In my blog last week, I suggested that the dismantling of the fence between South Africa’s Kruger National Park (KNP) and Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park (LNP), as part of the establishment of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, had facilitated deadly access to stocks of rhino by poachers, entering mainly from the Mozambican side. Therefore, I concluded, that it was the conservationists and not the poachers who should be blamed for the dramatic increase in rhino poaching. The Transfrontier Park was a great idea that was not working, I said.
I was wrong.
I should not have blamed the conservationists, but instead blamed…the conservationists. I’ll explain that statement in a moment, but first allow me to set the record straight.
Fence Still There – Mostly
In October, 2001, I was invited by the then-Marketing Director of SANParks, the late Richard Willys, to join a small group of 4×4 enthusiasts trying out a new route along what was essentially the border/fence line between KNP and Mozambique. Over four days, we drove north, camping, under the watchful eye of two KNP rangers. We were shown the existing fence – large parts of it very much intact – and also shown places where the removal of the fence had already started to take place. The proclamation of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLTP) involving South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe would take place early the following year and much was being made of the fact that the fences would come down.
Having examined places where the fence had been removed and having been assured by Willys that the rest would follow shortly, I assumed that that was, in fact, what happened.
Both William Mabasa, General Manager: Communication and Marketing at Kruger National Park, and Piet Theron, International Coordinator of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area, assure me that since the 2002 proclamation, only a very limited stretch of the fence has been removed.
Theron explains that Mozambique’s contribution to the GLTP – the Limpopo National Park (LNP) – was itself only proclaimed in 2001 and is thus “a park still in its early stages of development.” Part of that development was a Wildlife Translocation Programme, which Theron says “worked on two broad approaches – active translocation of animals from KNP to LNP, and passive translocation of animals from KNP to LNP through the dropping of certain parts of the KNP eastern boundary fence.” A total of 46 kms of fence north of the Olifants River has been removed, he says, with the intention of “having minimal impact on increasing human/wildlife contact” and “no impact in facilitating an increase in cross-border crime (this was before the surge in wildlife crime).”
In other words, it’s a very gradual process and the experts want to watch the animals and see what happens. “We needed to learn…as to whether the animals are indeed moving in and out of these areas and that is not something you can learn in a year or two,” says KNP’s William Mabasa, adding that “the intention was to remove the entire fence and it still is today” but that won’t happen “with poaching as it is at the moment.”
Mozambique & Poachers
Neither Mabasa nor Theron are 100% supportive of my contention that the vast bulk of poachers enter KNP from the Mozambican side.
“Definitely, no, poachers come into the park at any point along the fence,” says Mabasa, who says he is “not sure…if there is any fence in this country that can stop a human being and a criminal for that matter,” although he concurs that the vast bulk of poachers arrested are Mozambican nationals.
When asked the same question, Piet Theron says, “Yes, this is partially true. There has also been an increase in poaching incursions from the South African side.”
However, the CITES Report on Rhinoceroses, tabled at the big Bangkok meeting in 2013 (CoP16) was in no doubt:
“Poachers originating from Mozambique have been involved in numerous poaching incidents in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. The Secretariat believes that the implementation of the convention could be significantly improved in Mozambique.”
Two years since that meeting, Theron says “it should be noted that increased collaboration between Mozambique and South Africa…has also drastically reduced incursions from Mozambique into KNP.” He believes that “Mozambique has taken significant steps lately in addressing wildlife crime. The Mozambique Government has passed a new Conservation Law, which declares poaching as a wildlife crime. In addition, approximately 1,500 police officers have been trained and deployed as part of a specialized environmental protection unit.”
Progress of sorts, it would appear.
Blame the Conservationists – Again!
So why then would I continue to point the finger of blame at conservationists? Why not simply apologise, sign off as gracefully as possible under the circumstances, and write about something very different next week?
Let me preface what follows with that apology: I deeply regret not checking that the KNP eastern boundary fence had been completely removed. Nor do I – as one angry correspondent suggested – undervalue the work done in the field by hundreds, if not thousands, of poorly rewarded game rangers, anti-poaching personnel and conservationists generally.
I continue with the dialogue because – like you, I hope – I care very deeply about South Africa’s wildlife and right at the moment, that means rhinos.
The fact is that despite the very best efforts of people like William Mabasa, Piet Theron and their colleagues, the poachers are winning. If they continue as they are at present, the killing rate will very soon exceed the replacement rate and overall rhino numbers will start to decline.
Let me repeat this: despite the tens of millions of dollars and rands being thrown at this problem, more and more rhino are being killed each year. Why?
In short, the more we try and choke off supply of rhino horn, the higher the price goes. The higher the price, the more attractive the horn itself becomes to criminals. Here’s the CITES CoP16 Report again:
“The sophisticated organized crime groups involved in the illegal trade in rhinoceros horn earn significant amounts of money through their activities.”
How much? I don’t know for certain but prices quoted in several recent articles suggest $60,000 or £45,000 per kilo – so somewhere in the vicinity of R750,000? 1,215 rhino were poached last year. Allowing two kilos per horn, that’s around R1.8-2.0 billion. Significant? No question.
Demand, according to CITES CoP16, comes mainly from Viet Nam, although there is some evidence that the Chinese are once again interested. The CoP16 Report mentions a number of live rhino that have been imported by a Chinese pharmaceutical firm which apparently intends to farm the horns from live rhinos.
The horn is used by the Vietnamese as an ingredient in traditional medicine, but also, more recently, as a putative cancer cure, a hangover remedy and a status symbol.
We also know that poaching, especially in KNP, has spiked dramatically since 2008, when South Africa moved to outlaw what’s known as “pseudo hunting”. In essence, a Vietnamese citizen would apply for a hunting permit, kill his rhino, and export the horn legally as a trophy. Quite often, a South African professional hunter would, in fact, shoot the rhino for the client. The most egregious example was the case of Thai national Chumlong Lemtongthai, given a 40-year sentence for using a number of prostitutes as fronts in a pseudo hunting ring. Once exported to Vietnam, according to the Cop16 Report, most of the horns simply disappear. South Africa’s rules were tightened even further in 2012, since when no Vietnamese citizen has applied for a rhino hunting permit.
It’s a fair assumption, says independent conservation economist, Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes, that the South African game ranching industry had been clandestinely supplying the needs of the Vietnamese traditional medicine industry for a number of years. Once the rules against that were dramatically tightened in 2008, supply was choked off, hence the sharp upward trend in both the price of rhino horn and the poaching figures.
Bans Don’t Work
Two observations flow from this. The first is that the original 1977 CITES ban on trade in endangered species has not worked for rhinos. Just like America’s ban on alcohol in the 1920s – Prohibition – and like the more recent ‘War on Drugs’ it has, in fact, failed miserably. That’s why I continue to point a finger at certain conservationists, for whom any kind of trade in ‘wild animal’ product is complete anathema. It is the very ban that is forcing prices so high and guaranteeing the eventual extinction of the rhino
My second suggestion has two parts.
The first is that if traditional medicine in South East Asia wants rhino horn, then give it to them. There is absolutely no reason why white rhino should not be farmed, and the horns removed from time to time, or shaved on a more frequent basis. I must add that this would not apply to black rhino, which are much more solitary and need their horns to establish status (males) and for defence, mainly against spotted hyenas (females).
The final part of the equation relates to old-fashioned supply and demand. The price of a good comes down when there is oversupply. According to the CITES Cop16 Report, the various African rhino range states hold between them over 23 tonnes of rhino horn. Most of that – 21 tonnes – is in South Africa.
Sell it. Flood the market. Saturate it. Watch the price of rhino horn crash. No big money on offer will deter even the greediest of poachers. Allow the rhinos to survive unhindered for many years to come. That, in turn, would open a window of opportunity to properly address the question of why the Vietnamese, in particular, believe that powdered rhino horn cures a babalaas.
 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – Sixteenth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties Bangkok (Thailand), 3-14 March 2013 – Rhinoceroses – Report of the Secretariat
 Sas-Rolfes’ paper, The Rhino Poaching Crisis: A Market Analysis can be found at: https://savetherhinotrust.org/programmes/84-the-rhino-poaching-crisis-a-market-analysis