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Are South Africa’s respected conservation authorities intent for some reason on shipping some of our wild rhinos from areas like the Kruger National Park to live out their lives “safely” on hunting and horn cropping farms?

The author, somewhere in Africa

I am concerned that while the greater public is distracted by the terrible poaching apocalypse, our wildlife authorities are being bamboozled into selling off some of South Africa’s wild rhinos to the highest bidders. And the obvious need for secrecy is exactly what the wildlife traders need to conduct their business without fear of the bright public spotlight.

We know that in late 2014 a secret scheme to sell 260 wild-caught rhinos from the Kruger National Park to hunters was cancelled when someone shone a spotlight on the situation. Shortly after that revelation, SANParks Head of Conservation Hector Magome was sacked, but the entire situation was shrouded in secrecy. It was great to see the scheme shut down but, in the absence of further information, can we safely assume that this crazy scheme has really been stopped in its tracks, and ditto for other equally sinister plots?

There seem to be ample farmed rhinos available for this purpose. In fact, John Hume, renowned provider of rhinos for hunting and now the leader of the rhino horn pro-trade peloton, claims to have about a thousand of them in paddocks. And what’s more, he has consistently claimed that he will be financially ruined if he can’t soon turn his rhinos into cash. So why siphon truly wild rhinos into the farmed system when there appears to be ample supply of paddock livestock?

Pro-traders and the hunting fraternity have made it clear that their focus is on “saving” rhinos by confining them to production factories and hunting farms, while conservationists believe that saving wild rhinos means keeping them in the wild.

In this regard, the South African Department of Environmental Affairs has nailed its colours to the mast in this statement about an application to be made to CITES in 2016 to permit the trade in rhino horn. In other words, this appears NOT to be a debate, it’s a process. My question is how far along is that process and what are our wildlife authorities doing behind the scenes to achieve this goal? Who are they entering into agreements with, are they targeting wild rhinos as feeder stock, where will the financial benefits accrue and how does this benefit wild rhino populations?

And while most anti-traders tend to focus on public platforms to air their views, the pro-traders have been smartly beavering away at the decision-makers by providing the content to frame the discussion and even being appointed to the Minister of Environment’s Committee of Enquiry. To add to my concerns, this same committee is chaired by Nana Magomola, who was suspended from the Gambling Board amidst allegations of corruption, intimidation and bullying, amongst other issues.

So is the pro-trade gravy train rolling already and are some of our wild rhinos supposedly being moved to “safe” places really being moved onto farms?

I know of one rhino relocation project that is genuinely about moving wild rhinos from the Kruger to wild areas in Botswana.  It’s managed very publicly and transparently (except of course when it comes to disclosing release locations) by accredited people with a great track record – Rhinos Without Borders.  I know also about the relocation by SANParks of some rhinos from high-risk areas in the Kruger to safer areas also within Kruger.

I have huge respect for our conservation authorities, but that does not stop me from questioning the current situation, partly because they have not exactly covered themselves in glory in the past few years. In addition to the failed rhino sale to hunters referred to above, and the election of a tainted official to chair a process with massive financial repercussions, here are a few examples of what I mean:

1. Former SANParks CEO David Mabunda made an estimated R81m profit from the sale of Mala Mala to the South African government, a deal brokered while he was still CEO of SANParks.

2. SANParks senior official and fundraiser Bryn Pyne James was sacked for alleged wrong doings.

3. In Kwazulu Natal (the home of a large population of wild rhinos), the standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) in 2013 found Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s finances to be in an “absolutely appalling state” and ordered that the provincial treasury take over the finances. Ezemvelo CEO Dr Bandile Mkhize and CFO Darious Chitate were subsequently suspended because of irregular activities and for misleading the Board.

Importantly, the above examples should not cloud the proud history of excellent conservation and the sterling ongoing work by the SANParks and Ezemvelo teams on the ground – they are largely staffed by wonderful, hard-working and caring people.

There are a number of schemes on the table to “save” rhinos – from the setting up by John Hume and his partners of a rhino horn trading cartel to zoo breeding in Australia and a group of Texas hunters who want to import 1,000 of our rhinos to a breeding factory in Texas – to be farmed (and hunted?).

It’s no surprise that there is a rush of business people and shady characters lobbying to have access to rhinos – the horn is now more valuable by weight than gold, diamonds and cocaine. The amount of money involved is staggering. And so there must be enormous pressure being brought to bear on our conservation authorities to sign off on schemes to ensure the safety of our rhinos and at the same time generate massive piles of cash for the greater good. And many of these schemes look so good on paper.

I feel conflicted about this. On the one hand, I have massive respect for our conservation authorities and want to trust those in power to find a solution to the rhino situation, hand-in-hand with the many properly resourced and transparent enablers that are already doing such fine work on the ground. But on the other hand, I have a strong sense that the top brass in our conservation authorities do not have the experience or focus to discern the snake-oil salesmen from the genuine solution providers, and are likely to condemn our wild rhinos to a path from which they cannot return.

Time will tell. I hope that our wild rhinos have the luxury of time.

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I am a proud African and honoured to be CEO of Africa Geographic. My travels in Africa are in search of wilderness, elusive birds and real people with interesting stories. I live in Hoedspruit, next to the Kruger National Park, with my wife Lizz and 2 Jack Russells. When not travelling or working I am usually on my mountain bike somewhere out there. I qualified as a chartered accountant but found my calling sharing Africa's incredibleness with you. My motto is "Live for now, have fun, be good, tread lightly and respect others. And embrace change". Connect with me on LinkedIn

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