The fight against rhino poaching shifted to parliament recently when members of the Portfolio Committee on Environmental Affairs heard oral submissions on various strategies to curb the scourge.
Wildlife Ranching South Africa’s (WRSA) affiliate group, Private Rhino Owners’ Association (PROA), urged parliament to support legalising the rhino horn trade, adding that at the current rate of increase in illegal hunting, rhinos would become extinct before 2020. But committee chairperson, ANC MP Johnny de Lange, assured those present that the species would not become extinct on its watch.
From several of the submissions, it was clear that the rate at which rhinos are being hunted by poachers has gone up considerably. Dr Mike Knight of the SADC Rhino Management Group presented statistics showing that from 1990 to 2007 an average of one rhino was poached every 33 days.
This number rose to one rhino every four days in 2008 and one rhino every three days in 2009. By 2010 it had reached one rhino per day. Last year, an average of one rhino was poached every 20 hours, and this year, at least 28 rhinos have already fallen victim to poachers’ guns.
PROA chairperson Pelham Jones said that it could cost up to R25 000 per rhino per year to protect an animal in the field.
By contrast, the legal sale of rhino horn would not only cover protection costs but ultimately reduce them, as well as ensuring the survival of the species and providing substantial returns to South Africa’s primary stakeholders in rhino conservation.
Jones added that the price of rhino horn had escalated sharply in the past three years. “In 2009 it was about R40 000/kg, in 2010 it rose to R80 000/kg, and at the end of 2011 it approached R160 000/kg,” he stated. Michael’t Sas-Rolfes, an independent conservation economist, explained that the price was being driven by limited supply, increasing demand and rising disposable income in Asian countries such as Vietnam.
Some of the presenters alluded to the possibility of rhino farming as a means of boosting both rhino numbers and the supply of rhino horn. The Western Cape MEC for agriculture, Gerrit van Rensburg, discussed this possibility during a speech given at the Worcester agricultural show.
“Maybe the time has come for us to allow the free market system to protect rhinos. If we would allow farmers to farm with rhinos as they do with buffalo and sable antelope, it would ensure that their numbers never reached critically low levels,” he said.
However, during the public hearings, the World Wildlife Fund’s African Rhino programme manager, Dr Joseph Okori, warned that the legalisation of rhino horn trade and rhino farming were not “silver bullets”. He said that a better understanding was needed of the unforeseen risks of these suggestions and the worst-case scenarios that could arise should they be implemented.
Dave Balfour, CEO of the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency, added that rhino farming could be dangerous for South Africa. “There are risks to this approach that need to be understood. These risks relate to issues of hybridisation [mixing of sub-species] and extralimital populations, both of which can compromise other conservation objectives, as well as inbreeding through poor management practices,” he said.