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Written by: Clarissa Hughes

Reducing the rhino crisis to politics undermines the business of saving rhino. If we want to succeed we should rather focus on how the crisis unites us.


As an indication of the severity of the rhino poaching scourge (3 189 since 2010) South Africa’s National Assembly held a debate on the subject titled: “Rhino poaching and its impact on our heritage”. Scheduled at the start of Heritage Month it is proof of how embedded wildlife is in this nation’s culture.

Despite some posturing (it is parliament after all) the message that this is a problem that transcends political rivalry came through powerfully. The real possibility that a species as iconic as the rhino could go extinct due to our selfishness is a subject of such huge moral responsibility.

South Africans will appreciate that the ethos of Ubuntu is entwined as tightly as the weave of a traditional basket into the poaching problem; as is Madiba’s legacy of compassion for all forms of life.

So without going into who said what (to avoid political point-scoring) here are the general themes that emerged from the debate:

– The poaching plague represents “reputational damage” to our country and is, in fact, a “direct challenge to our sovereignty”. The word “embarrassing” was used by several speakers. “If we allow them to take our rhino, what will we do when they come for our elephant, our lion, our leopard, our buffalo?” The poaching crisis represents “theft on a national scale”.

– Rhino and the natural environment are “part of our culture and ancestral past”. The rhino crisis goes further than the saving of one species, it is inextricably tied to our heritage. It’s about “what lies in our hearts and what makes us South Africans.” “These animals’ images are even used on our currency, next to Mandela.”

– Not one party argued that the rhino crisis is anything but a calamity for our country.

– The question of responsibility was also a shared motif and despite some stabs at existing implementation the general consensus is that we, as a nation, are answerable. “Poachers operate not at the margins of society but within it” and “We can’t only blame foreigners, South Africans are also involved.”

Indeed, the general feeling was that we have been entrusted with the task of saving a species that is of importance not only to us, but to the world at large. With 80% of the world’s rhino existing within our borders “South Africa’s leadership in conservation, especially rhino conservation, is recognised throughout the world. It is a matter of national pride.”

Several suggestions were made for improving existing interventions. Among them were the upgrade of intelligence gathering and better co-ordination of actions through a central policing committee, “bringing the masterminds to book, working with Interpol and strengthening security at ports of entry and exit.”

A full forensic audit of rhino populations and poaching figures was proposed which, in light of concerns that pro-traders are complicit in the carnage (in order to provoke a renewal of trade and to stockpile), was a good call.

Interestingly the contentious topic of trade was raised by only three speakers with one member pointing out that it was a side-show to the main agenda of saving a species from extinction. Given that even the most ardent pro-traders do not advocate trade as a panacea it is worth noting that South Africa’s national identity is tied to wildlife in the wild, not to farmed, hornless animals.

It was noted that strategic translocations were previously very effective in saving the species and “we will do this again.”

The strengthening of bilateral agreements with other countries was also mooted as an ingredient in fixing the problem, something that is currently being worked on.

A couple of speakers recommended that there be presidential level engagement with leaders of neighbouring countries. Given the current Zeitgeist there is an opportunity for this kind of discourse with consumer countries too. South Africa’s image would be well served by such hegemony. In the arena of wildlife protection South Africa can lead the world – we don’t need to be followers here.

New innovations were called for and it was encouraging to hear how much communities living in close proximity to game parks were mentioned. That people should benefit from preserving wildlife is a welcome move towards inclusiveness, one that the tourism industry is able to remedy in some measure, as it empowers and uplifts the societies from which many poachers originate. “Protection should become societal.” In addition, steps are being taken to introduce environmental education programmes in rural areas.

In the same spirit as the 2010 World Cup South Africa is united behind the rhino poaching problem. That we must do something quickly to halt the decimation of our heritage eclipses all differences. The question cuts deep into the soul of our nation and we shouldn’t be afraid to confront those who exploit us. How we respond to the catastrophe will determine our destiny. Are we proud of our heritage or are we doormats? South Africa must choose its path with its head held high.

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