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Not unexpectedly, the South African government announced last week their intention to submit an application to CITES in 2016 for permission to trade their rhino horn stockpiles. But rather than seeking a complete legalization of trade, they have decided on what can only be referred to as the most foolish option – a one-off sale of the 16 347kgs in government warehouses and 2 092kgs in the hands of private rhino owners.  

I have always argued against any form of trade so this choice is extremely disappointing to say the least, but it borders on alarming when one considers how short-sighted a one-off sale is. It implies indecision and a sense of desperation that carries no clear strategy on how to tackle the current crisis. “South Africa cannot continue to be held hostage by the syndicates slaughtering our rhino” says the Minister. And then with one transaction she simply wants to transfer the entire stockpile into the hands of the very agents she accuses of holding the country hostage. It makes no sense whatsoever to reward those that are fuelling the markets and driving the frenzy of speculation around trade by handing them the loot.

What may I ask of government comes after the one-off sale?

Along with the users and hoarders of horn, the Chinese and Vietnamese governments are central to the problem – both have it within their means to clamp down hard on the illegal trade as well as taking the responsibility to educate users as to why it’s unwise to pay handsomely for a product that’s useless. To date, they have chosen not to do so and this fuels the fraud. In addition, we have a very clear picture of how the one-off sales in ivory during the last decade fuelled elephant poaching, yet we want to go ahead and raffle the future of rhino on a platform that so clearly failed elephants. It’s an indictment on us that the best solution we can offer the rhino is to reward the criminality and become party to the fraud.

And if recent reports are true, this whole mess has now become what can only be called a ‘triple fraud’ – not only are victims being asked to pay large amounts of money for something that is useless, they are in all likelihood now paying for substances that are fake.

Some positive news did emerge last week after the US President’s visit to Africa – Barack Obama seems to have got that the onslaught against Arica’s wildlife is an international crisis being driven by large criminal syndicates involved in various other illegal activities including terrorism and drugs. While signing Executive Orders to release US$10m may not seem enough, it’s a start and officials pledged to “set up a task force to develop a strategy against illicit wildlife trade”. The President must now take these issues to the highest levels – into the corridors of bodies such as the UN and EU, and commitments to stop the trade and poaching should be linked to future trade and economic agreements.

Africa Geographic Travel
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.