Dr Bandile Mkhize CEO of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife
JUNE 2014 COLUMN
How long must this slaughter continue?
When I called out in 2012 to the world’s conservation lobby to implement a controlled trade in rhino horn on the open market I did so for very sound reasons.
We were facing highly financed poaching syndicates who commanded overwhelming advantages on this battlefield; huge open spaces in regions populated by poverty and unemployment and prices for this commodity that would entice any number of people to succumb to the temptation of rhino poaching.
And what of our financial resources? I considered the priority human demands that our Treasury would have to meet in our emerging democracy. How were we going to dampen the financial incentive to poach our Rhinos and thereby decrease this devastating onslaught?
Relying on some of the most knowledgeable and experienced rhino minds in the country, we agreed. Let’s try and use the huge stockpiles of horn we keep in our stockades and sell the commodity through a controlled central selling organisation to meet this demand sustainably. No guarantees, of course, but it might very well do the trick through careful and very strict protocols. After all, we worked out that we could meet this international demand for the next 20 years or so.
Now, nearly three years later, nothing has changed! Our Rhinos keep getting butchered. Our green heritage gets redder! And all the while international conservation lobbyists talk, write and argue amongst themselves. What do you call it; paralysis of analysis!
Despite investing millions more onto this battlefield, the war has escalated. We have very brave and dedicated people doing a remarkable job to stem this bloodshed but we just don’t have the funding to fight these syndicates off. How could we when a poacher gets paid R100 000 or more for his filthy work.
To be quite honest, the biggest effect my call for trading horn has had on our international stakeholders, (those lobbies and signatories who decide whether we can trade this horn or not) is to split them into two camps; those in favour of our trading proposal and those opposed to it. Perhaps it’s not an exaggeration to say it has sponsored one of the most ferocious and divisive debates in rhino conservation history; and, as I said, paralysed any proactive approach to combating this war. So I have come to a decision. To all those who are against trying out this trade and who appear to command the majority vote in CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) I say to you; fine, keep arguing and debating. And while you do so, understand that this species is dying. As you don’t want this to happen then, in the meantime, please engage us and provide the finance we desperately need to fight this war at the level that will deter these poaching syndicates.
Believe me; our ‘wish list’ is long. It demands far greater investment than international NGO’s and Government are presently providing! In making this appeal, I need to comment on some of the naive thinking behind these naysayers. There are those more academic, suggesting it might open up an even greater demand for the commodity that we would not be able to meet. I suppose that’s a possibility. Yet, as with any new business, who’s to know every vagary of the international market place?
But my most serious concern lies with those who say trading Rhino horn would signal an acceptance of the commercialisation of wildlife and this would be unethical. This baffles me. It flies in the face of the commercial dynamics that underpin how conservation is conducted in the real world. Have such people not yet grasped the overwhelming impact that wildlife auctions, sport hunting, the meat trade and eco-tourism has had on our greater conservation estate in South Africa, let alone KZN? It was these game auctions that effectively gave a financial value to wildlife. They provided the single greatest commercial springboard for the huge expansion of land under conservation in South Africa today. When farmers turned away from beef farming on marginal land throughout the country, they opted for the wildlife game business as a profitable and viable alternative.
Have these people not understood that some 70% of the total 6.2% land mass given over to conservation in South Africa is owned by such private landowners whose livelihoods depend on the successful commercial use of their wildlife? Friends, conservation is a business. Approach it as something operating outside of supply and demand and you stand to be accused of extreme idealism!
Here we have a commodity (rhino horn) that has exploded the animals’ worth. Instead of trying to meet this business demand sustainably, we are accused by this lobby of being unethical. Instead, we are asked to explore ways of discouraging consumers from buying the commodity they want. I find this very ambitious!
It’s also indefensible for people to put the rights of animals above humans. If South Africa can initiate a trial period of trading rhino horn, that is horn accumulated from natural mortalities, just think of the sustainable business incentives this trade would provide local people to keep rhino. They could herd them, trade them and yes, provide hunting concessions, too. This would springboard our wish to set up satellite community reserves as wildlife buffer areas around game reserves such as Mkhuze, Ndumo and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (HiP).
To wish away the business side of conservation ignores the damage caused by such ethical considerations. I note Kenya has lost some 80% of their wildlife since they banned any trade in wildlife as well as stopping hunting in 1977. 80%! South Africa’s wildlife populations have expanded by this amount since the legalisation of sport hunting and game auctions since the 1970’s.
What place do ethics fill when a Texan hunter earlier this year was stopped from hunting a single, ageing rhino bull in Namibia? He offered to pay a million dollars and have this entire amounted invested in conservation practices in that country. All he got for his wishes were death threats from people saying it would be unethical to shoot it!
Let there be no doubting Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s overall commercial slant towards conservation, either. We lie at the heart of a national initiative to place a financial value on other forms of natural resources, too; such as water! We are looking for funding to pay disadvantaged farmers and landowners to farm it! In other words, by providing a monetary incentive, they will care for soils, grasslands, wetlands and the like, in order to ensure a greater and cleaner supply of water.
If the decimation of this species is not enough to hurry your deliberations, then let me identify another consequence of your inertia surrounding this war. There are signs of people starting to disinvest from owning rhino. Latest reports show that in 2011 KZN had 44 private wildlife owners who invested in rhino on their private game farms. Today I see this figure has dropped to 38; six owners in KZN have effectively said this rhino poaching epidemic is simply proving too costly to keep them. And I understand the same scenario is reflected elsewhere in the country. Believe me, this is a big red flag! My final word to the international conservation lobby comes from the battlefield we are engulfed in: ‘Never reinforce a failed strategy’.