Last month, the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) announced a committee to investigate legal trade in rhino horn. If approved, a trade proposal will be presented at the next CITES congress in 2016. International trade in rhino horn has been banned by CITES since 1977.
The decision to investigate such a proposal was made two years ago by the South African government, and a “secret” committee has been meeting since April 2014. The original 10 members were never revealed, but journalists uncovered the identity of five, all of whom turned out to be pro-trade.
Now the publically announced committee includes the original pro-trade members, plus other even more dubious appointments, such as committee chair Nana Mangomola, who was suspended from the National Gambling Board after irregular audit findings.
“The Minister has botched the process from the start by first appointing a secret panel of experts and then failing to vet all members of the committee before they were appointed.” says Terri Stander DA shadow deputy minister for Environmental Affairs.
SA government probably pro-trade
The secrecy, delays and questionable membership selection make it hard to believe that the South African government doesn’t have an agenda for the committee.
Although the DEA maintains that South Africa “has not taken a position on the issue”, a statement released by the department in June 2014 concluded, “South Africa believes that legalising the trade in rhino horn will in no way contribute to increased poaching.”
That the South African government stands to make around $1.36-billion if permitted to sell its 21 tons of rhino horn offers clear motivation for such a belief.
However, no matter how strongly South Africa comes out in favour of a legal rhino horn trade, it’s highly unlikely it will be passed by CITES.
Two thirds majority needed
“[The proposal] has to be approved by 66% or more of the parties attending,” explains Will Travers, a founder of the Born Free Foundation. “South Africa would have to get 107 votes. We only have to tip it up to about 55 votes against and the blocking minority prevents it.”
CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon has also gone on record that “Rhino horn, elephant ivory, and tiger parts should not be traded commercially in any circumstances.”
And, at a recent meeting of both pro and anti traders, independent journalist Peter Borchert reported that all participants agreed it would be unrealistic to expect any changes to the CITES legislation.
At best, the trade debate is a waste of time and effort, and is causing people who are essentially on the same side in the fight to save the rhino to work against one another. But there are other, more serious consequences.
Adam Cruise is a member of the Conservation Action Trust