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OPINION: Contradictory Emergency Measures to Save Two of Africa’s Iconic Pachyderms—Why?

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It’s entirely possible, even likely, that we humans will not coexist very much longer with ancient, thick-skinned megafauna weighing thousands of pounds. How to save them is a matter of ever greater urgency—and dispute.

For African elephants—whose numbers may not exceed 400,000 and are falling yearly by some 30,000 to satisfy human lust for ornamental and religious ivory—there are stirrings of hope. National ivory stockpiles are being destroyed around the world to prevent leakage onto the black market (Ethiopia’s, yesterday), African nations are designing ivory action plans and their vaults of ivory await imminent inventory, state-level ivory bans are being enacted around the U.S., and on February 26 China suspended imports of ivory carvings for one year.

But for the other venerable giant of the Mother Continent—the rhino—the picture is dark. Africa-wide, an estimated 25,000 rhinos, black and white, are still standing. Their horn is in high demand in the East, mainly in Vietnam as a purported cure for cancer, fevers and hangovers. Last year, more than 1,200 rhinos were poached in South Africa alone.

Against this grim backdrop, and without much fanfare, a public hearing will take place on March 25-26 outside Johannesburg. It will set the stage for the possible establishment by South Africa of a legal trade in rhino horn. Paradoxically, a better advertised conference about tackling the illegal wildlife trade will be convening in Kasane, Botswana at the same time preceded by an Elephant Summit.

With two of the planet’s iconic pachyderms under unprecedented threat, you might think that emergency measures for both species would be complementary. Yet emerging conservation strategies for elephants are protectionist, while for rhinos the trend is extractivist—a regional strategy toward farming rhinos and establishing a legal, regulated trade in their horns.

The only multilateral agreement for rhinos (involving more than two countries) is among Asian rhino states. The Bandar Lampung Declaration—a joint and common action plan—was called a major step by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in October 2013.Mozambique and South Africa signed a rhino protection MoU in April 2014, but reportedly little has come of it.

The Far Reaches of Regional Trade

Regional-level strategies have already been tried, in Southern Africa—and they’ve been catastrophic for elephants across the rest of the continent.

In 2008, because South Africa’s elephant herds were growing, the country—along with Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe—was permitted under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to sell its stockpiled ivory, accumulated from natural deaths and managed culls, to “accredited traders” in China and Japan.

It’s now generally agreed that the sales were poorly designed and executed, and that at a time when a global ivory trade ban is in place, one-off sales are a bad idea. Moreover, South Africa has since been suspected of misappropriation of funds raised from its sale.

While these sales were allowed on the basis of good protection, rhinos are emphatically not the beneficiaries of good protection. They’re being killed in appalling numbers under the noses of South Africa’s self-celebrated good management. But South Africa seems intent on swaying decisions about pachyderms yet again—and doing so under a much more desperate set of circumstances.

South Africa’s Move Toward a Legal Rhino Horn Trade

It will be up to CITES whether South Africa gets to indulge in a legal trade in stockpiled horns and horns cropped from live (anesthetized) rhinos.

What case do South Africa’s trade proponents make? They will say:

South Africa holds the largest number of rhinos (18,933 of 20,425 southern white rhinos and 1,792 of 2,323 of south-central black rhinos).

Rhinos can be and are being farmed.

Horns can be harvested from live rhinos, unlike tusks from elephants.

The trade ban is not working.

We have yet to test this experiment on rhinos.

Pro-traders also readily cite vicuñas (South American camelids) and crocodiles as examples of successful “sustainable use.” Apart from differences in biology, they don’t say that vicuñas recovered in the wild before being traded and that poaching of wild vicuñas is increasing yet again despite a legal trade. Nor do they mention that it took two to three decades to switch from wild-sourced to farmed crocodile skins.

I view farms (of bears, tigers, vicuña, rhinos) as “living stockpiles” that provide little incentive for protection of species in the wild and often benefit local communities less than they do upscale traders at the end of the supply chain.

Legalizing trade in South Africa will not help protect wild rhinos in the other 11 African countries that hold very few rhinos. Experience with one-off ivory sales and trade in vicuña wool suggests that legalizing trade expands markets, increases demand, and complicates enforcement in other regions. The cascading effects impede protection of scarce or at risk populations, species, or subspecies.

Legalizing rhino horn trade will not rectify the lack of accountability in the wildlife sector across Africa. The rhino farming industry in South Africa is already rife with corruption, with “pseudo-hunts” and with hunters and veterinarians teaming up to poach horn. White South Africans have recently replaced Vietnamese students as couriers of illegal horn between Africa and Asia.

Poachers, Traders, and Consumers Make Complex Decisions

Two forward-thinking economists—Alejandro Nadal and Francisco Aguayo—contend that views about trade in wildlife are flawed for many reasons. One is that markets are multi-product/multi-species. To view a market (for, say, rhino horn) in isolation is an “extremely simplistic view.”

In the real world, they say, “supply and demand depend on a constellation of relative prices of substitute and complementary goods…creating a complex web of inter-dependent relations among the goods consumed.”

Or to put it more simply, consumers decide among a range of relatively priced products and options. For a trafficker or trader, the best strategy is to differentiate and diversify.

Nadal and Aguayo point out that seizures of illegal contraband prove that people involved in illegal logging and drug or firearms smuggling often also traffic in animal and plant species—not in single products.

And poachers do too.

Poachers may specialize initially on the most profitable and preferred species, but in the 1970s and 80s, the same poachers simultaneously harvested rhinos and elephants.

“Multi-species exploitation by poachers is associated with an increase in incursions…an initial increase in poaching of rhino is observed, and only as rhino numbers decline does elephant poaching increase, suggesting a further, local-level, evaluation of relative returns,” wrote Michael Burton from the School of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Western Australia, in 1999.

There are still (some few) places where elephants and rhinos coexist. One is Kruger National Park, the epicenter of rhino poaching. It’s estimated that Kruger has between 9,000 and 12,000 white rhinos. At what point, if rhino numbers continue to fall, would poachers turn to Kruger’s estimated 14,000 remaining elephants?

Farmed, legal horn would introduce still another dimension.

“Increasing competition—by providing farmed product—may actually encourage increased offtake from the wild as the ability of illegal traders to keep prices up is reduced,” says Adam Dutton, an economist with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Dutton has found that Chinese consumers of bear bile actually prefer a wild to farmed source. Likewise, parts from wild, not farmed, tigers are preferred.

Given the decline in wild rhinos, and if trade in their horn opens up (sourced from farmed or ranched rhinos), what will poachers do?

Competition with a legal market may mean that they poach more wild rhinos (especially if consumers express a preference for wild-sourced horn). When rhinos become too hard to find, they may target elephants (and other species) in southern African countries.

Fighting Corruption is a Worthy Alternative

What alternative is there to trade? One is to concentrate on anti-corruption, both to curtail the involvement of government and wildlife officials in wildlife crime and to distribute money from wildlife watching tourism more equitably among communities where poverty may spur poaching.

Corruption, Liz Bennett, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, wrote last year, would obstruct a legal ivory trade envisioned to curb poaching and black and gray markets.

Similarly, “A ‘legal trade’ in rhino horn may be an oxymoron,” wrote Richard Ellis in 2005. “It’s a conservation measure that would only work…with a clear chain of custody and full control at all points, from source to final sale.”

Ellis points to the Asian wildlife trade, which is “rife with corruption at every level” as demonstrating that “no amount of government intervention can circumvent the black market.”

Disadvantaged communities are as unlikely to benefit from rhino horn trade as from one-off ivory sales and wildlife watching tourism.

A recent study estimated that revenue of US$600 billion a year is generated from tourism in protected areas (PAs) around the world, with a mere 1.7 percent of it spent on conserving those areas. Clearly there’s potential for increased investment in local communities who live adjacent to PAs and the biodiversity within.

Visitors to African countries that hold the ever-thinning ranks of the planet’s great creatures still want to see rhinos—with their horns intact—in the wild. They still want to see elephants—with their family groups intact.

“There are simply too many of us for trade in wild declining mega-species to be a viable way to keep them with us,” says Cristian Bonacic, a Chilean veterinarian and vicuña expert.

Let us spare rhinos the experiment that has been tried with elephants, tigers, bears, and vicuña. Let us come up with a better way.

Dr. Katarzyna Nowak is a research fellow in anthropology at Durham University (UK) and a research associate in zoology at the University of the Free State Qwaqwa (RSA). She works on primates and elephants in Tanzania and South Africa. Follow her on twitter @katzyna.

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