With 80% of the world’s rhino population, South Africa is throwing vast resources and its political acumen at halting the trade in rhino horn. At the upcoming Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) meeting in Bangkok, it will thrash out this issue with counterparts from across the world, and more specifically the Asian countries that are the main consumers of ivory.
The last time Cites met was three years ago, when rhino poaching was still a small problem. Since then the numbers have grown rapidly, with 448 killed in 2011 and 668 last year, mostly in the Kruger National Park.
This has made this gathering all about ivory – where rhino poaching is a problem for South Africa and elephant poaching is a huge problem elsewhere in the continent with over 20 000 killed last year.
It will see a showdown between Kenya and South Africa. The former will be asking for a zero export quota to be placed on South Africa’s export of hunting trophies, a loophole that has been abused by poachers. South Africa is opposing this, and Cites has already said its member states should oppose this.
But before all this starts, Edna Molewa, minister of environmental affairs, held a press conference to talk about Cabinet’s recent discussion on rhino poaching and her department’s negotiating stance at Cites.
The main thing presented to the Cabinet was the findings of the Rhino Issues Management process, a comprehensive overview of the rhino poaching problem with a focus on funding, conservation, trade, and safety and security. It has not yet been released publicly.
But Molewa said one of its key recommendations was the establishment of a National Rhino Fund, which her department was already discussing with treasury. Wednesday's budget speech saw an extra R75-million being given to the fight against poaching.
This money would go into the pot along with several tweaks to the way anti-poaching efforts were being carried out. The number and efficiency of field rangers would be increased; community members living next to protected areas would be involved in protecting rhinos and informing authorities about poachers; and new technologies – like unmanned aerial vehicles – would be piloted.
“The feasibility of dehorning all black rhino and key white rhino populations is however questioned,” she said. This was due to the costs of the process, biological and social impacts on the animals, and the fact that the horns grow back.
“The dehorning study commissioned by the department of environmental affairs found that dehorning is only a deterrent and only a viable option for small populations where other security interventions are in place,” she said.
South Africa wants to bring the idea of legalised trade to this Cites, with the hope of having it discussed and implemented at the meeting after this one. “We may need more extraordinary measures than we have right now, including trade. We think this is worthwhile considering,” she said.
While this was happening, 128 rhino had already been poached this year. Ninety-two of these were in the Kruger Park, which has traditionally been the hardest-hit area.
Last year 668 rhino were killed in South Africa, a nearly 50% increase from the 2011 total of 448. Thirteen were killed for their horns in 2007. Global seizures of illegal ivory had also increased from 23 tonnes to 34 tonnes in the same period.
Forty-six people has been arrested in connection with poaching. And Molewa said, “The fact that the criminal syndicates involved in rhino poaching also undertake other crimes means that this current situation can be considered a national security risk.”
“It is therefore imperative that the national response be comprehensive as it threatens not only the sustainable development path of the country, but also the heritage of future generations,” she said.
Evidence of this priority is seen with rhino poaching being elevated to a priority crime by the National Joint Operations Centre, she said. The soldiers working in the Kruger National Park would also be getting greater powers and be able to do more aid the Park’s anti-poaching efforts.
Diplomatic ends were also being followed with neighbours like Mozambique, as well as several identified consumer states. Last year a memorandum of understanding was finally signed with Vietnam.
A similar memorandum was also being hammered-out with Mozambique. The fence between the two sides of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, which came down in 2002 when the transfrontier park came into being, could also be put back up again to stop the easy movement of poachers.
“They are losing elephants, we are losing rhinos here. The transfrontier park that was agreed to, how do we deal with that? Do we keep the fence lowered?,” she said.
At Cites, Molewa would also engage with the major voices in regulating and consuming rhino horn – China, Thailand, the EU, United States, and other Southern African states.
With the huge international outcry over rhino and elephant poaching, the Cites Standing Committee is thought to be planning to go hard on Vietnam and China to address the demand inside their borders.
The committee is chaired by the United Kingdom. And Richard Benyon, its wildlife minister was quoted in the Independent saying, “[Poaching] can be reduced by tackling illegality in the supply chain, and on the front lines of poaching, but ultimately for it to succeed, it requires in-country activities by these two countries.”
“We want these countries to toughen their domestic legislation and the control of internal markets, and there has to be a mechanism within the international community to act, if countries fail to do that,” he said.
Cites begins on Sunday and runs until 14 March.