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The live rhino trade from South Africa

Tuesday 26th February 2013

The live rhino trade from South Africa

                                                    Next stop – Thai Skin and Hide

As of today, the number of rhinos poached for their horns in South Africa stands at about 107. Last year it was 668, the year before it was 448 and the year before that 333. Despite all assurances by the SA Department of Environmental Affairs that they are taking stern measures to stem the tide, the projections for 2013 now could achieve another record high.

That is just the illegal trade. Meanwhile, the legal trade in South African rhinos and their products, which could arguably be said to stimulate the illegal trade, continues unabated. Indeed, the South African Private Rhino Owners Association wants to export more in the future, and also wants to sell their stockpile of rhino horns removed as a precaution against poaching. The owners say they are instrumental in conservation of the species as they maintain about 4,500 rhinos in captivity (compared to about 16,000 or so in the wild), and that they have participated in bringing white rhinos back from the brink of extinction. Now they need to sell their horns legally, they say, to offset the enormous costs of keeping their rhinos secure in these days of rampant poaching. In fact, they claim that by “flooding the market” with rhino horns there will be no incentive to poach as the price will be driven down.

Such claims are easily refuted.

First, the private owners are NOT involved in any conservation of the species. They purchased and continue to purchase their rhinos among themselves and from the government as a business venture – they do not breed rhinos to return to the wild but to give them the financial returns on their investment. Much like the captive breeding of lions in South Africa, all animals involved are maintained for commerce.

Second, the private breeders did NOT bring rhinos back from the brink of extinction as they purchased surplus animals from organizations like the Natal Parks Board in the 1980s. In other words, rhinos were already doing well, and there was a supply available for sale.

Third, if you enter into the commercial business of breeding rhinos for sale, you have to accept, like any business, that the commercial environment might change. In the case of rhino breeders, it could even be argued that they participated in changing that environment as they allowed the “pseudo-hunting” of rhinos, fuelling demand from countries like Vietnam. Consequently, the private owners are now stuck with the extra security costs to protect their investments and are complaining that the government is not helping them enough by refusing to allow private owners to sell their horns. This is like a bank complaining that the government is not doing enough to prevent bank robberies and that they have had to invest in better and stronger safes, bulletproof glass in front of tellers, private security guards, surveillance cameras, alarm systems, etc. Basically, if your business environment changes,  you, as a commercial enterprise, have to bear the added costs. If such added costs prevent you making adequate returns then you have to reassess the business.

And fourth, the concept of flooding the market with horn, bringing the prices down, and thereby disincentivising poachers assumes that one knows the level of demand. The fact that the illegal traders are willing to take considerable risks and invest substantial sums to obtain their rhino horns (bribes to officials being just one cost) means not only that the illegal traders have a better business model, but that the demand is very high to be able to offset their losses through various interceptions by customs and police agencies. Also, it is well known that rhino horn is seen in many Asian countries as an investment opportunity rather than a commercial commodity immediately placed on the market.

The private owners, in my opinion, thus have no leg to stand on. In addition, they keep fuelling the demand side by continuing to allow trophy hunting by “pseudo-hunters” now coming from a variety of countries besides Vietnam. Remember that it was the government that had to set the new requirements for future clients to show they had any past hunting experience – the private breeders were most happy to receive Thai prostitutes who had never shot a rifle to come and claim their rhinos. Surely the private owners and the professional hunters in their employ are best placed to determine the capabilities of their clients to see whether they fall into the “real” or “pseudo” hunting category? In any business, if you undermine your own sales and those of others in your business by shady trading, you are inevitably heading for trouble. In addition, it was the government that placed a moratorium on domestic rhino horn sales in 2008 to prevent leakage to the international trade – the rhino owners were happy for this domestic trade to continue.

To close this article, I would like to give an example of the ineptitude of the government department handling aspects of the legal trade in rhinos. In May 2012, Mrs S.V. Kalyan of the opposition Democratic Alliance received an answer to her Parliamentary Questions 889 and 1394 on live rhino exports from South Africa to Asia. The Department of Environmental Affairs listed the permit endorsements at the O.R. Tambo (Johannesburg) International Airport. 

Below are some tables where I compare the numbers provided by the DEA to Parliament versus the numbers of live exports listed by CITES. It is likely that the CITES numbers for 2011 are likely provisional and still could increase.

Live rhinos to China:

 

2006

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

TOTAL

DEA

0

10

30

4

10

18

72

CITES

18

51

44

16

58

42

229

Live rhinos to Vietnam:

 

2006

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

TOTAL

DEA

0

0

0

2

4

2

8

CITES

2

6

2

2

8

4

24

Live rhinos to Japan:

 

2006

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

TOTAL

DEA

3

5

4

0

2

0

14

CITES

0

11

4

0

2

0

17

As you can see, the numbers do not match, except perhaps in the case of Japan. CITES has to ensure a match between numbers exported and numbers imported, so the constantly higher numbers of exports likely were provided by the importing countries.

There are a number of possibilities that could account for these discrepancies. The most obvious is that the DEA is incompetent: questions in Parliament deserve complete answers. It is also possible that the DEA is withholding information, as live exports of CITES-listed species require adherence to guidelines including that the destination is an approved facility. In the case of live rhino exports it was revealed earlier that many went to rather shady organizations, one of them by the name of Thai Skin and Hide, another by the name of the Kunming Game Reserve (established to protect indigenous elephants – no mention of exotic animals), another to the Bao Son Tourism and Construction Group, and yet another to Sanya Longhui Breeding Co., a rhino “farm” in China with an attached pharmaceutical company dealing in rhino products.

Clearly CITES permits are being extended without due diligence and the responsible Department is reluctant to give good information. That same department has said since 2009 that it was taking a firm stance against rhino poaching and illegal exports. Combine an incompetent national monitoring and licensing agency with maybe less than reputable private rhino owners and it is no wonder that the rhino situation in South Africa has ended up with a toxic outcome.

Picture credit: Idris Ahmed- Indian rhino in crate – animalworks.co.au

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Posted by Pieter Kat at 20:42

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