that of gold and platinum combined, so it is undeniable that a legal trade in horn would introduce a great deal of money into the economy by diverting some of the flow of funds from organised criminal syndicates.
Will Travers, of the Born Free Foundation, disagrees with Hanks. He points to the limitations of CITES, the 181-member international body to protect wildlife — two-thirds of which must be persuaded of the efficacy and appropriateness of legalising trade for the purpose of benefiting the endangered species, not the traders in products derived from it.
The thinking in CITES is very much against the legalisation of trade. This stance can be gleaned from the outcomes of the London and Kasane conferences recently held by the most active CITES members.
As the regulation of trade requires multi-lateral agreements to ensure that trade is legal and sustainable, and that produce traded is traceable, it is unrealistic to think that legalisation can be achieved without CITES buy-in any time soon.
Even if CITES were to change its stance, it would still take years to put in place the regulatory framework, the accountability mechanisms and enforcement resources to create a legalised trade.
Lamentably, the rhinos do not have the luxury of long lead-in times, given the escalating rate of poaching. China, the major market, has outlawed trade in rhino horn and is unlikely to change its domestic legislation any time soon. The attitude of CITES is, at least in part, informed by the answer to a simple question: “Does rhino horn work?” Is it the magical cure-all and general panacea for ailments and conditions — ranging from impotence to cancer — which Eastern buyers attribute so faithfully to it? The answer is manifestly “No”.
IN THESE circumstances it is arguably inappropriate, if not unethical, to sanction the trade in rhino horn because its sale into the Eastern medicine market is essentially a scam. The necessary imprimatur of CITES and regulatory bodies ought therefore not to be engaged in putting in place regulations, accountability mechanisms, traceability procedures and valuable resources, both human and logistical. Doing so would assist in perpetrating a fraud on buyers of scarce horn whose belief in its efficacy is so obviously misplaced, the placebo effect notwithstanding.
The Bill of Rights enshrines environmental rights.
Biodiversity must be conserved and promoted “while promoting justifiable economic and social development” according to section 24(b)(ii) and (iii) of the Constitution.
Selling rhino horn to gullible buyers in the East can hardly be described as justifiable economic development. Enabling such sales is not the function of CITES, and without CITES the idea of legalising trade in rhino horn will surely be stillborn.
Quite apart from the pragmatic and ethical aspects, there is an aesthetic dimension to the debate.
It is surely unimaginable that our ancient and iconic rhino species will enjoy the same cachet with discerning eco-tourists if they suddenly become as hornless as nanny goats. Without their magnificently adorned proboscises our rhinos look forlorn, mutilated and somewhat less than photogenic.
Many Africans (and others) regard the rich wildlife heritage of our continent as sacred. Sawing off the horns of drugged farmed rhinos violates this sacredness. Legalising trade simply will not end the devastating poaching that is threatening the survival of the species.
The way forward involves formulating a “Plan B” which advocates, among other things, properly resourced, intelligence driven, dedicated law enforcement by operatives who are sufficiently battle-hardened to take on the informal army of 6,000 poachers effectively. An extradition treaty with Mozambique is needed. Education on the evils of poaching is needed.
STIFFER punishment of offenders must be encouraged, whether by leading evidence in aggravation of sentence or via remedial legislation. Poaching must be made a schedule five offence to make it more onerous on suspects to obtain bail after they are apprehended. Too often arrested poachers simply jump bail and go back to their nefarious business. The chaos and fraud in the hunting permit system must be cleaned up and rationalised.
Corruption, endemic in the Kruger National Park, needs to be effectively combated by the creation of a new Chapter Nine institution, the Integrity Commission, to replace the Hawks.
In Kenya the introduction of life sentences for poachers cut the slaughter of elephants and rhino. A poster reading “The price of rhino horn is life imprisonment” could serve to deter those considering the easy pickings available to poachers.
SA is being violently robbed of its national treasure by an army of organised criminals. Decisive action is needed to address the cause of the slaughter of rhino, not its symptoms. Poaching needs to be made riskier and less attractive as a career option. The pro-and anti-legalisation lobbies need to put aside their differences and co-operate in an agreed Plan B.