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Selling the Family Silver:
South African Government will Trade Anything if it thinks it can Make Money

South Africa does not routinely make its rhino horn stockpile numbers publicly known, so in May 2019 the EMS Foundation submitted a request under the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), no. 2 of 2000.

In response,
the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) revealed that that
the government is holding 27 tonnes of rhino horn through SANParks and other
government bodies. This consists of 15,003 horns. The PAIA response also states
that the total number of horns held privately is 18,884, amounting to 22
tonnes. This makes the average weight of the government horns 1,8kg and the
average private horn 1.19kg. The average front horn of a white rhino weighs 4
kg, so the weight discrepancy needs to be explained. Horns accruing from
natural mortality (combining government and private stockpiles) weigh 45
tonnes, while confiscated horn is 25 tonnes.

The Convention on International
Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is meeting for its
18th triannual conference (CoP18) in Geneva at the moment. A treaty
between 183 member parties to regulate the trade in wildlife and plants, it has
given the go-ahead to South Africa to increase its export quota for black rhino
hunting trophies. This highly endangered species – there are only 2046 left in
South Africa (as at 2017) – should be protected, not hunted.

Based on these numbers, 10 black
rhinos can be legally hunted (up from 5 adult males) and will vary each year
according to the benchmark of 0.5% of the population. This regulatory system
requires extremely accurate population data. That aside, a continued legal
trophy hunting regime keeps open the loophole for rhino horn launderers who
engage in pseudo-hunts
and ship the horn back to Asia.

Unscrupulous traders, in cahoots
with local rhino breeders and hunters, have always found loopholes through
which to extract South African rhino horn and ship it out to Asian markets
where raw horn fetches between
$20,000 and $28,000/kg
parties should really know better, given that they overwhelmingly want domestic
markets for rhino horn and ivory to be closed. Why they would endorse a known
loophole is unfathomable.

Two years ago, John Hume – owner
of the world’s single largest private rhino horn collection (1700) – was
allowed to auction his stockpiled horn in South Africa. This followed the
lifting of a moratorium on domestic trade in rhino horns. That moratorium had
been imposed in 2009 as a response to a significant spike in rhino poaching
levels from 2006 to 2008. Allowing a domestic trade, when local demand is
negligible, contradicts
the rationale of an international ban. Moreover, any trade in rhino horn – whether
through trading or hunting – is a
poorly thought-out proposition
. The size or composition of the demand is
unknown, and poachers will always be able to provide to market at
lower cost
than the cost of farming horn, given regrowth rates.

Hume is now pleading
. Having speculated that rhino horn trade would be permitted, he now
claims that he cannot afford the upkeep of his herd or the 5-tonne stockpile. But
domestic trade is permitted, so this seems a case of manipulation to try and
convince the world that private rhino conservation such as Hume’s is
responsible for rhino recovery in South Africa since the global decimation of
the 1970s. The Private Rhino Owner’s Association (PROA) continuously point out
that private rhino owners have about 7000 animals. But this confuses the issue
– many of those rhinos are on reserves that thrive on ecotourism, not on cattle
ranches like Hume’s.

Also, Hume seems to be able to
move horn to market just fine. Recently, his nephew, Melville, was
– along with Petrus Steyn – in the Hartbeespoort Dam area in
possession of 167 horns. Hume’s attorney confirmed that the individuals were
acting as his agents for the sale of the horns to a Port Elizabeth buyer.

Pleading poverty, therefore, seems
like a desperate measure from private owners like Hume who want to be allowed
to trade horn internationally. It would support Eswatini’s
at CITES, which is turn supported by the South African government.
Eswatini wants white rhinos to be down-listed to Appendix II, which would grant
them less protection and allow their horns to be traded (technically) according
to strict regulation.

The reason that South Africa
supports Eswatini’s position is that it has its own massive government
stockpile of horns. And it wants to be allowed to trade all animals, their
products and the family silver under the banner of ‘sustainable use’, arguing
that commodification value is the only answer to conservation problems.

Stockpiles are easy targets for
organised criminal syndicates. In 2014, 114 horns were stolen from the
Mpumulanga Tourism and Parks Agency. Suspicions have also been
that high-level political officials have been involved in the trade
of our nation’s heritage. No action has been taken against them.

South Africa should abandon the idea of trading in rhino horn and encourage Eswatini to do the same. Poaching rhinos will always be cheaper than farming them. Therefore, any legal trade will simply provide a laundering channel for illegally acquired horn. Moreover, the dark web of interaction between criminal syndicates, elites and private traders suggests that holding massive rhino horn stockpiles can only lead to further criminality that undermines rhino conservation.

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