Inaction Is the Worst Possible Strategy
February 2014, Volume 12-1

It has been six years since the rhino-poaching crisis first emerged. In this time our Government has successfully managed to sign an MoU and action plan with the Vietnamese Government and deflect a zero-quota proposal from Kenya at the CITES 2013 congress. That is it. In the same amount of time, the Allies were able to resist and overcome the greatest threat mankind has ever seen by winning the Second World War.

Considering that many more elephant than rhino have been slaughtered elsewhere in Africa since 2008, why the growing concern over every individual rhino lost in South Africa?  The reason is simple – the enemy is at the gates of the last stronghold of organized conservation on the continent and every rhino lost represents an ever -tightening stranglehold by organized international crime on the destiny of our wildlife heritage.  There is so much at stake and already elephants and predators are being poached and it is only a matter of time before tourists are scared away by the growing insurgency.

The criminal syndicates must be totally amazed at the international conservation community’s lack of decisive action. This conflict is not being fought in Asia and it is not Asians who are dying.  No, the people being shot, killed and arrested are Africans and it is similarly the African inheritance that is being laid to waste.  My plea to the policy makers deliberating on this matter is to remove your blinkers and see that it is the children of Africa who are being willfully exploited in the rape of our country’s heritage.  Was the refusal to grant the Dalai Lama an entry visa a portent of complete subservience to Asian masters?  I wonder how many sustainable jobs have actually been created in Africa for Africans through Asian investment especially in comparison to the number of existing jobs in the wildlife tourism sector that will be lost if international arrivals dry up due to a guest being injured or killed in a confrontation with poachers.

Every day that passes without decisive action on an international scale provides the criminal syndicates with an opportunity to extend their malignant reach and influence. While the global conservation community has been totally ineffective in transferring risk and accountability to those in Asia, the criminal syndicates have been getting more and more organized, entrenched and sophisticated in Africa.

Increased investment into local law enforcement only is clearly not the answer. We have been pursuing this strategy for six years and the growing rhino body count is testimony to its failure as a comprehensive solution to the problem.  More people behind bars means nothing at all if the slaughter continues unabated and we must be careful not to mask our failure with this façade. Yes, security measures will always be necessary but in this case they are clearly not enough.  For as long as there is little or no risk to the criminal masterminds in Asia, single-minded investment into additional localized law enforcement measures will simply serve to continue driving up the stakes for the Africans on both sides of the conflict whilst driving up rewards for the criminals. There is unfortunately a limitless recruiting pool of highly impoverished and therefore desperate Africans for the criminal syndicates to exploit.  Africa’s sons are being used as disposable cannon fodder.

With the black-market value of a dead rhino continuing to soar in stark contrast to the continuing decline in the legitimate value of a live animal, are we not playing straight into the hands of the criminal syndicates? Our limited focus on increasing the risk on the supply side could well be driving up the price of illegal horn on the black markets to the benefit of the masterminds behind this crisis. Our enemy’s rewards are growing exponentially whilst our ability to fund preventative security operations through the legitimate sale of live animals has shrunk tremendously. Sadly, a live rhino is now increasingly viewed as a security risk and liability. My fellow South Africans, the time has come to acknowledge that we have been willfully and skillfully outmaneuvered and all we have to show for our efforts are the corpses and criminal dockets of our fellow Africans.

If the international community truly cared, surely after six years we would have seen the results of a collaborative international law enforcement effort? How then do we take back some level of control and influence? Certainly inaction is not the answer. The one option available to us, namely the legalization of international trade, is widely rejected by peripheral stakeholders who have never actually assumed the responsibility of looking after a live rhino or had to deploy employees into harm’s way to uphold the thin green line. These detractors include many in academia, civil society and Government. Due to vicious attacks and threats, certain ‘well meaning’ animal rights NGO’s not only create uncertainty in the public domain but also cause Government to dither and delay. Self-proclaimed experts are using social media platforms to pontificate and conveniently justify donations while insulting the very men and women who, on a daily basis, are getting on with the job of saving rhino. If you ask the conservation managers tasked with the job at hand, there is now almost unanimous support for legalized international trade in horn amongst all the public and private conservation agencies in South Africa. This collective plea from those at the frontline should count for something.

The reason adopted by peripheral stakeholders to reject trade is that there is uncertainty as to how it will affect demand.  There are concerns that demand may quickly exceed supply. My response to this is as follows:

a.        The current situation of zero-trade is clearly not working and if we wait until the national herd is in steep decline before acting, then we may indeed reach a point where this concern becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Recent data suggests that the rhino population in South Africa is very close to this threshold and if we are to look at trade as an option, we need to do it now without delay. Yes, the CITES timeframe is a constraint but article 15 provides recourse for emergency intervention. Lets use it.  Politicians, this is your cue.

b.        I agree that legalized trade won’t eliminate poaching. There is a legal market for cars yet auto-theft remains rife.  The intention is not to use trade to stop poaching but to prevent extinction of a species and to enable the sustainable use of an animal that uniquely lends itself to non-lethal repetitive harvesting to fund ever-climbing security costs. Legalized trade will bestow a meaningful value on a live animal again and this can only be good for the conservation of the species.

c.        Yes there is uncertainty about how trade will affect demand but since when has economics ever been an exact science? One only has to consider the absurdity of the gold standard to decry the logic of mankind’s economic pursuits. Economics is quite evidently not a pursuit of reason; it is driven by supply and demand.  We know for certain that there is a demand for horn that can be supplied through sustainable non-lethal harvesting. This will drive investment into and range expansion of the species, with significant potential for ensuing revenues to fund improved counter-poaching measures.

d.        Concerns about supply not being able to meet demand seem to be founded on current population data. What detractors are missing is that when left to their own devices, rhinos breed extremely well. Investment into the species with ensuing range expansion will see the population grow very quickly indeed. Also, is it not standard practice to regulate demand for a scarce commodity through pricing? Look at the diamond ring on your or your wife’s finger (and diamonds are not even scarce)!

e.        Doing nothing enables your adversary to dictate terms solely at his discretion. By taking action, we will unavoidably disrupt the status quo that will expose weaknesses and opportunities to target these.

It is my assertion that the window of opportunity to save the rhino is rapidly closing and that we need to act decisively and fast if we are to address what is increasingly becoming an existential threat to all our wildlife and associated economies. I do not believe we can wait until CITES 2016 to advance the trade agenda. We will have lost a further 3000 to 4000 rhino and who knows how many more other animals by this time.  The chokehold on the destiny of our wildlife heritage may have become too tight to break. We need to take back the destiny of our wildlife by doing exactly what the criminals don’t want us to do – legalize international trade in rhino horn.

Author: Andrew Parker