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.  CITES 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 poverty. 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 arrested – 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 proposition 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 raised 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.

© Copyright EMS Foundation 2019. All rights reserved.


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