Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa has thrown her weight behind controversial calls for the legalisation of trade in rhino horn.
Molewa said for the first time in an interview that she believes it "is the right direction" to take and could be the key to saving South Africa's increasingly threatened rhino population from extinction.
The stage now seems set for South Africa to push ahead with trade proposals at the next conference of the 178 member countries to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), which will be hosted in Cape Town in 2016.
If so, it will be South Africa's third attempt since 1994 to convince Cites to open trade.
"We believe it is the right direction as one of the measures [to curb rhino poaching]," Molewa said in an interview with the Mail & Guardian in Bangkok during the recent Cites meeting. "The model that we have is based on pure law of supply and demand. Economics 101. Our rhinos are killed every day and the numbers are going up. The reality is that we have done all in our power and doing the same thing every day isn't working. We do think that we need to address this issue of trade in a controlled manner so that we can at least begin to push down this pressure."
It is a move born out of desperation. If poaching levels continue to rise, South Africa's rhino population will begin to fall, with deaths outstripping the birth rate by 2016, what conservationists describe as the "tipping point".
Fundisile Mketeni, the environment department's deputy director general, said South Africa had "not yet decided to sell rhino horn".
"We say we must talk about it. Because all other things are spoken about, but this one seems taboo. We are saying we have tried everything, let's start talking about this one."
But environmentalists say South Africa is sending a "dangerous mixed message" to countries like Vietnam that have grossly inadequate laws and policing to crack down on the illegal trade and the criminal syndicates driving it.
'Nexus' of a 'rapacious' demand
Vietnam, which Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network, has described as the "nexus" of a "rapacious" demand for rhino horn, continues to deny its centrality to the problem, despite evidence to the contrary. Last week, Do Quang Tung, the acting head of Vietnam's wildlife trade authority, dismissed as "bullshit" suggestions that Vietnam was the primary destination and consumer country for rhino horn. Instead, he pointed to China, saying it was responsible for "99% of the horn that goes through Vietnam".
Allan Thornton, the president of the Environmental Investigation Agency, a non-governmental organisation that has been investigating and exposing environmental crime for the past three decades, said the debate about legal trade was "stimulating and further legitimising and commercialising demand for rhino horn products".
"It seems to me that the syndicates in Vietnam are popping the champagne corks … because they will be the ones that mainly benefit from legalised rhino horn trade."
Others fear that the trade debate is premature, in large part because so little is known about the size and potential size of consumer markets in countries like Vietnam and China.
"I worry that we really do not understand the market and I worry that for regulated trade to work effectively, the consumer countries have to be able to regulate that trade and we are not in a situation where those consumer countries are in a position to do that," said Mark Jones, the executive director of Humane Society International United Kingdom.
Benson Okita-Ouma, a senior scientist specialising in rhino conservation at the Kenya Wildlife Service and a member of Kenya's Cites delegation, said that while South Africa spoke about "debate" about trade, the debate was not as open as it was being portrayed. "It is being pushed as if it is the only solution. South Africa says it is putting out feelers, but it is doing so with a biased mind. That is the way it wants to go. There is a danger of increasing demand and stimulating poachers because consumers feel that there will definitely now be selling of rhino horn."
Environmentalists also point to the disastrous impact of two "one-off" ivory stockpile sales, which they say reinvigorated China's demand for ivory and is now causing mass-scale slaughter of elephants in parts of Africa. But pro-trade lobbyists argue that there is no comparison, as rhino horn, unlike elephant tusks, can be "harvested" without killing the animals.
South Africa hosted a series of side-events at the Cites conference geared towards "starting an international debate" on the "taboo" subject of trade and convincing critics that legal trade was one of the answers to the seemingly intractable rhino poaching crisis. At a presentation on "rhino economics" or "rhinonomics", as one official dubbed it, Molewa was joined on stage by Pelham Jones, a fervent proponent of legalised trade and the chairperson of the Private Rhino Owners' Association, which represents the owners of about 5 000 rhinos.
"More of the same will not work," he said, echoing what has become the mantra of South African government officials and pro-trade lobbyists.
At least 1872 rhino had been lost in the past decade, he said, at a cost of R900-million. "The devaluation loss is in the region of R5-billion, the loss of a commodity, whether a legal or illegal commodity, some R3.5-billion. There is less demand for rhino because of the problems we are facing. Private ownership is on a cliff-edge. There are fewer sales, lower prices, less income. There is disinvestment in rhino because rhino have now become a liability. If we carry on as we are, by the year 2026, rhino will be extinct in the wild. That is a very, very sobering scenario.
"Illegal demand will not go away and has to be addressed. Anti-trade organisations are aiding and abetting illegal trade without a better solution." Will Travers, an animal welfare campaigner and the chief executive of the Born Free Foundation, asked the panellists to raise their hands if they believed rhino horn had medical benefits or could cure cancer. None of them did.
"So what are they saying by legalising rhino-horn trade? Here is a product that every sensible scientist says has no significant impact and they are going to sell it at huge cost to a public that is ill-informed. I wouldn't go to sleep at night if I thought I was selling something like that to a Vietnamese family who have scrimped and saved every cent to buy rhino horn for their dying grandmother, who then goes and dies."
Johnny de Lange, ANC MP and chairperson of the Parliamentary portfolio committee on water and environmental affairs, who accompanied the South African delegation to Bangkok, said there was a need for "multilayered strategies" to deal with the problem.
"We do not have solutions to the black market, which is rapidly expanding and is just consuming and consuming: 3.3 tonnes of horn a year is being consumed."
In order to trade, South Africa will have to find a trading partner and convince a two-thirds majority of Cites member states to vote in favour of the proposal.