Jane Wiltshire, Daily Maverick | June 7, 2021
It is encouraging when relevant sectors come together to hold constructive discussions on the future of rhinos. In this respect, it was uplifting to read Don Pinnock and Helena Kriel’s recent Daily Maverick article “The future of rhinos: What it will take to save an endangered ancient species” reporting on a meeting of rhino owners, wildlife vets, conservation NGOs, eco-economists, security experts and SANParks, facilitated by the Wilderness Foundation Africa.
Such discussions are long overdue, but we cannot, as Pinnock and Kriel suggest, be selective on the issues that we discuss, and the issues that are left at the door.
It is regrettably counter-productive to pursue these conversations and initiatives without dealing with the foundational issue of trade in rhino horn. The discussion held by DM168 and the Wilderness Foundation proceeded on the basis that trade in rhino horn would not be discussed. Any solution or initiative flowing from such a discussion will not be grounded in the realities of the situation and risks being undermined. If we are serious about saving the rhino, we need to once and for all collaborate in discussing the issue of trade in horn.
Discussing the future of rhinos without discussing trade in horn is akin to convening a discussion on the conflict between Israel and Palestine while taking the issue of religion off the table: Wonderful solutions will arise, but they will be unworkable in the real world.
Pinnock and Kriel’s article recognises that “compassion fatigue” has set in and that a tourism-driven approach to saving rhinos is not sustainable given its vulnerability to external shocks such as the Covid-19 pandemic. Any collaboration convened to discuss protecting and growing the rhino species cannot confine itself to recycling old arguments and presenting wish lists that will be ignored. It’s time for innovation that recognises the times we live in and accepts that we should consider embracing capital as a means to protect and grow the rhino population.
What is notable is the growing recognition that the private sector is best placed to protect and grow the rhino population. It is incontrovertible that private rhino owners have better anti-poaching records than public owners. They run efficient operations that are more resistant to co-option by organised crime and are passionate about their rhinos, their safety and wellbeing.
Yet, private owners are carrying a heavy burden. It is expensive to run consistent anti-poaching operations and more and more private owners are recognising that it is not sustainable to keep up their operations without any reasonable capital inflow. We know that a conservation and tourism approach to rhino protection and growth is not sustainable.
Mention is made in Pinnock and Kriel’s article of a levy on the trade in endangered species and carbon credits: These are creative ideas worth pursuing. Yet, how realistic will it be for these ideas to be realised in the next five to 10 years?
The truth is that donations would be needed to underwrite the cost of security and operations incurred by rhino custodians if no other option is on the table in the short term. Yet “compassion fatigue” will make such donations unlikely and the needed resources will not be forthcoming.
There is only one viable solution on the table in the short term and that is leveraging the power of capital within South Africa. This means selling and unlocking the value of rhino horn, a significant amount of which is held in stockpiles by both public and private owners. We need to put this solution on the table urgently and, in a collaborative way with all stakeholders, address how to make it happen while taking into account the valid concerns of those who fear it may be counter-productive.
Trade in rhino horn within South Africa is legal and can be used to protect and grow rhino numbers. The value of rhino horn can underwrite tradeable instruments that build liquidity for both private and public rhino owners. Funding from such tradeable instruments can be channelled to private and public owners to sustain their anti-poaching efforts and operations in cultivating the species.
Local communities living adjacent to public and private landowners can become stakeholders in the broader project, generating value and jobs from the effort to grow the species’ numbers.
The key to protecting and growing starts by unlocking the incentives for rhino owners to better protect and grow their populations. Thereafter, other initiatives such as carbon credits can and must be pursued.
It is high time that we stop avoiding the issue and have the real conversation about how to save the rhino species and, more importantly, grow the species to cultivate its impact on biodiversity. I will be liaising with Daily Maverick, Don Pinnock and other stakeholders to set up an initial conversation where we do put the issue of trade in rhino horn on the table. Yes, it will be a difficult conversation, but this country has a proud track record in difficult conversations that result in positive paths forward. Our rhinos deserve a real conversation that puts all the issues on the table.
Only then can we start dreaming about pulling the rhino back from the brink of extinction and watching them combat climate change as the “eco-warriors” we know they can be.