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Wednesday 15th May 2013
Wonder where our horns went?
In August 2012, TRAFFIC published an exhaustive report (The South Africa-Vietnam Rhino Horn Trade Nexus: A deadly combination of institutional lapses, corrupt wildlife industry professionals and Asian crime syndicates. 2012, TRAFFIC, Johannesburg, South Africa) on the trade, legal and illegal, of rhino products between South Africa and Vietnam. Written by Tom Milliken and others, it contains a great deal of information about the trade, and also allows an evaluation of how the private rhino owners have profited from the legal, pseudo-legal, and illegal aspects. Since many of these owners are pushing hard to have the trade in rhino horn legalized, it is perhaps worth looking at the trade in rhinos over the past years to get a better understanding of how the system works.
A short summary of private rhino ownership
South Africa’s growth in game ranching has been termed a “conservation revolution” in that about 17% of the total land area is now used for wildlife ranching of some description (versus 6% of land set aside as national and provincial protected areas). Such ranching produces considerable economic benefits and game ranches are primarily business ventures engaged in hunting for meat and trophies, wildlife viewing, and live sales domestically and abroad. Indeed, by 2007 it was estimated that about 18.5 million game animals existed to be utilized on about 9,000 ranches.
Private ownership of white rhinos is seen as contributing to the overall conservation success in terms of the great increase in white rhino numbers in South Africa. Indeed, of the estimated total of 18,800 white rhinos in the country, it is estimated that almost 5,000 are in private hands. With a policy of increasing white rhino numbers versus limited state lands on which to house them, the continued growth of the white rhino population is seen to integrally depend on placing rhinos in private hands. Before the poaching crisis began, necessitating significant outlays by private owners to protect their rhinos, white rhino ownership was a very attractive proposition earning considerable revenue via live sales, trophy hunting and some ecotourism ventures.
In fact, the TRAFFIC report indicates that when the Natal Parks Board began sales of rhinos to private owners, it was at a fixed price of about $900. During the same time, a trophy hunt could bring in as much as $15,000 – resulting in the inevitable trend that about 10% of rhinos bought on auction were almost immediately trophy hunted.
Perhaps realizing that wild rhinos captured from the wild were undervalued, the Natal Parks Board then went for auctions, and immediately gained much higher profits. Looking at prices from 1987 to 1991, rhinos were then sold for an average of $15,163. This rose to an average price of $30,307 between 2007-2010. The auction price of a rhino is determined by a number of factors, but largely is influenced by age and the size of the horn. Nevertheless, profits remained very robust for those who bought rhinos and then sold them to hunters – in 2010 the difference between the average auction price and the average hunt price was $29,235. That is still a minimum profit, as it does not include what a hunter would pay for extras like accommodation and daily rates while on the hunt.
The TRAFFIC report does not distinguish between rhinos auctioned by the state and private auctions, but indicates that between 1986 and 2010, a total of 2,982 rhinos went on the block. The report only mentions that between 2005 and 2008 a total of 821 rhinos were auctioned, 581 of which came from wild populations owned by the state, or about 70%. Keeping that formula, the total numbers auctioned between the ten years 2001 to 2010 was 1,976 rhinos, indicating that 1,383 came from the wild. The numbers of rhinos trophy hunted between the ten years 2002 to 2011, judging by trophy and horn exports listed by CITES, amounted to 1,885.
In short, it is a strange way of conserving rhinos in my opinion. The rhino owners presumably compete with each other during auctions, but the hunt price always stays well above the auction price. Whenever the auction price approaches anything near the hunt price, the amount of money demanded to hunt a rhino jumps up again – the TRAFFIC report clearly shows such adjustments in 1989, 2001 and 2008, with that last surge in prices coinciding almost exactly with a surge in demand from Vietnamese and proxy “pseudo-hunters” cynically allowed to hunt rhinos though many had no familiarity with firearms.
With the state willing to sell large numbers of wild rhinos on auction, there is little need for private owners to spend money to raise them – buy them at a low price and arrange trophy hunts soon after (one source says a matter of weeks) the sale is made. While the introduction of auctions rather than fixed-price sales cut into profits for private rhino owners in the short term, the difference of $29,235 in 2010 between average auction price and average hunt price stands at an all-time high. The entire nature of the concept of private rhino ownership seems in fact against conservation as the rhinos are merely commodities always to be traded for the highest profit margins.
Perhaps also important is that the state has willingly entered into this covenant, supposedly selling off “surplus” wild rhinos (largely males) to fund conservation activities, especially in light of less and less money coming from central government. Proponents of these state sales have also said that managing rhino populations by selling off surplus males allows more reproduction to take place in protected areas. This begs the question of why protected areas with rhinos already at a stable level - through natural population regulation - should want intrusive management to make more rhinos? How many rhinos does South Africa want? Or is the state also seeing rhinos as a commodity to be reproductively manipulated for greater profits? It is all seeming like rhino “conservation” is influenced at all levels by commercial formulas. While the TRAFFIC report suggested that few if any rhinos would be sold by Kruger in 2012, the actual number sold is not yet available. It would be highly controversial if Kruger continues to sell rhinos to be shot as trophies considering that between 2011 and today, a total of 906 rhinos have been poached from the park.
How many rhinos are in private hands and how many horns are in private stockpiles?
Strangely, neither number is known. The TRAFFIC report mentions this:
“The carrying out of this survey [of rhinos in private hands] has been fraught with frustration and endless delays. The level of cooperation afforded by many individual owners of white rhinoceroses, their managers, the provincial and national authorities has been disappointing. The professional hunters and individuals involved with hunting were particularly unhelpful. Much of the official co-operation was grudging at best and many owners and management authority officials refused outright to provide information when requested."
That’s pretty surprising for a bunch of people supposedly involved in ensuring conservation of white rhinos? I suppose the excuse could be that private rhino owners did not want to reveal their rhino stocks in fear of poaching, but unless such information is available, how can there ever be an assessment of whether the private rhino owners are actually contributing to rhino conservation or just utilizing rhinos for short-term profit?
The other big gap in information concerns rhino horn stockpiles. Some of these are held by authorities of national and provincial protected areas and represent accumulations of horns resulting from natural mortality, horns confiscated from poachers, horns taken from rhinos that died during immobilization/transport, etc. For that category of rhino custodians, the TRAFFIC report judges that overall, relatively accurate records have been kept.
However, for private stockpiles, the situation is significantly different. Despite a ruling by the CITES Conference of Parties in 2007 that the Secretariat should receive by 2009 assurances that ALL rhino horn stockpiles were enumerated and carefully registered, the South African private sector has remained reluctant to divulge such information. One report stated that there were possibly 1,805 kg of horns in private hands in 2009. Using various other means of assessment based on the rate of natural mortality among rhinos held by private individuals, dehorning of breeding females (remember – males are used for trophy hunting and hunters require rhinos with horns), mortality during transport, etc – the TRAFFIC report indicates estimates ranging from 2,837 kg to 4,750 kg of horns in private hands, a difference of up to 263%. Was the reluctance of private owners to divulge the size of their horn stocks in part related to an active underground trade?
At the 2010 CITES Conference of Parties TRAFFIC presented a diplomatically worded statement:
“Whilst the shortfall between reported and expected horn stocks does not confirm that illegal activity is widespread in South Africa’s private sector, it does strongly suggest that significant volumes of rhino horn still remain outside of the legal control system and are vulnerable to undocumented trade in the hands of unscrupulous individuals. That fact, and the failure of five provinces [out of nine in South Africa] to report private horn stocks, indicates that implementation of South Africa’s control policy for rhino horns is inadequate at a time when illicit trade is escalating.”
Until recently, the sale of rhino horns within South Africa to South Africans was allowed. Such legally acquired horns could be exported as personal effects and then sold into the trade via a gaping loophole. In 2009 the South African government imposed a moratorium on national sales that still remains in effect in an attempt to prevent such illegal flows, but there is considerable evidence that many illegal sales from private stockpiles had already taken place. The TRAFFIC report mentions one case in which privately held horns were sold and ended up in Indonesia as well as buyers openly advertising their desire to purchase horns and tusks in the Game and Hunt magazine. It is highly likely that private rhino owners were deeply involved in the illegal trade of horns for many years.
The report also states “Overall, it is now suspected that at least several hundreds of horns have been illegally sold from private rhino horn collections throughout the country, and this trafficking has been augmented by other horns deriving from a series of rhino horn thefts that have grown increasingly frequent …” According to the TRAFFIC report one “wildlife insider” considered that the 2009 government moratorium on underground sales of rhino horns by private owners greatly reduced the flow of horns onto the international market and thus led to the massive increase in poaching since that date.
Where from here?
South Africa has been credited with a remarkable recovery of white rhino numbers over the past century – up from a small remnant population of 20-50 animals in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve in 1895 to about 18,000 rhinos now. South Africa was also relatively immune from the poaching scourges that virtually eliminated black rhinos and white rhinos from large parts of eastern and southern Africa beginning in the 1970’s, but has recently been hit with a vengeance. For the eight years 2000-2007, the total number of rhinos poached in South Africa stood at 120, or about 15 per year. But from 2008 to 2012 this number increased to a total of 1,654, or about 331 per year. As of May 15th this year, already 313 rhinos have been poached.
This recent poaching crisis has been blamed on a number of factors, including a high level of demand from mainly Vietnam but also China; an exponential increase in the price of rhino horn, possibly reaching a level of $65,000/kg in Asian countries; a considerable rise in wealth among Asian consumers of rhino horn leading to ever-higher demand and prices; the emergence of hardened criminal syndicates dealing with the acquisition and trade of rhino horn; and the ability of such syndicates to engage a network of willing and corrupt partners among private rhino owners and managers, wildlife professionals like veterinarians and pilots, professional hunters, and government officials. In addition, it is becoming ever more apparent that those involved in poaching are highly resilient to a variety of anti-poaching measures and are able to counter such measures with increasingly sophisticated and diverse tactics.
It is also becoming obvious that plans to target South Africa’s rhinos could have begun well before the great escalation of poaching in 2008. For example, arrests were made as far back as 2004 of Vietnamese nationals attempting to transport rhino horns by air from South Africa into Vietnam, and in 2003 an arrest was made of an individual carrying rhino horns attempting to enter Vietnam from Laos. The first rhino “pseudo-hunts” by Vietnamese nationals began in 2003 with ten rhinos hunted and then took off in 2005. Arrests were subsequently made in Vietnam of individuals carrying a mixture of rhino horns “covered” by hunting permits and those without permits. Interestingly, all seizures of illegal horns in Vietnam ended in 2008, the same year poaching began to take off in South Africa – likely indicative of the progressive ability of the syndicates to ensure safe passage of this illegal wildlife product into Vietnam by means of bribes and influence.
It should be remembered that before the escalation of poaching began in South Africa, Zimbabwe had been very hard hit. From 1986 to 1993 well over 100 rhinos were poached annually in Zimbabwe compared to only a handful in South Africa. Rhino poaching then declined to very low levels from 1994 to 2001, before growing again in 2002 to present with an increasing shift from Zimbabwe to South Africa (likely because Zimbabwe had fewer and fewer rhinos left to be poached).
1993 and 1994 were important dates in terms of a decrease in rhino poaching due to two major events. In 1994, a civil war erupted in Yemen, a country previously highly involved in the rhino horn trade, mainly used in the manufacture of dagger handles. After the war, the new Islamic regime frowned on such displays of ostentatious wealth and the bottom dropped out of the dagger handle market. Simultaneously, in 1993 it became illegal to sell rhino horn products on the Traditional Chinese Medicine markets of China and Taiwan, followed in 1994 by Japan, Korea and Vietnam. These changes in Yemen and Asia effectively reduced the demand that had been fuelled by poaching. The slow but increasing resurgence after 2002 is attributed to an exhaustion of stockpiles previously established by Asian marketers, the emergence of considerable wealth among a burgeoning Asian middle class, and the huge price increases in rhino horn that allowed greater risks to be taken by poaching rhinos from previously more “secure” areas (prices rose from $4,700/kg in 1994 to $65,000/kg today). Demand surged, initially met by underground sales from stocks available from South African private rhino owners, but then needing to be augmented by other means as demand kept growing.
These other means included “pseudo hunts” arranged by horn traffickers and willing South African rhino owners – not only to Vietnamese clients but also proxy hunters from Poland, the Czech Republic, Denmark and Thailand; horn thefts and “pseudo-thefts” (owners claiming horns were stolen to enable illegal sales) from private stockpiles, museums and zoos; and poaching and “pseudo-poaching” (owners shooting their rhinos and claiming they were poached) of private and state-owned rhinos.
Legalize the trade in horn?
In Vietnam and China, many say that buying ivory and rhino horn and the consequent decimation of animals is not their problem. Rather, they say, the problem lies with the African countries who supply the products to be sold - if these countries want to conserve their wildlife they should not allow it to become marketed, legally or illegally. It would seem South Africa, rather than taking the role of an innocent party suffering from a rhino poaching crisis, should look within for solutions in addition to signing memoranda of understanding with countries like Vietnam. Is it a home-grown problem that facilitated a foreign-grown problem?
Increasingly, there are calls to legalize the rhino horn trade not only by rhino owners with private stockpiles (who would realize a significant windfall profit) but also from members of state institutions, rhino NGOs and the South African government. Beginning with statements made at the recent CITES Conference of Parties in March, South African Environment Minister Edna Molewa seems progressively swayed to consider legalization based on her assessment that nothing that has been done to date seems to be making a difference in stemming the poaching crisis. Such calls might be gaining in popularity but lack rigour in the details of how such a trade would be regulated and controlled. There is no idea about the level of demand, who the trading partners would be and how potential partners like China and Vietnam would change their domestic laws to allow trade in rhino horn. Also, it is uncertain how illegal products would be differentiated from legal horns, a problem that would affect all remaining rhino populations in Africa. In short, such arguments are as yet far from convincing.
Those who claim that providing rhino horns by non-lethal means will control poaching conveniently ignore that such rhino horns have already long been provided from privately-held stocks in the past. As mentioned above, poaching was largely under control from 1994-2001. But the eagerness of those who created a burgeoning demand via supplies from unregistered rhino horn stocks, pseudo-hunts and pseudo-thefts must accept that their actions resulted in a current level of demand that exceeds any means of supply except by renewed poaching. Far from the perceived situation that the trade ban of 1977 limited supply of rhino horn, thereby raising prices and driving poaching, the real situation is that rhino owners in South Africa went around the trade ban by various means to increase a demand that has now exceeded any supply possibilities except by poaching.
South Africa should also realize that the current poaching epidemic has deep roots in misguided policies allowing various forms of commercialization of rhinos under the guise of conservation. These began with sales and auctions to private owners who were quick to cash in on differences between sale prices and hunting prices. Indeed, when considering levels of sales of state-owned rhinos and numbers of rhinos being trophy hunted, it would seem that such sales were merely a conduit to turn a wild rhino into a hunting trophy. State organizations like Ezemvelo (formerly the Natal Parks Board) derive about 75% of their funding from rhino sales and it is not surprising that intensive management is applied to wild rhino populations to stimulate reproduction and boost the possibility of future income. Such practices, coupled with a strong reluctance on the part of private rhino owners to divulge information about the numbers of rhinos in their hands, undermine any claims that this benefits rhino conservation.
With the combination of lax enforcement of laws against domestic sales of rhino horns and products in China and Vietnam, increased wealth allowing more purchases of rhino horn products for whatever reasons, and a ready supply of pseudo-legal and illegal horns by traffickers aided and abetted by South African private rhino owners, it is highly questionable if any level of legal supply will now stem poaching.
The TRAFFIC report mentioned that “… a unique set of circumstances and a new criminal coalescence of players lies behind the carnage … A potent mix of unscrupulous wildlife professionals, some corrupt government officials and hardened Asian criminal syndicates has converged to create the “perfect storm” for wreaking havoc on the country’s rhino populations.”
I agree that while there might be a “perfect storm” now, it is clear with hindsight that the factors that caused this storm have existed for quite some time but went un-noticed or were ignored. South Africa has grabbed a tiger by the tail and must find ways to let go without sacrificing more rhinos in the future, turning more rhinos into commodities by placing them in irresponsible private hands, and, actually, dealing with the consequences of bad decisions and complacency in the past.
Picture credit: www.africanrhino.org/2012/09/01/farming-rhinos-the future
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Posted by Pieter Kat at 17:22
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