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Written by: Don Pinnock for Conservation Action Trust

Wildlife poaching and the illegal wildlife trade in Africa is not merely a calamity for animal populations, but has become a serious threat to governance in countries in which it takes place. That’s the message of a leading expert on wildlife trade, Christian Bonacic, who’s presently visiting South African parks.

©Michael Lorentz
©Michael Lorentz

The issue, he says, is much bigger than just rhinos. It’s a social problem, driven by globalisation, and is threatening democracy in many countries. Wildlife poaching has escalated into a crisis of authority and South Africa is not immune.

Poaching has become globalised and dangerous. There’s a bottomless demand for rhino horn and ivory in Asia, borders are being violated, there are middlemen with pockets full of money, to corrupt officials and people in local communities with cellphones and weapons.

Bonacic is a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, where he was at the forefront of developing best practice guidelines for sustainable use of vicunas, an iconic South American species prized for its soft wool.

He was once a firm supporter of sustainable use, he says, but poaching is undermining the possibility of achieving it. “The story of local communities benefiting from the careful use of wildlife is one we love to hear. But internationalisation of markets and information systems has utterly altered the playing field. Traditional community based wildlife protection around parks may have worked in the past but, given the penetration of global markets, it’s no longer really possible.”

An essential strategy, says Bonacic, is not merely to inform communities around parks about poaching, but also to make them safe places with good education and employment opportunities. It’s a good-governance issue.

“I don’t see that happening. In my travels around South African parks, I haven’t found a community where I can get basic accommodation and an opportunity to share their culture, their music, their food. I see only large commercial operations. Something’s missing here. We have to make parks an opportunity for local people.”

What’s at stake is not just the extinction of a single species, he says, but the cascade that will follow. After rhinos would be the disappearance of elephants, then lions. At the hands of powerful armed groups backed by ruthless organised crime syndicates, Africa stands to lose what makes it world famous.

“My experience with vicunas in South America has shown me that we have to be very, very careful in decisions we make about rhinos in Africa. One of the solutions is seen as opening up trade in rhino horn, but that’s a dangerous game.

“People say we’ll be able to organise and police legal trade, but it hasn’t happened anywhere in the world, even in the most developed countries. Think of movies, fashion items and medicines. In each there’s a black market right beside the legal one.”

In the early 1970s and with the support of vicuna-range countries, CITES (which regulates the global wildlife trade) banned trade in their wool, putting them on a path to recovery. By the 1990s, vicuna numbers had rebounded to more than 200,000 – most of them in Peru – and regulated legal trading in wool was resumed.

“We thought that after legalising the trade, communities would protect the animals from poachers because of the economic benefits,” said Bonacic. “But as soon as trade resumed, massive poaching started up again. Rangers were shot and killed.”

He feels it naive to farm rhinos to flood the market as a conservation strategy. “You just have to look at what happened to the giant Chinese salamander and the chinchilla. Both were farmed, genetically distorted and not able to be returned to where they came from. In the wild these are now almost extinct.

“We can make rhinos a farm animal – no problem,” he says. “But farming goes in the wrong direction: towards genetic selection, longer horns, bigger animals. The concept that the animal is part of an ecosystem will be lost. It would just be a commodity like battery chickens. And animals raised that way can never again be part of the Earth’s vital fabric.

“Of course it makes sense economically. It may make some people very rich, but it will not help wild conservation at all. And it won’t stop wild poaching. But if we legalise horn trade, farming will be the main consequence.”

Bonacic says SANParks is doing a great job, with good conservation practices and top scientists. But that also means it has an obligation to the world. South Africa is “considered a world leader in conservation. Other countries look to you for direction. And you must be aware that you’re confronting one of the most difficult issues in the history of conservation.

“Rhinos are one of the world’s biggest herbivores. They represent much more than their horn. They’re part of the identity of Africa, the culture of Africa and they mean a lot to humankind. That’s why the discussion by your government around the future of rhinos is so important.”

It’s also about the economy. Rhinos, among the Big Five, generate considerable tourist income for South Africa. And there’s a peripheral trade in sculptures, art, toys and of course lodges, airlines, guides – all part of rhino trade. For this reason, he says, careful thought must be given to how selling their horns will affect this trade.

“One in seven people here benefit directly or indirectly from the ecotourist industry, and 85% of people who visit South Africa come to see the Big Five plus unique things like giraffes and buffaloes. They come to feel Africa’s wilderness.

“You have to calculate the impact of the extinction of one of the Big Five because it would be a catastrophe for your tourism industry.”

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