The Kingdom of Swaziland has submitted a proposal to CITES CoP17 to allow a controlled trade in rhino horn accruing from natural deaths, harvesting, and her own poached rhinos.

It is appropriate here to mention what can be described as one of – if not the greatest African conservation success story of all time – the saving of the Southern White Rhino by Ezemvelo KZN, formerly known as the Natal Parks Board. In the early 20th century, this species had been reduced to less than 50 animals.

At the instance of the likes of Col Peter Potter and a few others, this small isolated population (some state it to have been as few as 12 individuals) remained discretely located at the junction of the White and Black Umfolozi Rivers in Zululand. When Ian Player arrived on the scene as a young game ranger, this population had grown to some 600-odd animals, protected under what was to become one of the finest conservation agencies in Africa, if not the world – the Natal Parks Board (previously termed the Natal Parks, Game and Fish Preservation Board) under the direction of Colonel Jack Vincent.

It was Ian Player whose vision it was in the early 1960s to distribute the species widely – even to other countries – to spread the risk against extinction, and safeguard white rhinos for posterity.

It is less than likely that the small nucleus of rhinos, whose numbers were finitely limited to the carrying capacity of the Mfolozi Game Reserve at the time, could possibly have withstood the current onslaught in rhino poaching which now annually equates to approximately twice the original number of animals in the nucleus Player started with. So, had it not been for Ian Player’s vision to spread rhinos far and wide, the world would not have been privileged with the white rhino legacy he left us.

Ian Player died in 2014. Before he died, he was distraught at the escalating plight of rhinos and advocated strongly for the ban in trade in horn to be lifted in time to save them. Though Player was a strongly spiritual man, he was also pragmatic and strongly believed in the commercialization of game to enhance its material value in order to attract financial investment in it. He had seen this work over 40 years in southern Africa where, in that time wild animals had more than trebled in number, while in East Africa they had declined by 80% over the same period of time after consumptive utilization had been outlawed.

There is more game in South Africa today than there was in 1960, and this can be attributed to its commercialisation. There is, in fact, more game in private ownership in southern Africa now than there is collectively in all national and provincial parks, for no other reason than its legal commercialization. Dr Anton Rupert once said “the government will not get up at 2 in the morning to tend a sick cow, but its owner will!” And there is nothing like ownership to protect what one owns and recover what is stolen from one, especially if it has added commercial value.

After 39 years of the futile ban in rhino horn trade being in place, it is time to try something new. Open the Trade! Farm rhinos! Explore all options. No domestic animal has ever gone extinct!

Rhinos are now no longer considered an asset. They are a liability. It is simply too costly and too risky for custodians to continue conserving rhinos without the material returns which rhino horn sales could bring. Privately owned habitats in South Africa currently support approximately 30% of all white rhinos, which would, without any doubt, grow with a legal trade. We simply cannot afford the loss of any more rhino habitat, and opening the trade would likely expand rhino range 10 fold.

Measures to control rhino poaching on a continental scale are clearly not working. We have seen 70 of the 300 rhino owners in South Africa disinvest in rhinos last year, withdrawing some 200 000ha of habitat from rhino conservation. 200 000ha equates to a carrying capacity of some 2 000 white rhinos, plus a variety of other grazing species. (Reference: Rhino Owners’ Association).

South Africa has always been a strong proponent for lifting the ban, and several countries fully expected her to submit a proposal to CITES CoP17 to do so. Swaziland was standing by to support such a proposal. For whatever reason South Africa didn’t submit the expected proposal, the deadline was upon us, so Swaziland, to keep a foot in the door and keep options open, worked through the night to produce its proposal and submitted it with only hours to spare in the late afternoon of the last day.

If between now and the CITES CoP17, there is insufficient support and encouragement for it, the proposal can always be withdrawn. To be successful, such a proposal to CITES requires a 66% – 2/3 majority vote in favour of it. It is almost certain that this will NOT be achieved because custodians have been preoccupied defending their rhinos and themselves at the poaching coalface while donor dependent animal rights activists have been targeting Hollywood and other international iconic figureheads to continue with the ban in trade.

The world follows Hollywood, so the marketing skills of these donor dependant activists have totally outclassed those of the custodians, and they have built up an international stigma against the legal trade and those who support it. At least Swaziland’s proposal will provide the first step to a much needed platform for debate at CoP17 where the majority of African rhino custodians and their supporters will be afforded the opportunity to voice their views on an international forum.

CITES happens every 3 years. Had this proposal not materialized now, we would have had to wait another 3 years before taking the first step, and at the current rate of plunder, rhinos may not have the time to survive further delays in trying something new. At least now, at CoP18 in three years time, the second step at advocating the lifting of the ban can be taken when the pro consumptive message can be fortified and lobbied for at international level.

Currently criminals take 100% of the profits, and custodians pay all the costs of protection. This disparity will lessen with a legal trade. It is common sense that a legal trade will immediately compete with the illegal trade and any revenue it attracts will not be available to the black market criminals.

This is the rationale around the Swazi proposal which hopefully will gain momentum. Ian Player said before he died that the iconic figures of the world, had been misinformed by the animal rights activists who advocate for the continuation of a 39 year old ban which is still not working for the rhinos.

The ban is, however, working for the criminals and for those activists who raise donor money by supporting it. The question has to be asked: “Is it in the financial interests of donor dependant animal rights activists to find a solution to the plight of the rhinos when finding one would remove a very fertile platform for raising donor funding?”! In this respect, we hastily acknowledge that some activists are sincere and cannot be placed in this bracket.

The other question to be asked is, Is there one single ban with a lucrative commercial black market alternative, which has ever worked?

And for how much longer than 39 years do we need, to realize that the current ban is not working?

Ted Reilly. Big Game Parks, Swaziland.


Author: Big Game Parks

Sawubona! Welcome to Big Game Parks' Blog! From the flatlands in the East, through the mountainous and scenic West, to the heart of the lowveld in the South East, the Kingdom of Swaziland not only offers you nearly every example of African landscape but also unforgettable wildlife, culture, adventure and birding experiences. Big Game Parks (BGP) is a private non-profit Trust which manages three game reserves in Swaziland: Hlane Royal National Park, Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary and Mkhaya Game Reserve. All follow a common mission: to conserve the rich biodiversity of Swaziland's natural heritage. In 1960 the Reilly's family established the Kingdom's first game reserve on the Reilly family farm, Mlilwane. Hlane Royal National Park and Mkhaya Game Reserve soon followed and today the company's contribution to the restoration and protection of the Kingdom’s biodiversity is of great significance (BGP actually saved 22 species from extinction in Swaziland!) and can truly be appreciated by the discerning traveller. Swaziland is well-situated between Kruger National Park and Kwa-Zulu Natal as well as Gauteng, Mpumalanga and Maputo. Big Game Parks’ well-positioned and diverse game reserves are an essential destination in any itinerary. Discover all the latest Big Game Parks tourism, conservation and community happenings right here. Sitawubonana! See you soon!

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