Beyond biodiversity: Sustainable development implications of South Africa’s “rhino wars”

20 August 2012

It's a calm evening in South Africa's Dabchick nature reserve when farm manager Martin Roux hears a shot ring out in the distance. Roux, who just returned from a patrol on the farm, leaps into his vehicle and speeds off in the direction of the shot. Upon his arrival, he discovers the carcass of a mother rhino with its horn sawn off. The troubling incident, which took place last March, has been an increasingly familiar occurrence in recent years, largely due to a surge in demand for rhino horns from Asia. Indeed, illicit exports of animal parts from the country have been rising steadily and there is no sign of abatement.

The first six months of 2012 have been particularly devastating for South Africa's iconic rhino. Figures released by Pretoria say that some 281 rhinos have been poached already, a number that will surely surpass last year's annual total of 448 reported incidents. Kruger National Park - the country's largest and best known game reserve - has been hit hardest by poachers, with a loss of 164 rhinos since January. But while the increased number of rhino deaths poses a significant threat to conservation efforts in South Africa, the problem also poses challenges to sustainable development in the region.

Rhinoceros are one of Africa's "Big Five" wildlife tourist attractions - lions, leopards, elephants, and Cape buffalos are the remaining four - and contribute to the valuable ecotourism industry. With South Africa being home to 75 percent of Africa's rhino population, wildlife tourism and the safari industry represent an invaluable source of revenue in marginalised rural communities where few other employment opportunities exist. However, poaching is increasingly recognised as a threat to the industry.

"Our rhinos are part of our valuable ecotourism and safari industries. Their very existence creates employment and generates important tourism revenue," says Mike Rumble of the African Conservation Trust.

In 2011, South African President Jacob Zuma announced six priority areas to boost job creation in South Africa, tourism being one of them. According to Zuma, for every 16 tourists that visit the country, one South African job is created.

Supply and demand

Rhino horn is prized in Eastern traditional medicine, particularly in China and Vietnam. According to wildlife trade experts, a rumour that rhino horn cured cancer in a high ranking Vietnamese government official is responsible for a recent surge in demand for rhino horn in Asia. The rumour reportedly spread rapidly across the country, eventually making its way to China, rejuvenating an interest in the horns, which had until recently been primarily used only in traditional medicine. Since then, poaching gangs have managed to organise themselves in a sophisticated manner with one goal in mind: to obtain as many horns as possible, through any means possible. This poaching crisis has ignited a war between poachers and southern African conservationists and has become known as Africa's "rhino wars."

Pretoria recognises the explicit threats poaching has on the country's economy and environment and is taking a strong stance against illegal poachers. Recent reports indicate that South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs was the recipient of nearly US$3 million in funding from the Washington-based funding agency Global Environment Facility (GEF), aimed at strengthening the country's abilities to fight wildlife crimes. South Africa says it hopes to enhance its enforcement capacity through forensic-based technologies.

Ecotourism impacts

Eco-tourism, which is based on attracting visitors to a given country's natural environments and biodiversity, contributes to sustainable development and creates new job opportunities. Employment generated by ecotourism has been recognised as being particularly beneficial to indigenous peoples' employment opportunities and growth of local businesses is connected to increasing numbers of tourists. According to the findings of the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF), benefits of ecotourism to local businesses are higher than those from mass tourism and it provides incentives to local communities to protect their surrounding environment.

"Ecotourism has a far greater potential for contributing to income and livelihoods in poor rural communities than what is realised," says Edgar Kaeslin, from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Tourists from all over the world visit South Africa to observe the country's rich natural environment and rare species. Black rhinos - considered one of the rarest rhinos in Africa - are a main attraction in South Africa and are responsible for driving much tourism in the region. The tourism industry, in turn, creates valuable job opportunities, often in areas where few other economic opportunities exist. According to Rhinos Under Threat, a recent documentary released by United Nations TV (UNTV) and the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), community lead initiatives linking employment, infrastructure, education, and health care with conservation and species protection are being promoted throughout South Africa.

But these ecotourism spin-off benefits are in jeopardy. The recent drop in numbers of black rhinos due to poaching has caused a spike in the value of their horns which, in turn, is stimulating the black market. The rhino black market is an imminent threat to eco-tourism industry not only because of dropping numbers, but also due to the massive security costs associated with protecting private game reserves.

William Fowlds, co-owner of Amakhala Game Reserve and chairman of the Eastern Cape private game reserve association Indalo, says escalating costs associated with rhino poaching poses a serious threat to the sustainability of the eco-tourism industry.

"This is not investment that will grow, that we will get a return on. It's just dead money, that we will not see again," Fowlds said. "So, if we actually lose a rhino or not, it adds up to a severe cost, and this is impacting on the budget we have available to manage all our other conservation systems and species."

Legalise rhino trade?

Since 2006, the tally on Africa's rhino war stands at more than 1,000 poached rhinos, 22 poachers killed, and more than 200 poachers arrested. John Hume, a 69-year-old entrepreneur and game farmer, has floated a controversial proposal to legalise trade in rhinoceros horn. Hume says rangers and conservationists could win the war if rhino horns were farmed on a large scale. Opponents to the scheme, however, argue that legalising rhino horn won't change the fundamental economics behind poaching.

According to Hume, as buyers become more confident in the availability of legal horn, prices will fall, which will keep rhino horn off the black market. He argues that, unlike elephants, rhinos can be farmed in a more "sustainable" manner because they can survive without their horns (elephants die when their tusks are removed because the nerve attached to their husks becomes infected).

"If you cut the horn about three inches above its base, it will grow back in two years. That means there is a never ending supply of rhino horn if we're smart enough to keep the bloody animal alive," he said, adding that a farmed rhino can produce 1kg of horn per year.

International regulation

For the last 36 years, CITES has been tasked with enforcing the practice of sustainable use of biodiversity by issuing permits and certificates to regulate some 35,000 species. The convention is an international agreement between governments to ensure international trade of wild animals and plants does not impede their survival. Under the CITES regulation, rhinos are listed as an Appendix I species - one of the most endangered. CITES prohibits the international trade of Appendix I species except when the purpose of the import is non-commercial.

During The 62nd meeting of the Standing Committee of CITES - which took place on 23-27 July in Geneva - delegates ramped up pressure on countries that either fail to sufficiently address illegal wildlife trade in their legislation or to report on such trade. The topic of elephant and rhinoceros conservation sparked fierce debate during the meeting. Vietnam - the country with highest demand for rhino horn - was given until 3 September to report on its progress on reducing rhino horn demand. The country is required to explain the measures they will implement to prevent illegal import and trade in rhino horn, how the black market for such trade is targeted in the country, and what the country is doing to discourage the use of rhino horn.

"We meet at a time when the illegal killing and illegal trade in African elephants and rhinoceros have reached the highest levels in our decade," CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon told delegates.

Alongside CITES, in the battle to combat rhino poaching, is the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC). ICCWC is comprised of five different organisations - the CITES Secretariat, INTERPOL, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the World Bank, and the World Customs Organisation (WCO) - with the common mission to "usher in a new era where perpetrators of serious wildlife crimes will face a formidable and coordinated response." Each of these five organisations offer specialised expertise, which is able to aid national enforcement agencies. In its attempts to curb elephant and rhino poaching, ICCWC helped organise the first international workshop aimed at establishing a network of controlled delivery units for forest and wildlife law enforcement.

"The use of this enforcement technique will yield real results in bringing to justice those individuals who organise the smuggling of wildlife," Scanlon said at the meeting. "And this workshop clearly demonstrates the added value of working together through the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime in taking up the fight against wildlife crime."

The future

Next year, as Bangkok hosts CITES's 16th Conference of the Parties (COP16), countries will vote on a report that proposes the creation of a centralised ivory sales body, the Central Ivory Selling Organisation (CISO), that would legalise the sale of ivory. The report, commissioned by the CITES secretariat, seeks to legalise the sale of ivory from elephants that die naturally and similar proposals may be made for rhinos and rhino farming.

During the 62nd meeting of the Standing Committee of CITES, delegates agreed to penalise seven nations for either lacking stringent regulations or failure to report on wildlife trade. Suspensions against Comoros, Guinea-Bissau, Paraguay, Rwanda, Nepal, Solomon Islands, and Syria will take place unless they take corrective action by 1 October.

As conservationists and rangers remain in the forefront of the rhino wars in Africa, delegates are looking toward COP16, where they will further evaluate and discuss rhino poaching and its threats to conservation and sustainable development.

Sanaz Sohrabian
Graduate Student, Bren School of Environmental Sciences and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB)

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