A South African defeat?

2014-08-12 23:08

I read with dismay this evening a Reuters Africa report that South Africa’s Environment Ministry is apparently considering relocating rhinos from Kruger National Park.

This is perhaps understandable, given the horrendous poaching statistics and appalling numbers of this species that have been slaughtered for their horns in recent years. The Government of South Africa has increased anti-poaching personnel and their equipment. It has engaged in multi-agency approaches, bringing the resources of SAPS, SARS, prosecutors and the military to bear. Offenders have been sentenced to periods of imprisonment that are unprecedented for wildlife crime. (Although some commentators question whether there is one policy for foreigners and another for citizens, with cases against foreigners being processed much more speedily and effectively.) Charges of racketeering have been laid against some accused persons. Asset seizure and money-laundering provisions have been employed.

But it appears that nothing to date has proved an effective deterrent against those determined to acquire the animal body part that is selling for extortionate amounts in Asia.

If South Africa is engaged in a war, and it surely is, it seems there have been insufficient victorious battles and skirmishes. One source indicates that almost 500 rhinos had been killed in the country by June 2014. It is not unreasonable, therefore, that a desire to remove animals from the constant threat should emerge.

And it certainly makes sense that one should transport rhinos as far away as possible from South Africa’s border with Mozambique, which appears to be the location from which the majority of poaching gangs originate. Especially as Mozambique’s response to the problem, so far, appears woefully inadequate.

Removing endangered species from high-risk locations has been done before. Zimbabwe, for example, adopted a similar approach many years ago and clustered its rhinos together in high protection zones where large numbers of Game Scouts and Wardens could offer 24/7 supervision. Kenya has similar policies.

However, Kenya and Zimbabwe kept their ‘own’ animals within their own borders. The Reuters article suggests that South Africa’s rhinos may seek sanctuary in Botswana. It describes this as a suitable location because of its “sparsely populated and isolated wilderness”.

I mean no disrespect to Botswana, but the last time I looked at a map of Africa it has borders with Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola.

• Zimbabwe has its own major poaching problems (and organized crime challenges).

• Namibia, often regarded as one of the most efficient wildlife law enforcement nations, has seen troubling poaching increases in the past year.

• Angola has recently been identified as a country with apparently open and wholly unregulated trade in ivory.

Botswana certainly has a proud and commendable record of protecting its own wildlife but I would have thought it had more than enough to do on that score without also safeguarding immigrants.

At the risk of repeating myself, I think it is time for us to focus on what really needs to be done.

o The South Africa Government – set aside any thoughts of opening a legal trade in rhino horn. The ‘international community’ will never support you. Especially in the current anti-wildlife trade atmosphere.

o The South African legalize trade lobbyists – forget it, it ain’t going to happen. I know that some of you genuinely believe that this will save the species. Maybe it could, but it just isn’t going to happen. And the rest of you – those who hope to line their pockets with profits – sod off. Many of you are the people who have criminally exploited the pseudo-hunting in recent years. Many of you ought to be in jail and the sooner you are behind bars the better.

o Mozambique – get your act together. Your government’s tourism website gives details of hunting opportunities - http://www.visitmozambique.net/uk/Flora-Fauna/Hunting-Reserves - whilst your citizens (and others) cross illegally into neighbouring countries and poach endangered species. This is appalling. What sort of message does this send about your commitment to conservation?

o Some South African enforcement agencies – get your act together. I happen to know that there are countries which have been asking you for months (many months in some cases) to share, for example, information that would enable them to investigate, and take action against, pseudo-hunters.

o The ‘international community’ – if anyone needs to get their act together, it is you. Stop constantly coming together for talkfests. Stop engaging in PR exercises that make no actual difference on the ground. Stop jockeying for position to try and be the ‘lead’ government or international agency to demonstrate their commitment to combating wildlife crime.

Whilst I have questioned, and continue to question, some of the Government of South Africa’s responses to rhino poaching and wildlife crime, I will never doubt the overall commitment of its law enforcement agencies. I return to this subject because I question whether we, national and international society in general, fully appreciate what is happening.

In a world where Islamist militants seem capable of coming close to overwhelming governments and territorial disputes apparently lead to the inadvertent shooting down of civilian aircraft, it may be questionable whether anyone’s attention should be directed towards the fate of an animal or plant species.

Personally, I have always been motivated by a desire to bring criminals to justice. But the words of Mahatma Gandhi also offer food for thought: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

Reuters quoted Environment Minister Edna Molewa as saying, “It is a mammoth task.” Perhaps ill-chosen words. Mammoth ivory has been a very substantial replacement for elephant ivory among some of China’s carvers and the word ‘task’ is all-too-frequently represented by the word ‘tusk’.

If South Africa has found the situation so desperate that it will relocate its rhino populations, that is a signal that the world ignores at its peril.

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