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The Rhino Wars – Solutions For The Situation

Veteran eco-warrior and 50/50 television presenter Braam Malherbe has penned a thoughtful study on the future of the rhino in Africa and on the face of the earth. Statistics reveal that the poaching syndicates are now slaughtering more rhino than the number of calves being born. This may portend a “tipping point” in the struggle of the species for survival. No one who has heard the sounds made by a wounded rhino or has witnessed hapless calves defending the corpses of their dead mothers against the pangas of the poachers can reasonably be left unmoved by the crisis rhinos face.

The South African statistics are illuminatingly gloomy: 668 poached in 2012; so far this year it is worse, with 350 poached by the end of May. What then is the economically and ecologically sustainable solution to the situation? The concept “sustainable” is an overworked and often meaningless one. Malherbe prefers the definition given it in Adam Werbach’s book, Strategy For Sustainability, in which he says, “a sustainable business means thriving in perpetuity”. He goes on to say, “true sustainability has four coequal components:

Social (acting as if other people matter); Economic (operating profitably); Environmental (protecting and restoring the ecosystem, and Cultural (protecting and valuing cultural diversity).”

Given the context of rhino poaching on a wholesale basis, the social aspect of this definition needs to be expanded to embrace all that live, including both animals and people.

The strategies that Malherbe discusses are many and varied. Most of the slaughter has taken place in the Kruger National Park. Some argue for the dehorning of rhino in all large reserves, but the cost of doing so would seem to be prohibitive. In smaller reserves that are privately owned this strategy is resorted to in order to save not only the rhinos but also the staff who work with them. The trouble here is that this operates as a disincentive to ownership of rhinos. Who wants to keep, visit or photograph a rhino that has no horn?

Then there is the notion of taking the fight to the poachers. Nearly half of the South African rhino population is found in the Kruger Park, an area the size of Israel. 72% of all rhino poached in 2011 where in the Kruger Park. This year alone, 242 of the 350 rhinos butchered have been in the Kruger. So the issue is: can the authorities effectively, economically and efficiently police so large an area with a view to stopping the poachers in their tracks? Proactive steps have been taken to “take the fight to the poachers” and retired General Johan Jooste has been employed to do just that. A problem foreseen by Malherbe is that escalating the war against the poachers will push up the value of horn and thus incentivise subsistence farmers and war veterans in Mozambique to take their chances on the rich pickings available because of the insatiable demand for horn.

The idea of educating the end users of rhino horn, most of whom live in China, Laos and Vietnam is problematic. They regard the horn as a traditional medicine. Changing a long tradition, one which may have no more than a powerful placebo effect, is a big ask. Even if as few as 1% of the population of China use horn, it means that 13,5 million customers are out there seeking rhino horn. While Malherbe does not dismiss the notion that education can help, it is a long term project and the rhino need more urgent assistance.

Poisoning the horn is a strategy that has been used after a considerable amount of research went into the idea of using ectoparasiticide to put off purchasers. The treatment costs between R8000 and R12000 per rhino depending on terrain, numbers and the possible use of helicopters in the exercise. Naturally, the price of unpoisoned horn would rise if poisoning is resorted to widely.

Then there is the thorny issue of legalising the trade in rhino horn. In 1977 CITES put a ban on the trade in rhino horn. This ban, like prohibition before it, serves to fuel the organised crime that flourishes whenever a ban is put on the sale of any sought after commodity. Malherbe contends that Southern Africa could supply as many as 676 horns a year from the naturally caused deaths of rhino. Moreover, horn stockpiles amount to about 5,000 horns. It these are trickled into the market at a suitable and controlled rate then, according to the research Malherbe relies on, it would take 19 years to exhaust the supply at present rates of demand. However, for international trade in rhino horn to be legalised, CITES needs to approve a change in its rules. For this to occur 66% of the 175 member countries of CITES or 116 countries need to be persuaded to vote in favour of the change. Another big ask. While the arguments in favour are compelling, Malherbe, having recently returned from CITES/COP 16 in Bangkok, feels that CITES can be driven more by “political game playing than by logic.” A lot of hard lobbying will be needed in the run up to the next CITES conference in Cape Town in 2016. Malherbe warns that: “We need to learn from the mistakes that were made by the once off selling of stockpiles of elephant tusks. The buyers in China and Japan colluded to keep the price low. They are now selling off the stockpiles sold at huge profits. We need to be able to sell horn off at low volumes, add the value in Africa … so that it can be re-invested into rhino conservation … as well as to create jobs.”

Hunting and conservation are a potential source of revenue to support the continued existence of the rhino as a species. The Professional Hunters Association of SA claims that the hunting industry brings in revenue of R8 billion per annum and that about R7 million goes directly towards conservation projects. The director for Wildlife Management at the University of Pretoria, Professor Wouter Van Hoven, estimates that in 1965 Africa’s wildlife was decimated with only some 500,000 animals left. Trophy hunting was used to kick start game ranching. Today there are about 20,000,000 animals – a 40 fold increase, due in large measure to the popularity of hunting. Only 100 legitimate rhino hunts are allowed annually, they bring about R90 million back into conservation. Only non-reproductive cows and old bulls are legally hunted. This promotes sustainability along with the tourism and ownership value of rhinos.

If government were to invest heavily in the destruction of the crime syndicates that drive rhino poaching along with a host of other illicit activities then a viable solution to the situation is possible. The political will to get serious about the downside of organised crime needs to be generated in order to put a stop to a form of crime that is not only dangerous to the survival of the rhino, but also threatens to fell at the knees the form of society contemplated in our Constitution.

For Malherbe’s full 13 page paper, visit his website at

Paul Hoffman SC
27 May 2013.

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