Guest Column

Rising tiger, waning rhino: Lessons from Asia for Africa

2016-04-21 14:45

Shakir Jeeva, CEO of Kwantu Private Game Reserve

The success of international tiger conservation efforts is offering a beacon of hope for the rhino conservation community in South Africa.   In addition to deforestation and human wildlife conflict, poaching and illegal trade of tiger parts have resulted in the plight and endangerment of the species to the point of near extinction.

However, this year the number of wild tigers has increased for the first time in a century in India, Nepal and Russia, according to WWF census data released recently. The conservation success story of the Asian big cats is a story of hope for the African rhinoceros.

Last year, 1 175 rhinos were killed by poachers  in South Africa  with a casualty rate of 22 rhinos a week, wiping out 4,9%  of Africa’s rhinoceros population in one year. The findings of a peer-reviewed science research paper cautions that the extinction of the rhino, at the current pace of poaching, is a very real possibility in just 20 years.

To protect the country’s wild rhino population against the encroachment of medicinal myth and flashcard wealth, South Africa will need R6,2 billion  over the next two decades.  This figure increases to R9.3bn when the population of privately-owned rhinos in game reserves is factored into the equation.

A difficult decision is coming up for  the cabinet this month, namely a proposal on legalising trade in rhino horn, which will also be discussed and voted on at  the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to be hosted in Johannesburg later this year.

However, the pro-trade stance on the coveted ivory dust is a double-edged sword - it can further stimulate demand, and subsequently more poaching.

The question is then, what strategies from the recent and successful tiger conservation programme are appropriate if we are truly set on preserving rhinos.

Firstly, in addition to rhino anti-poaching strategies at a grassroots level, addressing the source of the problem is necessary to curtail demand, which is what fuels poaching activity.

Conservation efforts and anti-poaching campaigns for tigers have focussed on awareness campaigns curbing demand and trade of tiger parts in Asia.  Such efforts illustrate the reasoning that poaching is a symptom, consumption is the cause and that treatment of the issue is possible.

Poaching, dehorning and deaths of rhinos is a direct result of the demand by an end-user.  The top Asian market for Africa’s coveted ivory powder is Vietnam, where rhino horn is revered as cancer cure, a status-giving drug for wealthy elites and as a medicinal tonic for excessive alcohol consumption.

A focus on addressing the source appears to be the more sustainable, cost-effective and long-term solution.

Such conservation efforts should focus on ways in which the Vietnam government can be harnessed and mobilised to put effective law enforcement in place, and create and uphold the necessary regulatory framework that will restrict trade and demand.  And the fact that no significant seizures of rhino horn has taken place in Vietnam, points to the failure of law enforcement in the country.

Coupled with this are conservation educational programmes untangling beliefs that rhino horn has medicinal value, leading consumer behaviour away from beliefs that rhino horn enhances societal status.

This approach is already delivering results:  in 2014, a year-long public awareness campaign has ensured that only 2.6% of people in Vietnam continue to buy and use rhino horn, a decrease of 38%. There has also been a marked decrease of 25% in the number of people who think rhino horn has medicinal value.

Secondly, commitment and investment in conservation programmes are needed. India, home to two-thirds of the wild tiger population, has canalized significant financial resources to its tiger conservation programmes and this has delivered the necessary impact and results.

Yet government is considering options to fight poaching, including collaboration with Denel on high-tech drone monitoring and observation systems, community engagement, plus visible policing, deployment of rangers and counter-intelligence.  

Still, the reality remains that despite the efforts of both government and the conservation community in 2015, poaching has devastated the rhino population in the country.   

However, anti-poaching programmes of government and the conservation community in the north are displacing poachers to the Eastern Cape – a positive sign showing poachers are being forced to retreat.    

Thirdly, a key feature of protecting the tiger has been a result of shared resources and co-operation especially between India and Nepal.  This has resulted in reducing the number of smuggled tigers.   

In South Africa the co-operation will entail sharing resources between provinces and regions.  Government, the private sector, civil society and the conservation communities have to coalesce to form the rhino anti-poaching movement.  

It is now time to explore synergies and networks and create a final strategic map sharing strengths and diffusing best practices.  Again, we have seen some successes in the Kruger Park.  That intelligence and experience should be implemented on a national scale.

To sum up:  the lessons from Asia through which authorities and conservation bodies have reversed the decline of wild tigers offers us an important way forward.  It will require us to rethink ways to curb demand in the Asian markets, commitment and investment from government, entails close collaboration and co-operation between provinces and even other African countries.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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