By 1960, there were just 600 southern white rhino left in the wild. That population, concentrated in the Hluhluwe-imfolozi park in KwaZulu-Natal, was the last chance for a species that poachers had all but annihilated. Five decades later and there is a population of about 18 000 spread across nine countries.
Similar success stories are common in South African conservation. The country has an excellent track record for bringing species back from the brink. This week, the environment department announced that the numbers of the Cape mountain zebra had climbed from 500 to 5 000.
These kinds of successes occur despite the incredible value poachers put on many of this country’s species. As the third most species diverse country in the world, South Africa has many things other people want.
At the heart of local success is the principle of sustainable use of natural resources. That means using animals to pay for most of their own conservation. It is a form of farming. It is a principle that opponents to this are happy to do with domesticated animals.
In a country where people often do not have access to clean or even enough water, justifying funds for conservation is a tough sell. The environment department is one of the smallest in government, with less than 1% of the national budget. But it has to figure out how to keep species alive and to fight off armed poachers.
One of the proposals tabled for rhino was to create farms, which would see about 20 rhino living on land in the former homelands, with their horns removed and sold every year. For places in Limpopo along the Kruger National Park border, this would create industry where there is none. It would also include the residents of those areas in conservation. That could make it harder for poachers to garner local support.
But the proposal died a quiet death after South Africa officially decided not to ask for permission to sell rhino horn. The political cost of such a request would have been too great. Outsiders have seized on the fate of rhino and elephant, two of the species that caused the most heated debates at this week’s meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).
On its agenda are the fates of hundreds of species, with the member states voting on whether trade in, for example, the pangolin (the world’s most trafficked mammal) should be allowed or banned.
Swaziland tabled its proposal to trade rhino horn, which is more valuable than gold. The landlocked country said it cannot afford the costs of conserving such a desired animal byproduct. South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia had their discussion about selling elephant ivory shut down by the invasive presence, and lobbying, of Western environmental organisations. With their resources, and by lobbying their own governments, they have stopped any meaningful debate on trading species. Countries that wiped out their own species are now telling those that still have theirs how to manage them.
That leaves the countries with elephant and rhino stuck with no way of paying to keep them alive. Instead, they will have to rely on charity from the very same groups who shot down the proposals that they proposed.