The Rhino Dilemma
February 2013, Volume 11-1

The letters by Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes and Colman O Criodain reflect the polarized debate buzzing around the rhino community. As Chairman of the IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group (AfRSG), my role is to remain independent, yet promote the debate towards seeking sustainable conservation management solutions for our African rhinos. All too often simple solutions are being advocated for this otherwise complex issue. Under the current escalating rate of poaching of a relatively low resource base (rhino population size), we will need to be bold and assertive to conserve these magnificent creatures. We ultimately need do what is best for rhinos, irrespective of ideological leanings. Crucially, we need a shared vision and objectives for rhinos that virtually everyone can agree on, such as the need to have growing rhino populations, part of an economically viable wildlife industry, gaining full benefit from the species, with a reduced illegal demand and black market prices for horn, and less of a poaching threat to our living rhino populations.

At the start of 2011 South Africa was conserving a total 20,700 rhinos, or 75% of the wild rhinos on the planet. Despite poaching the population is growing by around 5% per annum. The country is therefore a crucial stakeholder in this debate. The provision of surplus rhinos from state-run Parks to the private sector, from the late 60’s onwards, was aimed at sharing the conservation burden, and finding homes for surplus rhinos that needed to be removed to prevent established populations becoming overstocked – which is currently the case with the state reserves.  On the back of supportive legislation, sustainable use of white rhinos (via sport and trophy hunting which started in 1968) and the advent of the first wildlife auctions in late 1980s saw rhinos realize their true commercial value. Prior to this, the provision of animals from the state at highly subsidized low prices resulted in perverse incentives that saw no growth in the private rhino populations. These economically valuable private rhino populations now conserve an extra two million hectares of land and habitat, hosting a range of plant and animal species, – a broader positive conservation outcome.

The increase in poaching has coincided with soaring rhino protection costs and general risks, so much so that members of the private sector have started disinvesting in rhinos. Providing further incentives through allowing a trade in horn, on the back of the current sales in live rhinos and limited trophy hunting, is being increasingly advocated in South Africa as a possible way to combat and reduce poaching; whilst creating an enabling environment for private rhino conservation to encourage an expansion of range and numbers of rhinos on to both private and possibly also community land and sustainably achieve rhino conservation aims. Others, however, have cautioned that controls would need to be in place at all stages of any such trade to prevent the development of a parallel illegal trade which could threaten rhino populations in other range states. It has also been argued that opening a trade in horn might potentially stimulate a growth in market demand, putting even more pressure on our populations, while others have argued that demand could be influenced by raising prices as necessary. It is important to state that thus far no potential trading partner in south east Asia has as of yet put its head above the parapet in support of such an idea. In line with current policies, the demand reduction approach (through enhanced legislative controls, increased law enforcement, awareness etc) has been advocated and implemented. Some suggest that this has not seen a respite on the loss of Africa’s rhinos and new approaches are desperately needed. Some point to how the demand reduction and substitution campaigns with threats of sanctions successfully reduced horn use and trade in the 1980s in other SE Asian countries, and suggest that similar attempts should be made in Viet Nam.

We thus sit with a dilemma. Do we expand an obviously successful conservation model, built on good protection and a sustainable use philosophy, into an uncharted and potentially large trade environment? Or do we stick to a conceptually simpler approach of demand reduction with law enforcement, with its huge costs and disincentives for private and community rhino owners, all set on top of a relatively small international rhino population? What is required is a rational risk-benefit assessment of a number of different management interventions on the delivery of a shared vision and objectives for rhino conservation. Given the international, cross cutting complexity of the issue, it requires the involvement of a wide diversity of skills and knowledge. This assessment needs to be undertaken in source and consumer countries to tease out the relevant local and universal principles affecting delivery on the shared vision. We also need to be adaptive in our approach, and accept the fact that we learn most by trying.

While the process of dialogue and review of pros and cons of alternative rhino conservation options in South Africa has started, I call for this exercise to be urgently undertaken elsewhere, as time is not on our side. It is important to accept that there will more than likely not be a single solution to this complex issue but rather a suite of management options best suited for local circumstances. Accepting this is critical, even if it runs contrary to one’s conservation philosophy. In conclusion, whatever approaches are advocated, it should not detract from the fact that the conservation of rhinos still depends upon good-old fashioned protection, monitoring, biological management of free- ranging rhinos, adequate application of controls of illegal trade in consumer countries, with sufficient incentives and funding to successfully protect and grow rhino numbers and range into the future.  Let us get this right, for the sake of rhinos.

Author: Mike Knight