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An announcement made in Cape Town could mark the first step in reaching consensus on saving the rhino species.

South African rhino populations are being decimated by poachers who supply an illegal market for rhino horn. By far the largest consumers are Asians, buoyed by the false assumption that rhino horn has medicinal properties. It has also become a status symbol in an increasingly wealthy Vietnamese population where it is ingested like cocaine. Gram for gram, rhino horn is more valuable than cocaine and gold, and demand is growing.

Analysis of the solutions has led to the development of two camps – one proposing a legalisation of trade as a means to end poaching, the other believing non-trade solutions are best. At the initiative of Accountability Now, four leading figures from each side of the debate have joined forces. The two against legalisation of trade are conservationist Ian Michler and retired safari operator Colin Bell, while those for legalisation are conservationist and a director of Accountability Now, Braam Malherbe, and economist Dawie Roodt.

From left: Ian Michler, Braam Malherbe, Colin Bell and Dawie Roodt at the press briefing. ©Anton Crone

“The plan attempts to find the very necessary resources in order to save rhinos,” said Malherbe in his opening address at the press conference in Cape Town on Thursday.

Dubbed ‘The Plan’, their Integrated Rhino Poaching Strategy says that, after much heated debate between the four, both sides have agreed to forge a new pragmatic partnership that brings together their combined energies, with the aim of creating a unified rhino survival strategy.

“We have to get rid of the bickering. This anti-trade, pro-trade constant lobbying is only benefiting one organisation and that is the criminal syndicates,” said Bell. “When we get rid of our fringe elements… suddenly we find that we’re all on the same page.”

“It’s far easier to take an extremist view. It’s much more difficult to be a pragmatist. Being a pragmatist requires greater consideration, and it requires greater commitment,” said Michler. “In essence, what the four of us are trying to do is put forward a new governing policy for our rhinos.”

The Plan is not a detailed comprehensive strategy, but rather a working paper. Much of it hinges on the creation of a Tourism Conservation Fund geared towards financing anti-poaching initiatives, and the acceptance by the pro-traders that a legal trade stands very little chance of being sanctioned by the international community.

Pro-trade lobbyists have been looking to the 2016 CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) meeting in South Africa as the place to put their case forward. But in order for such a proposal to succeed, it needs the support of more than two thirds of parties voting. This is highly unlikely given that the vast majority of member countries are opposed to a legal trade in endangered species.

Despite this, Malherbe made a point of saying that “if legalisation in trade in rhino horn happens any time sooner than next CITES 2020, both Colin and Ian have agreed to support all initiatives to protect this iconic species.”

© Janine Avery

The key points that the parties agree on are:

1. The creation of a Tourism Conservation Fund. Initiated by Colin Bell, and in the creation phase with what Bell promises are many willing supporters, the aim is to garner funding from the tourism industry, chiefly by means of a voluntary contribution added to guest invoices. Among other things, the funds would go towards such things as improving security operations, Intensive Protection Zones for rhinos, equipment for anti-poaching operations, better training for rangers, and a more concerted intelligence effort – one aspect being rewards for information on the middlemen improvement of gate and customs control.

Commenting on this, Bell said: “If we take the industry at ZAR220 billion (including domestic tourism), and we have 50% sign up, we can get well in excess of ZAR500 million per year. And we can grow that to a billion rand a year with proper marketing and proper sign up.”

“The issue about funding of this plan is something I was a bit concerned about,” said Roodt, adding that we could not rely on state funding. “The ‘levy’ is probably the best solution to fund a programme like this,” emphasising the importance of attracting more tourists to South Africa, and not hindering them with visa regulations.

2. Strengthening policing and the judicial system through a special investigative wildlife crimes unit, specialised training of law enforcement officers, stiffer bail conditions and harsher sentences for poachers and traffickers.

3. Improving the lives of communities in or near wildlife areas. Poor living conditions means poachers emerge from these communities, and there is a general lack of concern for wildlife. One of the aims is to integrate communities into the tourism and wildlife industry’s business models to improve their livelihoods. Another goal is to increase tariffs for visitors to national parks, designating them as a community fund contributions.

4. Improving technology – innovative security solutions to tackle poachers including sattelite tracking and surveillance of poachers.

5. Creation of a DNA database, the aim being to have every South African rhino, alive or dead, listed on the database to be used as evidence against poachers.

6. Restricting export of rhino horn trophies from sport hunting until such time as the poaching crisis is averted. “Hunters would have an identical replica made of their specific trophy horn that then becomes part of their mount for export. The actual horn would remain behind in a secure vault in South Africa to be released back to the trophy hunter once the poaching crisis subsides,” The Plan says.

7. Increasing branding and awareness of The Plan through advertising.

8. The importance of demand reduction in the markets, and political lobbying for international support.

This is by no means a cut and dried strategy, and the fringe elements in either camp will likely remain –comments from the audience tended towards the biased conjecture that has halted progress in the past. But it is a significant step in a positive direction, backed up with a viable plan for funding that might otherwise have come from the sale of rhino horns; the very things that rhinos are dying for.

The Integrated Rhino Poaching Strategy can be read here.


Former editor at Africa Geographic.