A beastly dilemma

2012-01-19 00:00

OVER the past few weeks two separate but closely related fronts have opened in the battle taking place over the future direction of rhino conservation in South Africa.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s tender run on behalf of the Mduku community for the hunting of a male white rhino in the Makasa Reserve in northern Zululand saw a torrent of hysterical protests being lodged from the animal rights end of the spectrum, a response widely seen by the opposing sustainable-use school of thought as an attack on enlightened 21st century-style resource management. Gloves that previously softened the blows exchanged for decades between these two factions are now well and truly off.

As background it is important to understand that on the day that the first game reserve was demarcated and fenced, confining species such as rhino to finite areas, the scene was set for the production of surplus stock under management policies aimed at preventing overabundance and its consequence, habitat destruction, caused when wildlife populations exceed carrying capacity.

With this in mind, those who oppose the controlled hunting of rhino such as that due to take place at Makasa need to take heed of a number of fundamental realities. Firstly, the healthy status of rhino in South Africa (as opposed to their dismal status north of our borders) can be directly attributed to the fact that since the earliest days of Operation Rhino in Zululand, the animal has been subjected to the dynamics of tradable market forces, initially through the sale of breeding groups to overseas institutions — the proceeds from which financed many translocations to other reserves and national parks — followed soon after by sales to commercial game ranch and private reserve owners. From a point in 1970 when the Natal Parks Board offered rhino locally for R200 each plus transport costs of 50c per kilometre in a bid to create outlets for an embarrassing surplus in Imfolozi, the price soon rose to over R500 000 as the Cites concession to South Africa allowing hunting stimulated a surge in private investment that has added an estimated two million hectares to the nature conservation estate in southern Africa. Well out in front as the key driver of this successful partnership between the formal and private conservation sectors, the hunting industry must take much of the credit for this astonishing achievement.

Now, as Ezemvelo takes up the new challenge of building conservation bridges bet­ween protected areas and adjacent land occupied by rural communities, some wretchedly poor, using the same economic formula that has worked so successfully for the private sector, the critics have unwisely chosen to condemn the initiative using misguided sentiment as the weapon.

Makasa stands to gain a reputed R960 000, much needed for things the critics probably take for granted — decent schools and properly resourced clinics to name but a few — from the hunting of a rhino destined to become a smelly pile of rotting bones and hide in the veld after a painful, lingering death from old age. Could class prejudice, similar to that which saw fox hunting banned in the UK, perhaps have a hand in this froth over hunting a rhino: a spiteful distaste for the thought of a rich, cigar-puffing millionaire shooting an iconic species for fun? If it means that Makasa justifies the setting aside of valuable land for wildlife conservation then why bother about the motives of those involved in the deal? We should be grateful.

More to the point, if the anti-hunting faction insists on preaching mawkish, sentimental slop then it should reserve such outbursts for the savagely cruel deaths meted out to rhino at the hands of poachers. It might just make the government come to its senses.

As for those thousands of South Africans who year in and year out spend enjoyable holidays in KZN reserves, it’s time they stood by hosts Ezemvelo to lend deserved support for the ground-breaking attempts being made under difficult circumstances to expand conservation in this province. May many more resource reserves such as Makasa be established in other areas. It’s the new frontier and a really exciting one.

Not far behind this hunting issue lies the second front — rhino poaching. Many of those taking sides in the feud over hunting find themselves similarly engaged over what can only be described as a clash of ideologies as opinions rage over how to stop poaching that has seen the tally rise from 333 in 2010 to 445 in 2011. A rather sorry state of affairs considering the industrial sum of money and human resources that have been pumped into the anti-poaching measures which the state, NGOs and many private wildlife owners have pinned hopes on since the poaching tsunami began its steady climb in 2008.

Measured in terms of success in stemming the tide of attrition poaching has caused to the estimated 20 000-strong rhino population, these anti-poaching campaigns can rightly be accused of failing: population growth of around six percent turns sickly negative when annual poaching increases at 35% per annum as it has done. It begs the question: will the white rhino, quite aside from the much more vulnerable black, revert to the extinction threshold within living memory after its acclaimed rescue and subsequent rise in status when Ian Player and the Natal Parks Board stepped in to save it in 1959? Quite possibly if the trend continues.

On January 26, the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Water and Environmental Affairs is scheduled to hold public hearings to examine the worsening situation and to provide an opportunity for alternative solutions to be aired by those tiring of hearing the bad news and anxious to try something new for a change before it is too late.

Regardless of the plainly futile condemnation of Far Eastern tastes in traditional medicine and the equally ineffective Cites-imposed ban on trade in rhino horn, the plight of the world’s rhino clearly needs an emergency rescue package if the species is not to go the way of the dodo. History informs us that prohibition simply does not work, so why continue repeating failures?

How long must South Africa wait before the slumbering Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) acts to adopt a fresh, more realistic approach to what is rapidly assuming catastrophic proportions? What possible harm will be done by South Africa going to the Cites COP in 2013 with a proposal that, as custodian of 90% of the world’s rhino, it deserves to be given the chance to try a professionally controlled trade in rhino horn as a last resort to save these extraordinary animals from extinction? The answers are clear — true conservationists must put aside their differences, rally together and apply the pressure necessary to bring DEA and Cites to their senses.

Missing out on Cites in 2013 and the chance to win support for a legal trade will be a death knell for an iconic animal and a backwards lurch for wildlife conservation. South Africa must rise to the challenge.

• David Cook is a former Natal Parks Board senior officer and Environmental Consultant.

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