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Plan B for Rhino Conservation

The tragedy of the horn debate is that South Africa’s highly respected rhino custodians (park authorities, field rangers, anti-poaching, monitoring teams) and even politicians have embraced a failed, pro-trade economic model as the answer to the rhino crisis. By Colin Bell.

We do not get a second chance if we get the economics of rhino trading wrong; rhino in the wild will be gone. We have to get our policies right and there’s no room for risky, unproven experiments as viewing rhinos in small secure breeding farms is no substitute.

Let’s look at the economics.

Pro-traders argue that supply of rhino horn can equal demand through free-trade pricing. This may work for large, visible items like Ferraris, but it has not worked for other consumer goods where counterfeiters thrive and expand markets by attracting new buyers by selling goods at discounted prices. Nor has it worked for perlemoen! With the real cost of obtaining a rhino horn being a little above the cost of a bullet, there will always be too much of a price difference between the legal selling price of rhino horn and the cost of poaching that horn. To assume that free-trade pricing economics will stem demand and solve the poaching crisis is nonsense when criminal syndicates have the ability to expand markets by supplying discounted goods and perverting the legal market.

The pro-trade price theory simply has not been proven – it is pure conjecture, nor does it take into account the massive potential size of the market. What if the demand for rhino horn is much greater than supply? With close to a billion potential Asian consumers, this could easily become a reality, especially when criminal syndicates can induce increased demand by selling at lower prices. Then what? In my view, the horns of just 25,000 rhinos simply cannot satisfy the demand from just a few million Asian consumers.

Furthermore, SA’s snub of the recent London wildlife trafficking conference will make it almost impossible for SA to convince the world that trading rhino horn is the way to go. And even if SA could persuade CITES, it will take another five years before we can trade rhino horn. Do we waste these years and thousands more rhino deaths before we wake up?

I’m surprised that SA has no ‘Plan B’, because it’s going to need one.

My suggestion is that all sides get together and create a strategy that’s a wide ranging, multi-faceted approach covering the entire scope of the crisis to ensure that rhino have a chance of surviving in the wild.

Here are suggestions (over and above those that are already work in progress):

  • To stem the poaching avalanche, we declare all forms of trade in rhino products illegal. This means we have to switch mindsets from creating value from rhinos to taking away all their value in order to save them in the wild. It’s a big ask for pro-traders to change mindsets, but the horn must become as close to worthless as possible for rhino to survive in the wild.
  • Very little has been done to target the middle man. They’re the poaching syndicate’s weakest link. Middlemen pay poachers to kill rhino and they export the horns. Without them the whole poaching chain would start to implode. Communities will give information if the rewards for poaching information are greater than what they earn from poaching. There are laws in Mozambique that allow assets to be confiscated. There are reputable people with the necessary skills, expertise and contacts who are prepared to tackle this problem if they’re given the go-ahead and budget.
  • South Africa’s tourism and wildlife policies have often not sufficiently included rural communities living alongside national parks into their business models and it is from these communities that many poachers emerge. So long as these neighbouring communities remain marginalised, they’ll seek to claim wildlife, either in their cooking pots or through illicit activities.

In order to redress this, I propose the creation of a “Natural Capital Fund” to:

  1. Bolster conservation and anti-poaching work,
  2. Remunerate and uplift communities who live alongside parks and reserves
  3. Pay for information leading to the arrest of the middlemen and poachers.
  • The South African tourism industry generates well over R100-billion a year. My proposal is that a 1% levy is charged on all tourism accommodation and related services to support this “Natural Capital Fund”.  This could generate as much as R1-billion a year. Getting tourism industry buy-in would take some persuasion, but it’s possible if there was leadership. In my experience, tourists do not mind paying a small levy if they know it’s going to a worthy cause.
  • Elevate the crisis to Presidential priority level with Mozambique, Vietnam and China to speed up agreements and implement effective policies. • We need left-field thinking to ensure that technology is created to help monitor and protect vast wildernesses such as Kruger. Fortunately there are a number of innovative systems that are available.

Some pro-traders concede that their policies may result in rhinos becoming extinct in the wild and only found on small well protected farms.

Is this what we want? Will this not impact negatively on SA’s tourism industry?

The bottom line is: which is the safer bet – test the insatiability of market demand, or create an effective Plan B with no trade, ensuring that rhinos do survive in the wild?

In my view, we cannot risk rhinos becoming extinct in the wild and South Africa becoming merely a “Big 4” tourism destination through unproven high-risk economic policies.

About the Author: Colin Bell is a tourism professional with 35 years of experience. He is also co-author of   Africa’s Finest’ a new book out on the good, the bad and the ugly of the tourism industry (www.africasfinest.co.za). His operations have successfully re-introduced rhino into the wilds of Botswana and pioneered sustainable partnerships with rural communities in Namibia that ensure that rhino thrive outside of protected areas.

Main image of rhino courtesy of Brian Courtenay – www.satib.co.za/satib-trust

Editor’s note: On the subject of rhino poaching, the statistics shown in the table below (as at 26 February 2014) reflect the reality of rhino deaths from horn poaching compared to poacher arrests. A total of 2,599 dead rhinos compared to 1,051 arrests over the past 4 years and 2 months! Perhaps it’s time for Colin Bell’s ‘Plan B’ to be put into practice!

Conservation-Rhino=Poaching-Stats-2014  Plan B for Rhino Conservation Conservation RhinoPoaching Stats 2014