Conservation tsar to tackle the horns of SA’s rhino dilemma

The million-dollar question Msimang will have to answer by September is whether opening the trade in rhino horn will stem poaching, responsible for at least 235 rhino deaths this year. Hawks spokesperson Colonel Johan Jooste predicts more than 550 will die by year’s end if current poaching rates continue.

At the first of a series of round-table discussions on rhino conservation convened by Msimang last week, KwaZulu-Natal provincial parks authorities added their voice to calls by several private rhino owners for the lifting of the ban on trade in horn.

Msimang would not be drawn on whether he supported the idea this week, saying he had been assigned by the department of environmental affairs to “act like a judge” and could not reveal his personal opinions.

“I can’t predict the outcome of the talks, but I don’t buy into all the arguments of innocence,” he told the Mail & Guardian. “There is evidence of collusion between some private owners and people selling horns, and rangers are also colluding with poachers.

“But I do know the protected areas authorities are determined to secure the safety of rhinos and the environment department wants all rhino stakeholders to advise them on how best to contain the slaughter.”

Msimang’s track record
During his six years at the helm of SANParks from 1997, Msimang was credited with transforming it into a broadly representative organisation, introducing a successful commercialisation programme and putting an end to the controversial culling of elephants in the Kruger National Park.

In 2003 he was redeployed to head up the State Information Technology Agency and in 2007 he was appointed director general of the department of home affairs. Dubbed “Mr Fix-it”, he tackled syndicates behind the doctoring of South African documents and was responsible for the arrest and prosecution of more than 100 employees for corruption.

Msimang said this week he had retained his interest in nature conservation over the years and still served on the boards of several conservation organisations, including isiMangaliso Wetland Park in kwaZulu-Natal, WWF South Africa, the Peace Parks Foundation and African Parks.

He retired in April 2010, but the department called him out of retirement to become its “rhinoceros conservation issue manager”. The brief was to solicit a wide range of views on the survival, conservation and management of rhinos, he said.

“We are dealing with issues such as whether to increase the rangelands for rhinos, to give them more space to breed naturally, and whether the number of rhinos they say South Africa has – I believe between 21 000 and 22 000 is correct – is sufficient for the species to survive.”

At last week’s round-table, arguments both in favour and against legalising trade were presented. Rhino rehabilitation expert Karen Trendler said farming rhinos to cut off their horns was unethical, and opening trade would have negative repercussions for rhino populations in other parts of Africa and Asia.

Poachers reap what rhino owners sow
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife said poachers were reaping all the benefits, with the illegal market price of rhino horn now at more than $40 000 a kilogram, while the state and private rhino owners incurred all the costs of protecting the species.

The provincial parks authority’s chief executive, Bandile Mkhize, announced late last month he would lead South Africa’s campaign to persuade the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) to open trade in horn.

He proposed setting up a De Beers-style central selling organisation that would administer three or four sales of horn a year from state-protected areas, private game ranchers and stockpiles to accredited buyers.

“We have to try something different and trading rhino horn is a mechanism I am now prepared to support and argue forcefully for,” Mkhize said at the meeting.

Days later, 40 white rhinos on sale at Ezemvelo’s annual game auction fetched an average R30 000 more than last year’s prices. Klerksdorp farmer Piet Fourie, who paid a record price of R560 000 for a female and a calf, said legalising trade was the way to go to reduce poaching.

Msimang needs to decide if he agrees by September, when he will report back to Environment Minister Edna Molewa. A proposal to lift the 30-year ban on trade would have to be submitted to Cites in early October if it is to be considered at the 16th conference of parties in Thailand next March. The 17th conference only takes place five years later, in March 2016.

Until recently Molewa often stated her opposition to lifting the ban, mainly because of the legal hurdles involved, but in May she told Parliament she was reconsidering the issue.

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Fiona Macleod
Fiona Macleod

Fiona Macleod is an environmental writer for the Mail & Guardian newspaper and editor of the M&G Greening the Future and Investing in the Future supplements.

She is also editor of Lowveld Living magazine in Mpumalanga.

An award-winning journalist, she was previously environmental editor of the M&G for 10 years and was awarded the Nick Steele award for environmental conservation.

She is a former editor of Earthyear magazine, chief sub-editor and assistant editor of the M&G, editor-in-chief of HomeGrown magazines, managing editor of True Love and production editor of The Executive.

She served terms on the judging panels of the SANParks Kudu Awards and The Green Trust Awards. She also worked as a freelance writer, editor and producer of several books, including Your Guide to Green Living, A Social Contract: The Way Forward and Fighting for Justice.

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