Rhino poaching on the rise, ministers pledge to tackle illegal horn trade

19 February 2015

Ministers and high-level delegates from the Czech Republic, Mozambique, South Africa, and Vietnam last Saturday adopted a statement reaffirming their commitment to take action to prevent, combat, and eradicate escalating levels of rhino poaching and illegal trade in the animal’s horn. The four countries also pledged to ramp up international co-operation and co-ordinated law enforcement efforts.

The move came at the end of a meeting convened by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the multilateral platform charged with regulating and restricting a multi-billion dollar international trade industry in some 35,000 listed animal and plant species, in force since 1975.

Rhino poaching has increased dramatically in recent years, with South Africa recently reporting that a total of 1,215 southern white rhinos were killed last year, making 2014 the worst on record with 200 deaths more than the year before. These figures tot up to an average of more than three animals hunted per day, or a 100 per month, in a country that is home to over 80 percent of the world’s remaining wild rhino populations.

The aggressive poaching of rhinos as well as other wildlife has raised global concern over long-term sustainability threats and the potential economic impact on related industries such as tourism. (See BioRes, 2 July 2014)

Experts pit a rising demand for rhino horn in some Asian economies as a driver of the black market trade in the animal part. International sales of rhino horn are illegal under CITES’ rules.

“As we count the cost not only in financial terms but also in terms of the loss of human life and risk to our national security it is clear South Africa cannot win this fight alone,” said South African Minister for Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa on Saturday.

While Mozambique is an also a rhino range state and faces similar challenges to its African neighbour, the Czech Republic and Vietnam have been identified by CITES as major transit and destination countries, respectively.

The meeting was also attended by observer officials from China and Tanzania, as well as representatives from the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment, the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC), INTERPOL, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and the World Customs Organization (WMO).

Recommendations on short and medium-term action

The ministerial level meeting on Saturday followed a two-day session between national customs, police, and wildlife authorities who worked with experts to prepare recommendations on additional interventions to tackle the challenge. The session’s outcome document identifies 19 short and medium-term actions the four affected states could take.

Steps that could be implemented immediately, officials suggest, include collecting DNA samples from seized rhinos, sharing these DNA profiles with relevant national rhinoceros focal points, and work supported by relevant international bodies.

Within the next six months, the states could among other things, outline procedures for alerting relevant authorities about seizures and associated information, share information on key smuggling routes, develop standard procedures for the analysis of seized rhino samples, identify rhino poachers to INTERPOL, and engage the private sector.

On a 12-18 month horizon, the states could conduct joint operations to target known smuggling routes, encourage operation visits between one another to share best practices, and consider pursuing training opportunities available through the ICCWC.

Last week’s meeting and the resulting pledges follow up on a CITES decision at the most recent Conference of the Parties (COP) held in Bangkok, Thailand in March 2013 that called on Mozambique, Vietnam, and South Africa to enact stricter domestic regulation to tackle rhino poaching.

An international committee operating under CITES last July also tasked Mozambique with developing a rhino action plan while Vietnam should provide a progress report on its enforcement efforts by March. (See BioRes, 15 July 2014)

“Deep and ongoing international cooperation is critical to combating [rhino poaching],” said John E. Scanlon, CITES Secretary General, and facilitator of last week’s meeting. “Today’s ministerial dialogue has secured further political commitment from key states to enhance their bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral cooperation and a commitment to work together on tangible short and medium-term actions,” he continued.

Action through trade deals?

A number of governments and experts are increasingly considering the role international trade pacts could play in enforcing efforts to tackle illegal wildlife poaching and trade.

For example, the US has indicated it plans to include relevant anti-wildlife trafficking provisions in the environment chapter of a planned Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a sizable plurilateral trade agreement currently being negotiated between twelve nations in the Asia-Pacific region.

Such provisions could include trade sanctions for countries implicated in wildlife trafficking, for example.

Experts have suggested this could be a significant move given the structure of the illegal market and countries involved in TPP.

“Vietnam is huge. They are the primary consumer of rhino horn that’s driving this increase in rhino poaching in South Africa,” Leigh Henry, a senior policy advisor with international conservation group WWF, said in February.

The Obama administration last week also unveiled domestic plans for boosting efforts to tackle illegal wildlife trade, including by harnessing American intelligence agencies, and sending law enforcement officers abroad to help combat illicit activity.

Concerns remain, however, around the scale of the challenge relative to the efforts channelled to tackle it. The New York Times reported that only an estimated 10 percent of wildlife traffickers are currently estimated to get caught.  

ICTSD reporting; “Tiger skins and rhino horns: Can a trade deal halt the trafficking?” BILATERALS ORG, 3 February 2015; “Obama Administration Plans to Aggressively Target Wildlife Trafficking,” THE NEW YORK TIMES, 11 February 2015. 

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