South Africa releases rhino poaching figures, illegal trade persists

25 January 2016

A total of 1175 rhinos were poached last year in South Africa, representing a slight dip in 2014 figures, according to statistics released by the government last Thursday.   

“Considering that this is despite escalating poaching pressure – and in the face of an increased and relentless rise of poaching activity into protected areas – this is very, very good news, and offers great cause for optimism,” Edna Molewa, South Africa’s environment minister, told a press briefing.

Molewa highlighted a range of efforts undertaken by South African government officials, the private sector, and civil society to help tackle the rhino poaching, including a total of 317 poaching-related arrests, continued implementation of an “intensive protection zone” in the iconic Kruger National Park, and training programmes designed to catch smuggled horn at ports of entry and exit.

Rampant poaching in the country that is home to some 19,700 rhinos – around 80 percent of the world’s remaining wild population – has raised alarm in recent years. Last year’s kills nearly doubled the tally in 2012.

Figures from wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC released last week also drew attention to increases in rhino poaching in other African countries as a continued cause for concern. The group estimates that around 1305 rhinos were illegally killed across the continent in 2015. All five rhino species are threatened by poaching and three are critically endangered.

“For Africa as a whole, this is the worst year in decades for rhino poaching,” said Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC’s Rhino Expert.

“The poaching epicentre has spread to neighbouring Namibia and Zimbabwe, but is nowhere near being extinguished in South Africa: despite some commendable efforts being made, we’re still a very long way from seeing the light at the end of this very dark tunnel.”

Experts suggest that rising affluence in some Asian economies where rhino horn is highly-prized for medicinal or ceremonial purposes and a lucrative illegal international trade racket is a driver of Africa’s poaching crisis.

International commercial trade in rhino horn has been banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since 1977 due to species’ survival concerns.

International action

Due to the cross-border nature of the poaching and illegal trade challenge, stakeholders have increasingly pursued cooperative efforts in a bid to respond effectively, a move broadly welcomed by conservation groups. (See BioRes, 19 February 2015)

Molewa last week confirmed that South Africa would continue to collaborate strategically with rhino range and consumer states, including through a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Vietnam running until 2017, implementation of another with Cambodia, finalisation of an MoU with the People’s Democratic Republic of Lao, as well as with Mozambique.

A ministerial meeting focused on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) last December reportedly resulted in agreement between Pretoria and Beijing to transform wildlife trade dynamics by reducing black market activities and scaling up the sustainable use of Africa’s wild plants and animals.

The rhino poaching crisis has also been taken up by CITES parties. A recent CITES standing committee meeting held in early January resulted in requests for India, Mozambique, South Africa, Viet Nam, and Zimbabwe to take action and report on a list of recommendations designed to address rhino horn trafficking.

A CITES working group will also prepare a synthesis report of relevant studies, workshops, campaigns and other relevant material in order to help countries enhance the effectiveness of rhino horn demand reduction strategies.

Legal rhino horn trade

World governments will gather in Johannesburg in September for the Seventeenth Conference of the Parties to CITES (COP17) to tackle a range of issues related to illegal and legal international wildlife trade. (See BioRes, 20 January 2016)

A highly-anticipated feature at these triennial meetings includes proposals from CITES parties to change the classification or “listing” of a particular species. CITES operates through a series of annexes that determine the level of permitted international trade for listed plants and animals depending on conservation status.

While parties have until April to unveil their proposals, expectations are rife that the Johannesburg meeting will see discussion around the classification of polar bears, the African lion, and some additional shark species.

In this context, South Africa is in the process of an intra-governmental inquiry into the feasibility of tabling a proposal for rhino horn trade, although no further details are available at press time.

Given harvested rhino horns regrow over time, some experts support breeding the animal alongside legalising trade, in a bid to undercut international black market prices. Debate among the international community, however, on whether this would help or hinder the rhino’s plight remains rife and controversial. (See BioRes, 13 May 2014)

For example, one academic paper published last year modelling rhino horn supply and demand argued that the latter appeared relatively insensitive to price, and that legalising trade without additional consumer-oriented policies did not prevent extinction.

Fuelling related discussion, South Africa’s High Court last Wednesday rejected a government petition to be allowed to appeal a ruling handed out last November lifting a 2009 ban on domestic rhino horn trade.

According to Molewa the move will not affect the government’s deliberations on international commercial rhino horn trade through CITES. The environment minister also confirmed her department will now be applying for leave to appeal through the South African Supreme Court of Appeal.

The case is being pursued by two South African rhino farmers who argue that the moratorium is unconstitutional and has contributed to the rising poaching figures.  

For some conservation groups, however, domestic rhino horn trade could provide a cover for illegal international activities as forensic technology for identifying stolen wildlife parts is not yet widespread.

“The high court ruling is a serious blow. There is no market for rhino horn in South Africa so lifting the domestic moratorium can only encourage illegal activity, especially as it is likely to be misconstrued as a lifting of the current international trade ban,” said Dr. Jo Shaw, rhino programme manager for WWF South Africa in a press release last week.

ICTSD reporting. “South Africa reports small decrease in rhino poaching, but Africa-wide 2015 the worst on record,” Traffic, 21 January 2016; “South Africa Rhino Ruling to Fuel Illegal Trade, Group Says,” Bloomberg Business, 20 January 2016.

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