Rhinos: Time for urgent innovation

White Rhino in South Africa. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Jane Wiltshire, Opinion / The Daily Maverick | October 18, 2020

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It cannot be ‘business as usual’ in tackling rhino poaching. We are nearing a tipping point at which more rhinos will be dying than are being born. It is ‘now or never’ if we want future generations to enjoy the privilege of viewing these magnificent creatures. 

The High Level Panel for wildlife management introduced in 2019 by Barbara Creecy, Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, is a major opportunity to consider alternative and innovative ways to protect and grow endangered species. This is particularly the case when one considers the plight of the Southern White Rhino.

The mere existence of the High Level Panel and its terms of reference are a timely reminder that past and current efforts to protect the rhino have been ineffective. It cannot be “business as usual” in addressing the threat to this species.

We have almost reached the tipping point where more rhinos are dying and being killed than are being born.  It is “now or never” if we want our children and future generations to enjoy the privilege of viewing this magnificent creature. And it is beyond urgent for us to consider innovative and new ways to ensure that a species so fundamental to many Southern African ecosystems – a “keystone species” – is conserved and sustainably financed so that it can thrive and proliferate.

Since I saw my first rhino at the age of five, I have been captivated by and emotionally invested in these incredible animals. After spending years observing them up close, I swapped a successful career in corporate finance to work full time on protecting and growing the species. I realised I could not sit on the side-lines, I had to be a part of solving one of our region’s most pressing conservation issues.

My first instinct was to find ways of more effectively curtailing poaching and convincing consumers to change their behaviour. These efforts were soon shown up as naively simplistic and ineffective.

My research and experiences have led me to understand that the important aim of preventing rhinos from harm and extinction is not the only reason to accord this cause greater attention. A sustainable future for rhinos is critical to the future of our tourism economy and the continued viability of the ecosystems in which they exist.

The most visible and present of the “Big 5” animals, the rhino’s importance to its ecosystem cannot be overstated. It is a keystone species because its presence and role in an ecosystem has a disproportionate effect on other organisms.

As so-called “mega-herbivores”, rhinos help shape entire eco-systems by reshaping the land around them over time, spreading nutrients, providing the foundations for complex food chains and modifying vegetation. The removal of rhinos from an ecosystem will have a debilitating effect. Other species will not be able to play their ecosystem roles, thereby throwing the sustainability of many parts of southern Africa into chaos.

So, it won’t just be the absence of one of the most marketable members of the Big 5 that hurts our tourism economy but the collapse of an ecosystem key in holding all its elements together.

This underscores the high stakes involved in current deliberations on approaches to combating threats to rhinos. Current tactics are not working.

Both publicly and privately owned rhinos populations remain at considerable risk to poaching, with costs of continuing protection increasing exponentially. The negative economic effects of this year’s Covid-19 pandemic have only exacerbated the situation.

Demand for rhino horn has not decreased and it is unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future, despite the continuation of the over 40-year CITES ban on international trade in rhino horn. Attempts to change behaviour in countries where rhino horn is popular have demonstrably not worked. The rewards of poaching motivate poachers to take even greater risks, despite the dedication of rhino custodians and the considerable advances that have been made in anti-poaching efforts.

Since 2008, poaching has been on a steady increase. As many sub-Saharan African countries have lost their rhino populations, the attention of crime syndicates has focused on rhino poaching in southern Africa, despite the region’s relatively effective efforts against poaching.

The probability of being caught for poaching remains low despite laudable efforts that have been made – a consequence of corruption and law enforcement issues. We are moving to the dangerous situation where mortality rates may be exceeding birth rates – the path to species extinction.

Tourism-driven conservation has been unable to stem the tide. The Covid-19 crisis has shown that the protection of rhino populations cannot be primarily reliant on income generated through tourism; it is not reliably sustainable.

Furthermore, the word “conservation” lacks ambition; it is about protecting existing rhinos that have survived the past decade’s poaching surge. We need to move beyond simple conservation if we are serious about protecting the equilibrium of ecosystems around the region and providing the tourism economy with its considerable competitive advantage of being home to the Big 5.

What should we be doing?

In addition to sustaining the physical protection of rhinos (an incredibly expensive enterprise), trimming rhino’s horns is vital. If the rhinos have their horns trimmed, there is less incentive for poachers to attack them. Trimming rhino horn is pain free and has been resoundingly endorsed by organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Wildlands Conservation Trust.

But on-reserve physical protection measures and the trimming of horn is not going to be enough. Rolling out proper horn-trimming operations while at the same time maintaining elaborate security defences against poaching is cripplingly expensive.

The answer to this problem has to be to make protection of rhinos and the trimming of horn financially sustainable. We need to explore ways to utilise the power of capital to not only protect rhinos but to grow the population. There are a significant number of individuals and organisations in the region who care deeply for and have devoted the better part of their lives to protecting the Rhino species. These individuals and organisations need to come together and structure a mature, reasoned conversation that looks at creative, innovative solutions to protecting rhinos; one that doesn’t just seek to conserve the status quo but looks to grow the population. And this discussion must include financially sustainable solutions.

I have no doubt such a collaboration of the brilliant minds this region has can produce a unique solution that, together with government, can produce a blueprint for the protection and growth of similarly endangered wildlife species worldwide.