Talking Humanities

Prof Keith Somerville

Image: White rhino in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

South Africa’s long-awaited statistical report on rhino poaching reveal a 10.3 per cent dip in the numbers illegally killed in 2016 compared to the previous year. However, the picture is far from straightforward, explains Professor Keith Somerville.  

On 27 February the South African Ministry for Environmental Affairs released the long-awaited rhino poaching statistics, which showed that nationally 121 less animals were poached in 2016 (1,054) compared with 2015 (1,175). But the figures also indicated what many feared, that there had been an increase in illegal killing for horn in areas outside Kruger National Park. 

Although the 2016 decline is to be welcomed, it still represents more than 5 per cent of South Africa’s total rhino population of around 20,000. The rise in poaching outside Kruger is a cause for great concern, as it suggests that poaching networks are spreading their operations across the country, and growing in sophistication and flexibility, as demand from Vietnam, China and other countries in East Asia shows no sign of falling.

Rhino poaching in South Africa

One problem is the diffuse nature of the poaching gangs. They include Mozambicans brought into the country and paid to poach – they are often armed with high-powered rifles imported for the Mozambican security forces and wildlife department that have been corruptly diverted to poaching gangs. But much of the poaching in South Africa involves gangs of Afrikaners, which include former vets, wildlife rangers, helicopter pilots, professional hunters and game farm owners.

A very worrying element in this complex web, is the suspected involvement of senior ANC members and even government ministers with known poachers. Recently state security minister David Mahlobo, was found to have close links with a self-confessed rhino horn smuggler, massage parlour owner and businessman, Guan Jiang Guang.  Mahlobo has denied being a friend of the Chinese businessmen even though Guan Jiang Guang claims such a friendship exists and an Al Jazeera documentary on rhino poaching shows the two together.

Save the Rhino and other conservation NGOs have welcomed the overall fall in South Africa, but are opposed to the South African government’s draft legislation which would allow a domestic trade in rhino horn to resume. The trade was suspended by a government-imposed moratorium in 2009, which was successfully challenged in the courts by private rhino owners.

Under the new law, the government’s hacked together response to the court decision, a foreign citizen visiting South Africa could get a permit to export a maximum of two rhinos per year (or their horns), meaning the already overstretched South African wildlife authorities would be required to police both a legal and illegal trade.

This has huge potential for laundering poached horns and for a new form of what was once called pseudo-hunting, when non-hunters from Vietnam and Thailand paid to shoot rhinos and export the ‘legal’ trophy. However, the proposed legislation seems to have few safeguards and many private rhino owners have welcomed the move. But it doesn’t address the many complex problems relating to whether creating a regulated, legal trade in horn from dehorned rhinos, legal stocks and horn from natural mortality would help to stop poaching by opening up a legal, alternative supply.

Rhino owners and some conservationists, like David Cook (formerly director of the Natal Parks Board, and Hluhluwe-Imfolozi senior ranger) and John Hanks (former director of WWF’s Africa programme), favour an internationally regulated, legal trade that would supply demand through the provision of non-lethal horn. Such a system needs strong safeguards and monitoring procedures that are neither in place nor addressed in the rushed draft legislation.

South Africa’s government has a reputation for corruption at the highest levels of the ruling party, ministries and state institutions (including the police), so the hasty creation of a poorly-monitored legal trade does not amount to a regulated, well thought-out means of destroying the monopoly of the smugglers, or of using a regulated trade in non-lethal horn to undercut the illegal trade, reduce poaching significantly and produce income for sustainable conservation. Falling between the two stools of a total ban and a properly-policed legal trade, the new legislation looks like a new rhino disaster waiting to happen.

Professor Keith Somerville is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He is also research associate at the Marjan Centre for the Study of War and the Non-Human Sphere at King’s College, London and a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent. His latest publications are Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa and Africa’s Long Road Since Independence: The Many Histories of a Continent.