Saving the Rhino
There are constant calls for solutions to the rhino poaching problem in South Africa.
The usual list includes deterring poachers, educating consumers in destination states, and providing alternative economic opportunities to those engaged in poaching.
Creative solutions to tackle poaching include safely injecting rhino horns with poison so that consumers fall ill and adverts depicting rhinos with human hands or feet in place of their horns
Against this backdrop, South Africa’s Water and Environmental Affairs Minister, Edna Molewa, recently backed a proposal to legalise the international trade in rhino horn.
This paper builds on a prior article published by CAI’s Enviro Africa unit, which mentions the possibility that legalising the horn trade could save rhinos.
In light of Molewa’s proposal, this paper addresses the legalisation argument in greater depth. The paper begins by discussing the current state of poaching in South Africa and the radical proposal supported by Molewa.
The discussion examines both sides of the debate; why some people support legalisation while others strongly oppose it.
The paper then examines the legal hurdles that South Africa would potentially face under domestic and international law, should it go through with legalisation.
Finally, the paper concludes by advocating against legalisation of the horn trade.
South Africa has a poaching problem. Although this problem is not new, poaching has certainly escalated in 2013.
As of May 2013, 273 rhinos were poached in South Africa in 2013 alone, with 201 of these killed in the Kruger National Park.
The numbers show no sign of declining; in fact, poaching has doubled each year over the past five years in South Africa.
At this rate, South Africa is predicted to lose over 800 rhinos to poachers in 2013, a number that far exceeds the estimated 668 rhinos poached in 2012.
The situation is so bad that the Democratic Alliance MP, Anthony Benadie, believes that rhino poaching should be declared a national disaster.
This would allow South Africa to allocate disaster management funds to fight poaching.
In the meantime, South Africa is trying to deal with its poaching problem.
The country’s law enforcement officials arrested 43 alleged poachers from January to May 2013.
Although some poachers are from South Africa, others cross borders from Mozambique and other nearby countries, in order to poach rhinos.
However, increasingly savvy organised crime syndicates lurk in the shadows, supplying the growing demand for rhino horn in Asia.
A Radical Proposal
South Africa faces difficult choices in selecting the best way to curb poaching.
If the current poaching rate holds, rhinos will soon face extinction as the death rate exceeds the birth rate.
Attempts at educating consumers in destination states and deterring poachers have not been as successful as many hoped.
Against this backdrop, Edna Molewa, South Africa’s Water and Environmental Affairs Minister, backed a proposal to legalise the international trade in rhino horn.
Molewa believes legalisation would neutralise the black market and save the endangered rhinos.
During a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meeting in Bangkok, Molewa stated: “The model that we have is based on pure law of supply and demand. Economics 101. Our rhinos are killed every day and the numbers are going up.
“The reality is that we have done all in our power and doing the same thing every day isn't working. We do think that we need to address this issue of trade in a controlled manner so that we can at least begin to push down this pressure.”
Molewa’s assumption is that legalisation would neutralise the black market. She believes that the horn trade would not spiral out of control, but would occur in a highly controlled environment, similar to the diamond trade.
Ideally, this would control sales of rhino horn across the globe.
Molewa is not alone in thinking that legalisation is the only option left.
South Africa already tried opening rhino horn trade to CITES on two prior occasions and some researchers and economists still believe that legalisation is the key to cutting poachers out of the horn trade market.
They point to the legal trade in crocodile skins, which led to sustainable crocodile ranching, as an example of how legal trade would be beneficial for conservation.
While this argument has its merits, opposition groups have decried it for a number of reasons.
Groups such as the wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC, and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) strongly oppose legalisation.
They believe that viable options for combating poaching remain. Additionally, NGOs worry that legalisation sends the wrong message.
Allan Thornton, president of Environmental Investigation Agency, states that legalisation would legitimise and commercialise the demand for rhino horn products.
Further, it might stimulate the black market trade in Asia for rhino horn.
Opponents also remain unconvinced by arguments that legalisation would cut poachers out of the market, and believe that at best, the illegal market would operate side-by-side with the legal one.
Rhino horn sales are banned under CITES.
Although the trade has been banned since 1977, demand for rhino horn remains high.
Since 1977, the rhino has been listed in the Appendix I endangered species list, which prohibits international trade in rhinos and rhino product.
However, in 1994, the white rhino was placed in Appendix II, “(f)or the exclusive purpose of allowing international trade in live animals to appropriate and acceptable destinations and hunting trophies.”
All other rhinos remain listed in Appendix I.
Notably, South Africa’s attempt to allow for limited trade in white rhino horn in 1994 failed to garner the necessary two-thirds vote to enable such trade.
Under South Africa’s CITES obligations, any domestic legalisation of horn trade would be illegal.
Thus, South Africa would have to convince CITES signatory states to approve the trade. This would require support from a two-thirds majority of the 178 member states.
This could prove challenging considering that South Africa’s last attempt to allow for white rhino horn trade failed.
CITES has already relaxed Appendix II restrictions for white rhinos, and it is difficult to see CITES taking other rhino species off Appendix I and suddenly allowing trade in their horns. Furthermore, CITES, which met in Bangkok in early 2013, does not meet again until 2016.
Considering that a vote will not occur for some time, and even when it does is unlikely to pass, South Africa must look at other ways to combat poaching besides international legalisation.
One example is the emergence of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU).
South Africa recently signed a MoU with the People’s Republic of China on co-operation in the field of wildlife conservation.
This comes after a similar MoU with Vietnam aimed at promoting co-operation in the field of biodiversity conservation and protection.
These MoUs are “aimed at curbing the current scourge of rhino poaching through cooperation in law enforcement, compliance with international conventions and other relevant legislation”.
These MoUs are a step in the right direction. In fact, South Africa should work on signing MoUs with other Asian states where rhino horn is consumed.
In contrast, legalisation of the rhino horn trade would be a step backwards.
Legalisation would lead to more rhino horns winding up in East Asia, which would fuel the demand. Rather, South Africa should use the CITES framework to help curb poaching.
What can be done to curb poaching short of hoping that legalisation would suddenly shut down the illegal market?
Unfortunately, South Africa cannot look to its neighbours for guidance in effectively combating poaching.
The last 15 known rhinos in Mozambique were wiped out by poaching in April 2013. In fact, the failure of Mozambique to combat poaching has led South Africa to threaten re-erecting fences between their reserves.
Similarly, poaching in Zimbabwean reserves remains rife.
Thus, South Africa must emerge as a leader in the fight to combat poaching.
Although the current methods used to combat poaching are not perfect, they are not completely ineffective.
Rather, South Africa must enhance these methods with added protections.
Deterring poachers, educating consumers in destination states, and providing alternative economic opportunities to those engaged in the practice form the best foundation for combating poaching.
Using CITES and the MoUs in conjunction with these practices is the best chance South Africa has to combat poaching.
For example, the MoU with Vietnam requires that Vietnam supply South Africa with a list of all registered hunters in the country, because those people would be the only ones able to hunt legally in South Africa.
Additionally, any person convicted in Vietnam of transporting or selling rhino horn should be put on a list that is provided to South Africa.
Those people would not be allowed to enter South Africa without alerting authorities.
Another example is South Africa’s harsher stance on poaching.
South Africa began handing down stiffer sentences to poachers and seizing assets belonging to those accused of making money from poaching.
In contrast to the work being done by South Africa, Mozambique continues to treat poaching-related offences lightly.
South Africa would be better served working with Mozambique to help strengthen poaching penalties there.
South Africa would help Mozambique deal with its own problems, while at the same time combating cross-border poaching that is becoming more prevalent.
South Africa faces serious problems with poaching.
However, legalisation of the trade is not the best way to tackle this problem.
South Africa’s CITES obligations prohibit the trade and instead of expending effort changing the law, South Africa should put that energy to better use.
South Africa should continue working with the Asian destination states to tackle the problem and continue working with neighbouring states to develop a stern criminal system for convicted poachers and traffickers.
Legalisation of the rhino horn trade would not have the benefits that Molewa desires.
Rather, it would provide poachers and traffickers with another avenue to exploit the horn trade. – Consultancy Africa Intelligence