Inaction is the worst possible rhino strategy

It has been six years since the rhino-poaching crisis first emerged. In this time our government has successfully managed to sign a memorandum and action plan with the Vietnamese government and deflect a zero-quota proposal from Kenya at the 2013 congress of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites). That is it. In the same amount of time, the Allies were able to resist and overcome the greatest threat mankind has ever seen by winning World War II.

Considering that many more elephant than rhino have been slaughtered elsewhere in Africa since 2008, why the growing concern over every individual rhino lost in South Africa? The reason is simple: the enemy is at the gates of the last stronghold of organised conservation on the continent. Every rhino lost shows the ever-tightening stranglehold by organised international crime on the destiny of our wildlife heritage. There is so much at stake. Already elephants and predators are being poached and it is only a matter of time before tourists are scared away by this growing insurgency.  

Criminal syndicates must be amazed at the conservation community's lack of decisive action. This conflict is not being fought in Asia and it is not Asians who are dying. The people being shot, killed and arrested are Africans. It's the African inheritance that is being laid to waste.  

My plea to the policymakers deliberating on this matter is to remove the blinkers and see that it is Africa's children being exploited in this rape of our heritage. Was the refusal to grant the Dalai Lama an entry visa for Desmond Tutu's birthday party a portent of a coming complete subservience to Asian masters? How many sustainable jobs have been created in Africa for Africans through Asian investment, especially compared to the existing jobs in wildlife tourism that will be lost if international arrivals dry up because a guest has been injured or killed in a confrontation with poachers.

Each day that passes without decisive action on an international scale gives criminal syndicates a chance to extend their malignant reach and influence. The global conservation community has been totally ineffective in transferring risk and accountability to those in Asia, but criminal syndicates have been getting more and more organised, entrenched and sophisticated in Africa.  

Single-minded investment
Increased investment in local law enforcement only is clearly not the answer. We have been pursuing this strategy for six years, but the rhino body count is growing. Putting more people behind bars means nothing if the slaughter continues unabated; we must be careful not to mask our failure with this façade. Yes, security measures will always be necessary, but in this case, they are clearly not enough. For as long as there is little or no risk to the criminal masterminds in Asia, single-minded investment in additional, localised law enforcement simply drives up the stakes for the Africans on both sides of the conflict – while, at the same time, driving up the rewards for criminals.

There is, unfortunately, a limitless recruiting pool of highly impoverished and therefore desperate Africans for the syndicates to exploit. Africa's sons are being used as cannon fodder.

With the black-market value of a dead rhino continuing to soar – in stark contrast to the decline in the legitimate value of a live animal – are we not playing straight into the hands of the criminal syndicates? Our limited focus on increasing risk on the supply side could well drive up the price of illegal horn on the black market, to the benefit of the masterminds behind this crisis.

Our enemy's rewards are growing exponentially, but our ability to fund preventative security operations through the legitimate sale of live animals has shrunk tremendously. Sadly, a live rhino is now increasingly viewed as a liability. The time has come to acknowledge that we have been outmanoeuvred, that all we have to show for our efforts are the corpses and criminal dockets of our fellow Africans.

How, then, do we take back some level of control and influence? Certainly, inaction is not the answer. The one option available to us – the legalisation of international trade – is widely rejected. But it is rejected by peripheral stakeholders, who have never assumed the responsibility of looking after a live rhino or had to deploy their employees into harm's way to hold the line against the poachers.

These detractors of the legalisation argument include many in academia, civil society and government. Vicious attacks and threats have meant that certain well-meaning animal-rights nongovernmental organisations not only create uncertainty in the public mind, but also cause the government to dither. Self-proclaimed experts use social-media platforms to pontificate; they conveniently justify donations, while insulting the very men and women who, on a daily basis, are getting on with the job of saving rhinos.

Ask the conservation managers tasked with this job for their views. There is now almost unanimous support among all the public and private conservation agencies in South Africa for legalised international trade in rhino horn. This collective plea from those at the frontline should count for something.

Non-lethal harvesting
The reason the peripheral stakeholders reject trade is that there is uncertainty about how it will affect demand. They worry that demand could quickly exceed supply. My response is:

  • The current situation of zero trade is clearly not working. If we wait until the national herd is in steep decline before acting, we may indeed reach a point where this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Recent data suggests that the rhino population in South Africa is very close to this threshold. If we are to look at trade as an option, we need to do it without delay. Yes, the Cites time frame is a constraint, but Article 15 provides recourse for emergency intervention. Let's use it. Politicians, this is your cue.
  • I agree that legalised trade will not eliminate poaching. There is a legal market for cars, yet auto theft is rife.  The intention is not to use trade to stop poaching, but to prevent the extinction of a species. It is to enable the sustainable use of an animal that uniquely lends itself to non-lethal, repetitive harvesting to fund ever-climbing security costs. Legalised trade would bestow a meaningful value on a live animal again. This would only be good for the survival of the species.
  • Yes, there is uncertainty about how trade will affect demand, but since when has economics been an exact science? Economics is driven by supply and demand. We know there is a demand for horn that can be supplied through sustainable, non-lethal harvesting. This will encourage investment in the species, with significant potential for ensuing revenue to fund improved counter-poaching measures.  

Concern about supply not meeting demand seems to be founded on current population data. Yet, when left to their own devices, rhinos breed extremely well. Investment in the species, with range expansion, will result in the population growing very quickly indeed. Also, is it not standard practice to regulate demand for a scarce commodity through pricing? Look at diamond sales – and diamonds are not even scarce.

Doing nothing enables your adversary to dictate terms at his discretion. By taking action we will disrupt the status quo, which will expose weaknesses and thus give us opportunities to target these.  

The window of opportunity to save the rhino is rapidly closing. We need to act decisively and fast if we are to address what is increasingly becoming an existential threat to all our wildlife and associated economies. We cannot wait until Cites 2016 to advance the trade agenda. We will have lost anther 3000 to 4000 rhinos, plus who knows how many more other animals, by that time.

The criminals' chokehold on the destiny of our wildlife heritage may be too tight to break. We need to take back that destiny by doing exactly what the criminals don't want us to do: legalise the international trade in rhino horn.

Andrew Parker is the chief executive of the Sabi Sands reserve

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