It’s Friday morning in South Africa – I’m home for a change – a rare privilege at this time of year. The last group of hunters left a couple of days ago and we won’t be heading off on safari for a couple more weeks.
With a steaming cup of coffee I see Kelly in her trusty Land Cruiser crossing the plain in front of my home. She’s been at it again; another all nighter – her commitment to these last four remaining Rhino is unwavering. The Cruisers headlights are dimmed by a layer of dust, similar to her weary eyes, she looks tired and worn out, but she’s smiling. Another night, another battle won, they’ve made it yet again – She sits and watches them with the enjoyment of a parent. She’s not alone, all over South Africa the same scene is playing out.
I slowly turn my attention to the day ahead, business will not stand still, I’d love to spend the rest of my morning observing these prehistoric looking creatures feeding a mere 60 yards from my office, but that privilege is not reserved for me – I have a job at hand. I form part of an important machine that allows those four Rhino and the rest of the game the opportunity to thrive in a rehabilitated ecosystem.
How that ecosystem and the wildlife that calls it home makes it each month is what drives us to rise before dawn each morning. It’s a privilege living in a place like this, but it’s a commitment few are willing to accept. This is not the “living happily ever after fairy tale” the armchair conservationist critic would believe it to be – this is about accepting the challenge at hand.
As my phone rings, I realize it’s not even 6am, there’s only one person in the world that calls before six and that’s Dad. “Have you read the news?” A voice booms out over the line. You can bet he’s wanted to call since 4am, how he has managed to wait this long boggles my mind – patience is not his strong point. Or maybe it is? Maybe his lack of patience makes him who he is – a survivor. An entrepreneur with a passion for his family and wildlife. “Our government has decided to drop its international Rhino horn trade application to CITES 2016”, he continues. The line goes silent. What else can we say? We’re both at a loss for words. Where to now? What will happen to our Rhino? To the rest in Southern Africa?
For the record…
There are +~ 20 000 White Rhino and 4000 Black Rhino left in the world today. Since 2008 illegal poaching has killed at least 5,940 Rhinos in Southern Africa. Let that sink in for a couple of minutes.
Rhino poaching is currently at a crisis point. By the end of 2015, the number of African Rhinos killed by poachers had increased for the sixth year in a row with at least 1,338 Rhinos killed by poachers across Africa. These statistics were compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Species Survival Commission’s African Rhino Specialist Group (AfRSG).
South Africa has by far the largest population of Rhinos in the world and is an incredibly important country for Rhino conservation. However Rhino poaching levels have dramatically escalated over recent years. The below graph shows the exponential increase in poaching from 2007 – 2015.
Above: Graph showing South African Rhino poaching statistics using data published by South African Department of Environmental Affairs (2016)
Although it is encouraging to see South Africa’s poaching levels fell slightly, poaching losses are still extremely high. There were 40 fewer Rhinos killed in 2015 than in 2014, but that in itself is statistically insignificant when you’re talking such large numbers of poaching deaths.
Worryingly, the crisis has spread to neighboring countries in southern Africa, with Namibia and Zimbabwe experiencing an exponential increase in poaching. During 2015, Namibia lost 80 Rhinos to poaching, up from 25 in 2014 and just two in 2012. In Zimbabwe, it is reported that at least 50 Rhinos were poached last year, more than double the previous year. For Africa as a whole, the total number of Rhinos poached during 2015 was the highest in two decades.
The current poaching crisis is attributed to the growing demand for Rhino horn in Asian countries, mainly Vietnam and China. Vietnam has been identified as the largest user country of Rhino horn. Although Rhino horn has no scientific medical benefits, consumers are using it to treat a wide range of conditions, from cancer to hangovers, and due to its high value it is now also used as a status symbol by wealthy individuals. The high price fetched for the horn has attracted the involvement of ruthless criminal syndicates making poaching their primary business.
How did we get here?
Since Dr. Ian Player started his efforts of bringing the Rhino back from the very brink of extinction with “Operation Rhino” in the early 1950’s, a couple of things have remained constant.
- Private ownership of Rhino has been their saving grace since day one.
- Poaching at some level or another has always been present.
From day one Dr. Ian Player was of the belief that the South African farmer is one of the hardiest individuals under the sun. Give them a briefing on the process, create an incentive of reward, and you’ll be well on your way to success. Within 30 years the Dr had his wish and before we knew it, we had built an entire industry around the Rhino. May the choice have been hunting, farming, or ecotourism – an industry was born around one man’s vision and the commitment of a large sector of our rural community.
Laws and protocols were developed and put in place to protect the well-being of the animals as to ensure the industry would be regulated at an acceptable standard going forward.
In all this time poaching was taking place, not at the levels we’ve been exposed to today, but it was always there. The fact that those poached numbers were so insignificant in comparison to the growth of the industry kept most of that information at bay. No one was willing to rock the boat. The Rhino population was thriving, the National Parks were sitting with excess and the private sector had bought into this new concept of ecotourism and hunting. Foreigners flocked to our shores to view and hunt our Rhino – all of course within the legal parameters set out by our South African Nature Conservation and CITES.
The 90’s and early 2000’s were the big years for not only our Rhino, but our businesses too. We all expanded and grew – we took bigger risks than ever before and overextended ourselves even more – we all enjoyed the ride, nobody more so than our Rhino population who now had doubled their habitat from 20 years previously. It was a win/win.
We had created a mega industry around the Rhino, our farmers had done well, they were good, in fact possibly too good. Numbers grew and even more became involved in Rhino – it became part of our national pride and success, but unfortunately with all the good we drew some unwanted attention too. Soon the poaching world put one and one together – there was a $ to be made. One with limited risk and more rewarding than a bank robbery. The chances of being caught were minimal, and even if you were caught the sentencing proved to be marginal to light.
With the poachers gaining momentum the farmers started thinking out of the box once again. They had brought the Rhino back from the brink of extinction, and then created a sustainable industry that saw them being rewarded handsomely, why would they quit now? They got creative and started Green Hunting. This allowed a larger part of the industry to get involved as the clash between hunting and ecotourism came together, meeting in the middle. We could now not merely derive value from our Rhino through hunting, live sales, and ecotourism, we could offer an experience that was acceptable to a larger part of society.
An experience was created, with the benefit of seeing the Rhino walk off to live another day after the enthusiastic foreigner had tracked, darted, and woken his/her Rhino. This was a new twist to our industry – we were once again counterbalancing our losses to the rising poaching issue.
Then the poachers got serious and 2009 arrived. The world went into a recession and so too did the world of the Rhino and the private Rhino owner. The domestic trade in Rhino horn, much of it derived from the Green Hunting industry was placed under moratorium until further notice. Green Hunting was banned that very next year due to a flaw in our South African law, the Veterinary council had their say, and soon the constant revenue stream was shut down.
Social media took on a new meaning as the world started to recover from the recession it had endured for five years. No longer was Face Book, Twitter or the likes of many others a means of social communication and sharing, it became a weapon to topple empires, overthrow governments, create awareness for both good and bad, and influence opinion. This now affected the Rhino too. With the Rhino horn trade moratorium in place, an escalating poaching issue at hand, ecotourism battling to recover from a recession hangover and hunting taking center stage for the various anti groups – the world of Rhinos became increasingly expensive and complicated.
A dead Rhino was now worth more than a live Rhino. No longer could horn be harvested to trade or green hunting be used as a form of income. Any form of hunting was placed under a massive spotlight on social media, and ecotourism was feeling the pinch too. South Africa’s honeymoon was over; FIFA Soccer World Cup 2010 had created an artificial economy before and after the tournament. The world had gotten excited by South Africa, it had flocked in its numbers to our shores once again, but by 2013 the recession was very much with us. Africa’s reputation of being two to three years behind the rest of the world was proving to be the case once again. In all this time our Rhino were bleeding on the ground and the men and women on the front line were pouring even more effort and funds into their protection. Something would give sooner or later.
The hunting of Rhino was becoming more and more expensive, yet this and ecotourism was our only option. Public opinion was finding it harder and harder to understand how the hunting of Rhino could save their numbers. To them the poaching was responsible for enough losses to the greater population as is, how could the hunting of another Rhino possibly save the specie? What they failed to understand and refuse to accept is the fact that this was an industry that could not afford to close shop for a single day. National Parks and Ecotourism destinations had increased their numbers to the point of off-take. Without the hunters and new game ranches/reserves buying excess Rhino, prices for the commodity would tumble and soon poaching escalation would outweigh the net growth per annum. The Rhino industry was in danger of losing the interest of the private sector, the very one that had brought it back from the brink.
But then they threw us a bone. The state called on the private sector to assist in the preparation of an application to propose the regulated international trade of Rhino horn at CITES 2016. This gave hope where all else was lost, and yet again the private sector bought into this concept. Renewed spending took place to protect our Rhino even more. Efforts were doubled by the various stakeholders, we looked past the fact that the ongoing poaching was draining us to a point beyond belief and anymore money poured into a bottomless pit was surely insanity – the old principle of Dr Player was back – reward the farmer and he’ll make a success of anything. We all bravely marched on in a glimmer of hope – reward would soon be ours and that of the Rhino.
In all this time we started believing more and more in the possibility of a regulated International Trade. Back home in South Africa, our very own private game farmers, John Hume and Johan Kruger, had taken the State to court over their constitutional right to trade horn domestically. The lawsuit cost them millions, but in September 2015 the high court ruled in their favor – they had won. We rejoiced in their efforts, sure that it would be the watershed moment that would open further doors to securing the future of our Rhino industry. Our celebrations were short-lived; domestic trade was hardly given the opportunity to prove its worth as a possible future for the industry, when the State appealed the ruling, placing domestic trade of horn once again under moratorium.
We entered 2016 knowing this would have to be the year that would finally see our fortunes change in the Rhino industry. Very few industries to date had been tested to this extend. No domestic rancher would have marched on in the same hope after a sheep, goat, or cow. Yet the Rhino owners continued on, CITES 2016 would be held in South Africa – you couldn’t blame us for thinking the stars were starting to align in our favor. And then 21 April 2016 arrived – mere months prior to the convention.
Where to now with our Rhinos?
As I sit trying to convey my feeling of hopelessness in my words I turn to a letter received from Dr Peter Oberem, a fellow Rhino owner.
“Thursday 21 April 2016 will go down in history as a sad day for our country and for the world. In fact, it will be remembered as a devastating day for the rhino as a species. This shocking decision will spell the end of this iconic and beloved animal. It is a devastating day, especially for the very people who have, over the past 50 years, already contributed so much to saving the rhino from extinction, as well as its continued growth and protection. It is a decision that is celebrated only by rhino poachers, those that harbor, support and protect them, and those few vociferous, ill-informed and misguided animal rightist who actively fought for this decision.
Those who have contributed their money, sweat, tears, blood and – yes – their lives for the cause feel betrayed by those who have been charged by their positions to protect the species. They will feel their efforts have been ignored and brushed aside for some as yet unfathomable reason. The voice of those who have made such a difference and who cherish, hold and protect between one-third and one half of the rhino in the world has been drowned out by those who are so often armchair conservationists and who in reality contribute little to protecting the species on the ground.
To date, all efforts to stem the tide of death have come to nought. The only people who benefit from this decision – and the decades of selfless effort to build Rhino populations – are the poachers and their protectors. The sole beneficiaries of this illegal trade worth more than R6 billion per annum are the poachers and other involved criminals.
As of today, the price of Rhino will fall and the price of Rhino horn will rise, increasing the differential between a live Rhino and a dead one – worth only a few hundred thousand alive but up to R8 million dead. It is an unsustainable and untenable situation. What incentive is there other than love of the animal for one to spend money, shed tears and blood, and offer up one’s life to protect it? Where do the protectors of the rhino get the ever-increasing resources needed to counter the growing threat against them and the animals they love and guard?
In addition, through this decision, our country, its people and conservation have missed a unique opportunity. Well controlled, legal trade would create and sustain 11 rural jobs for every Rhino in the country at the minimum wage for an agricultural worker in rural communities and on game ranches (220 000 decent jobs in total). This R6,6 billion would go a long way towards footing the security bill for these operations and ensuring the survival of the rhino as a
Over and above this, the government would earn another R6,6 billion from their share of the income, which could be used to protect Rhino and contribute to other conservation projects in the national and provincial parks – a situation far better than all this possible foreign-exchange income landing solely in the coffers of the criminal and corrupt, as is the situation currently perpetuated by the announced decision.
This decision flies in the face of logic, which tells us that what is needed is simply to increase the risk to the poacher and reduce his benefits. This decision has achieved exactly the opposite effect. Winston Churchill said “those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it” paraphrasing Einstein, who said that making the same mistake over and over again “is insanity”. It seems we have not learnt. Are we insane? “
There is nothing else to be said. Neither I nor Dad can think of another way out as of this stage. We are both hunters and yet the critic will question our feeling of remorse of the current situation. We have bred, we have protected, we have hunted, we have lost, and we have given our everything to our Rhino. We have not done so in order to rise each morning to count the wealth we may have derived through our Rhino, truth be told, we are so far behind on the eight ball, that their monetary value left the building many years ago.
So you may ask why? Why would we continue forth on such a hapless business module? Every person in this world wakes to ensure his job or business reaps rewards at the end of each day, realizing full well not every sector of his business will be as productive as the other. We accept those same principles, BUT …
If you have ever had the privilege of sitting in the middle of a crash of Rhino, and observed the joy and pleasure those animals bring to your children, then you my friend will understand where we’re coming from.
It was the Rhino industry that allowed us that simple pleasure, and in turn provided the Rhino the opportunity to return from the brink of extinction.
Surely we cannot ignore history at such a critical point.