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SA on horn of a dilemma


South Africa’s proposal to be allowed to sell its stockpile of rhino horn legally would put the entire continent’s rhino population at risk, Kenyan elephant scientist and wildlife campaigner Paula Kahumbu said yesterday.

“I appeal to South Africa to think about their responsibility… It doesn’t make sense and will damage South Africa’s reputation hugely.”

Kahumbu, also head of the Kenyan NGO Wildlife Direct, was one of a panel of international speakers at a discussion on the politics behind the illegal trade in wildlife, organised by the South African Institute of International Affairs and the Conservation Action Trust.

Kahumbu believed if the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) secretariat allowed South Africa to sell its multi-million-rand stockpile of rhino horn, it would trigger demand.

“The price will drop, so more people could afford it, then the price will rise with the increased demand and the poaching will increase.”

One of the difficulties in cracking down on the illegal wildlife trade was corruption, she said. Only 4 percent of convicted wildlife criminals in Kenya went to jail and about 70 percent of court files on wildlife crime “went missing”.

Kahumbu said prior to the Cites ban on international trade in ivory, elephants numbers in Kenya had plummeted from 180 000 to about 16 000.

“The situation seemed hopeless… Then Cites introduced an international ban, the price dropped, the poaching dropped and the elephant recovered.”

Estimates were that for every 10 pieces of ivory in stores, nine had been traded illegally.

“There are 2 million Chinese ex-pats in Africa. The Chinese in Kenya are buying ivory directly,” Kahumbu said.

John Sellar, who formerly headed Cites’ law enforcement unit, took issue with the term “illegal trade”.

“It’s not illegal trade, it’s crime and organised crime,” Sellar said.

In recent years more than 100 rangers in the Democratic Republic of Congo had been killed on duty. However, because they were called “rangers”, their deaths did not seem to create a public outcry as they would have done had they been police killed on duty.

“Wildlife crime is organised crime and it needs a sophisticated, organised response.”

Sellar said if rhino horn trade were legalised, it would take at least 18 months before any trade could take place, which meant the criminality around rhino horn would continue during this time.

Sellar said had it not been for anti-poaching efforts of South Africa, the rhino would have been “wiped out in months”.

Will Travers, of the Born Free Foundation, said it was almost impossible to prove causality between legalising trade and its effect on animal populations, but one could make inferences. After the one-off sales of ivory in 2008/09, the ivory price was $160/kg (about R1 400 at the time).

The Chinese government then sold it to retailers at $1 000/kg, which automatically ramped up the retail price.

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