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South Africa is pushing hard for the legalisation of trade in rhino horn. With more than 20 tonnes of stockpiled horn the country stands to make a fortune if the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) ban on the trade is lifted.


Those backing a legalised trade also stand to make huge profits, like chief pro-trade protagonist John Hume. Hume breeds rhinos for pleasure he says, because he loves the creatures and wants to save them. He believes that farming rhinos and harvesting their horns to meet the rising demand in the Far East, which has fuelled the current rhino poaching crisis, is the only answer to preventing the extinction of Africa’s rhino. Hume is backed by some serious pro-trade muscle headed by economist Dawie Roodt.

Roodt has made his name in government finance and monetary policy and is a well-known media commentator on financial matters. Roodt doesn’t like rhinos. He doesn’t like laws either, especially ones which stop people like Hume from doing exactly what they like with their private property. Which is what he regards rhinos as – property. “Laws are silly things invented by politicians,” Roodt said in a recent public debate on the legalisation of rhino horn trade at the University of Pretoria.

At the same debate Roodt stated that greed, under the banner of entrepreneurship, is good and should be encouraged and stimulated at all cost in order to make South Africa’s economy strong. Roodt reckons that legalising trade in rhino horn is a sure-fire winner when it comes to making money, with the possibility that it would save a species almost an afterthought.


Indeed, the apparent security of the rhino species is a happy coincidence to the pro-trade lobby, and a convenient one at that given the vehemence with which they are backing South Africa’s steadily applied pressure on CITES to lift the ban on the trade. Throwing in their lot with a government which is publicly failing in its mandate to protect the rhino is a carefully orchestrated tactical manoeuvre aimed at enriching men like Hume who stand to make billions from the potential harvesting of rhino horn should they be allowed to openly trade in the commodity. Indeed, it has to be questioned whether the government is not complicit in the demise of the rhino it is supposed to protect in order to better position itself for an assault on CITES and the undoubted rewards a sale of its stockpile would garner. Twenty tonnes of horn at upwards of US$ 60 000 per kilo at current black market values is a pretty tidy sum of money – more than enough to build Nkandla six times over.

With almost 1 000 rhinos capable of yielding an average of 55kg of horn each throughout their lives, Hume is sitting pretty in the pound seats. Make no bones about it, the rhino business is big business. Which is why the pro-trade lobby is so vociferous. And why it has the undoubted backing of both government and, it would appear, South Africa’s media.


While anti-trade activists and organisations struggle to get their voices heard, pro-traders regularly make the headlines, with reportage largely focussed on how we could trade legally rather than asking whether we should and what the likely repercussions would be. Conspiracy theorists do not need to connect too many dots to find a disturbing pattern emerging.

The coming weeks will see some major meetings of minds on this and another major conservation issue – the elephant poaching crisis in sub-Saharan Africa, so it comes as no surprise that those in favour of a legalised trade in rhino horn are currently so active and so loud. A sparkling list of glittering professional pro-trade speakers will take the stage at the Portfolio Committee on Water and Environmental Affairs Rhino Workshop – a crucial rhino meeting being held in Skukuza in the Kruger National Park at the beginning of December, headed by minister of the environment Edna Molewa and including controversial “rhino economists” Michael t’Sas-Rolfes and Keith Lockwood.


The Skukuza meeting is itself a precursor to a meeting of regional government heads on the same issue, followed immediately by a gathering of African Heads of State at the Elephant Summit in Gaborone, Botswana where the future of Africa’s elephants will be on the agenda. Make no mistake that success with CITES on the rhino horn front would quickly be followed by pressure to allow sale of ivory stockpiles with countries like Zimbabwe and Zambia currently leading the vanguard in this respect, under close watch from the most nefarious of allies – China.

That China is both the major demand market for both rhino horn and ivory and heavily involved politically and economically in the range states for both animals is no coincidence. That this relationship is overlooked by all but the most hardened anti-trade lobbyists is similarly convenient and glaringly suspicious.

It would appear that the sophistication and speed of the pro-trade movement, backed by government and mainstream media, has largely outplayed, outwitted and outlasted the anti-trade brigade. In spite of achieving wins in the international arena, thanks largely to high-profile conservation organisations and celebrity endorsement, the anti-trade lobbyists have been stymied in every country that counts when it comes to crunch-time at CITES. This is because the pro-traders have cleverly focussed on rhinos while those against them have been looking at the bigger picture in the form of ivory poaching.


Could it be that the rhino crisis has formed a very clever smokescreen to what is really happening in the rest of Africa and has diverted attention away from a scourge ten times more deadly and threatening, not just to elephants but to all of Africa’s wild fauna? If so, the next big question has to be “why?”

The answer most easily arrived at is that by fanning the flames of the rhino inferno, the South African government, in collusion with its pet pro-traders, has created a screen of smoke and mirrors par excellence which has largely bamboozled an audience of bemused, albeit concerned, citizens into thinking that the only way to save rhino is by reducing them to mere commodities.

While attention is thus diverted the real intention behind this sleight of hand may be to quietly and inconspicuously open a door which would give both the South African and other African governments “get rich quick” passes through the sale of stockpiled ivory, resulting in the semi-legal mass decimation of what is left of Africa’s wild elephant population.

Could it be for this reason that the effective silencing of the anti-trade lobby has taken place, reducing it to a lone voice in a wilderness of greed? Or is that quagmire of self-enrichment really just Africa’s much-vaunted entrepreneurial spirit expressing itself, as Roodt would have us believe? Whichever it is, the end for elephant and rhino in their natural state is almost certainly nigh.

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Sharon Gilbert-Rivett

Award-winning writer and film-maker Sharon Gilbert-Rivett began her love affair with Africa as a child when she lived with her family in Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa. She began working in journalism in the UK as a rock music writer in the early 1980s before moving into mainstream journalism, moving back to SA in the early 1990s. She specialises in conservation, sustainable tourism and travel and has also written and produced natural history documentaries and TV series. She consults to the safari industry when she's not writing.