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International rhino conference gears up for a tough debate

An international rhino conference taking place in Pretoria next month has attracted a list of high-profile speakers from across the world to debate its headline issue: “Assessing the risks of rhino horn trade”. Organised by South African NGO Outraged SA Citizens Against Poaching (OSCAP), the conference takes place at Onderstepoort on the outskirts of Pretoria from April 8-9 and is being attended by NGOs and conservation associations, diplomats and concerned local and international stakeholders and private individuals.

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“The aim of the conference is to openly debate the risks associated with the government’s proposal to legalise trade in rhino horn, which it will be tabling before the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) at its 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to be held in Durban in 2016,” says Allison Thomson, director of OSCAP.

“In this respect we have lined up a good cross-section of internationally acclaimed experts and conservation specialists to address and interact with delegates in an effort to incite lively debate,” she adds.

Key speakers include Mary Rice, executive director of the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). Rice will be addressing the conference on the lessons the EIA has learned from the ivory trade and its in-depth undercover work in China and how these can be adapted to assist in the rhino poaching situation.

Rice is joined by international conservationist and wildlife trade investigator Suzy Watts, a consultant for the US’s Humane Society International, who will explore what she calls the flawed assumptions underlying the call for a legalised trade in rhino horn.

Will Travers OBE is no stranger to anyone with an interest in saving wildlife. Son of celebrated actors Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, he fell in love with Africa while living in Kenya as a child when his parents were making the movie “Born Free”. In 1984 he co-founded the Born Free Foundation and has been working tirelessly ever since to raise awareness of conservation issues the world over. Travers’s speech at the OSCAP conference will take a look at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and examine South Africa’s proposal to legalise rhino horn trade.

International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) regional director for southern Africa, Jason Bell, is also well known in conservation circles and will be examining the “horn of contention” that legal trade proposals are impaled upon.

Rice, Watts, Travers and Bell will also be participating in an open panel debate following their talks on the opening day of the conference.“South Africa also has valuable lessons to learn from other African nations and their experiences in protecting their wildlife,” says Thomson. “Kenya, for example, has been battling an ongoing war against the ravages of poaching and the illegal wildlife trade for decades and will be well represented at the conference as a result.”

Dr Paula Kahumbu, of the Nairobi-based NGO Wildlife Direct and Dr Ben Okita-Ouma, rhino co-coordinator for the Kenyan Wildlife Service, are each well-versed in the pitfalls and politics involved in conservation efforts. Both will be sharing their views on how to protect wildlife without trade and the unintended consequences a legal trade in rhino horn would have on range states. Marcia Fargnoli, of Namibia’s Earth Org will also be looking at the knock-on effect a legalised trade would have on Namibia. Meanwhile, renowned environmental journalist and safari guide, Ian Michler, asks the leading question of whether there is a third option available to help solve the rhino poaching problem in his presentation, and Professor Melville Saymaan of North West University is going to unpack the myth of “if it pays, it stays” and shed some light on the issue of sustainability.

“We have tried to present every aspect of the various issues involved in the current rhino situation in the interests of dissemination and debate,” says Thomson. “It’s going to be an interesting and intense couple of days!” she adds.

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