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Summit on rhino poaching

Poached rhinos
Photo: Ian Michler

As of today, Thursday 19th August, poachers have killed 173 rhino for their horns since the start of 2010 – that is one animal every 32 hours. Taking the average weight of five kilograms per set of horns, that equates to a haul of 865 kilograms. Sources put the current value of horn leaving the country at anywhere between R60 000 and R80 000 per kilogram: at these rates, approximately R60-million has been netted by criminals.

It is in this light that the Lead SA initiative, an activist social movement started by Primedia Broadcasting and the Independent Group of Newspapers, has taken the significant step of hosting a summit on ways to tackle the rhino poaching crisis facing southern Africa.

While not open to the public, the organisers have invited a wide spectrum of stakeholders and the media ‘to plot the way forward’ and come up with a national plan of action. As I am unfortunately not able to attend, my contribution comes via this blog posting.

There are certain individuals and branches within the police services that are totally dedicated to controlling wildlife-related crimes. Despite the significant constraints they face, progress has been made and they need to be congratulated for this. While progress may at times seem slow, we need to understand that this present bout of poaching involves individuals and groups operating at an extremely sophisticated level with large amounts of money and the best technology and aids at their disposal. I believe the police will in time nab various kingpins and crack some of the bigger syndicates, but in the meantime, they need all the assistance and support they can get from us.

Turning to the poaching processes: like all criminal activities based on illicit markets, there are two sides to the scourge. On the demand side: despite the fact that scientific analysis has repeatedly shown otherwise, there are people, mostly living in the Far East, that still believe in the curative and potency factors attributed to rhino horn.

This thinking needs to be debunked in the strongest terms. The best way to do this is through a concerted international education campaign, focused in the regions where use is highest. Working in conjunction with major international conservation agencies and NGOs, it should be compiled and driven by the United Nations and modelled on the global campaigns used to prevent malaria and HIV.

In the past, I have been critical of CITES’ one dimensional approach to species protection, and rhino is a case in point. Rather than involving themselves merely as the official monitor to the trade in horn, this body, along with the IUCN, should play the pivotal role in spreading an effective and sustained campaign.

On the supply side: the poachers are able to meet this demand so successfully for a number of reasons. As already mentioned, the syndicates are in all likelihood well funded with the best equipment at their disposal. They also seem to have access to the rhino and an ability to roam that speaks of inside information and collaboration. Most observers would now have to agree that this has become possible because people in positions of authority, trust and responsibility, people from within the wildlife industry, have become actively involved – either directly as members of syndicates, or indirectly by taking a fee for information, services rendered or allowing access.

While this is alarming in its own right, the crucial aspect here is to recognise that the state of South Africa’s wildlife and game ranching industries plays a substantial role. More specifically, a culture of ‘use and abuse’ has become widespread as land owners, breeders, traders, hunters and the host of ancillary support staff use wild animals as mere commodities. They go about their work with financial gain as the only criteria: there is scant philosophical integrity or respect, and quite probably, little or no thought given to the consequences or impacts of their actions. What currently takes place in South Africa, often under the banner of conservation, may very well in time be adjudged to have been the most appallingly short-sighted model.

And the industry is aided and abetted by an outdated and inadequate legal and environmental framework, which in turn has a largely ignorant and incompetent bureaucracy playing the role of custodian. Criminals flourish under these conditions. Until we address our approach to wilderness and wildlife and update and energise the regulatory bodies, there will always be scope for abuse and criminal activity.

In the meantime, the authorities should give serious consideration to moving all rhino in unsecured parks and reserves into the larger and better protected ones. And let’s throw good money at protecting these.

Beside the Lead SA initiative, numerous government bodies, conservation agencies and NGOs as well as private companies and individuals have been actively involved in mobilising efforts.

Every effort is a valuable contribution. Amongst these, the WESSA Rhino Initiative (go to Support Us) and the Stop Rhino Poaching website have become focal points for highlighting awareness, fund raising and the posting of feedback from the various authorities and rhino owners.

To the organisers, well done on your initiative and I have no doubt it will be a success.

Time and Tide
Ian Michler

Ian has spent the last 24 years working as a specialist guide, photo-journalist and consultant across Africa, including a stint of 13 years based in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. When not guiding, he writes predominately for Africa Geographic covering topics on conservation, wildlife management, ecotourism, and the environment, and has been writing his popular monthly column since 2001. Ian is also the author and photographer of seven natural history and travel books on Africa, and is a past winner of the bird category in the Agfa Wildlife photographic competition (1997). He has also worked as a researcher and field coordinator on various natural history television documentaries for international broadcasters and as a consultant on ecotourism to various private sector and government agencies. Prior to his life in the wilderness, he spent eight years practicing as a stockbroker in Cape Town and Johannesburg.