Can South Africa trade its way out of trouble?

2015-05-30 09:30

I’d like to pick up from where I left off in my last writings[i], where I discussed the poaching situation in Kruger National Park.  I’d like to offer some views as to whether legalizing trade in rhino horn may offer a solution, or at least help reduce the current levels of poaching.

My time in Cape Town reinforced what I already suspected, that the pro- and anti-trade lobby groups are becoming diametrically opposed and increasingly vehement in relation to whether the current scenario may be addressed through legal trade in rhino horn. The debate is also taking on some characteristics that I find really unfortunate, sad and surely ought to be avoided.

During the excellent three-evening conference at the University of Cape Town, one of the speakers suggested that legal trade in rhino horn should be tried, to see whether it might solve the poaching crisis. As his address drew to a close, a picture came up on the screen behind him of an individual who I understand was one of South Africa’s leading conservationists and who is recently-deceased. The speaker told the persons gathered in the large lecture hall that this person was in favour of trade. A member of the audience, during the subsequent question-and-answer session, who announced that he had known the deceased very well, vehemently disagreed that he had held such views. I suspect many in the hall that night will have shared my discomfort at the exchange and I relate it solely to illustrate how unpleasant things may have become.

As you will have gathered from my comments elsewhere, my personal opinion is that enforcement issues will need to be addressed whichever view gains the upper ground and regardless of whether the Government of South Africa decides to submit a proposal for opening of legal trade to the CITES meeting next year.  But the debate over this issue is so intense in South Africa that it would be remiss of me if I did not comment upon it.  I have described my thoughts on the subject previously, but my exposure to various arguments in Cape Town maybe warrant a repetition of some of those views and an input of fresh reflections.

Before doing so, let me re-emphasize my personal disinterest in trade or no-trade debates.  My experience, whether as a Police officer or a United Nations official, has not led me to a position where I believe one or the other will be a panacea to trafficking.

Firstly, to which country will South Africa’s rhino horns be sold?  It doesn’t matter whether those horns emanate from government stocks, trophy-hunting, game reserves or private ownership, they have to go somewhere.  At the moment, no country allows legal domestic trade in rhino horn (except where it is an ‘antique’). In particular, trade in rhino horn is prohibited in the countries which appear to be the main destinations for trafficking, Viet Nam and China.

As I understand it, Viet Nam has a somewhat limited history of using rhino horn in its traditional medicine practices. I do not believe it was ever a major importer of horn during the period when trade was still allowed. However, a significant demand has emerged in Viet Nam in recent years, initially driven by a belief that rhino horn might treat cancer, but now extending to its use as a hangover cure and its possession as a symbol of status and wealth. Use remains illegal, however.

China’s historical use was substantial. China was previously the world’s major importing country for rhino horn. Within its traditional medicine practices, it was regarded as an effective treatment for fever. It was also viewed by the traditional medicine community as an important response to cerebrovascular incidents, i.e. strokes. Senior figures within the Chinese traditional medicine representative bodies have told me (as recently as 2011) that they believe the government’s ban on use of rhino horn (and tiger bone) in medicines, enacted in 1993, resulted in preventable deaths. Rhino horn used to be prescribed as an urgent response for stroke victims, as it was viewed as a measure that inhibited the spread of post-stroke paralysis and also counteracted the longevity of any paralysis.

Given the existence of such views, if the Government of China were to repeal its existing prohibitions and restrictions on rhino horn medicinal ingredients, might that have a very significant impact upon current demand? I believe that, certainly at present, the world has no accurate understanding of what the demand for rhino horn is in Asia or, importantly, what it might become.

Neither should we overlook an area of demand that worried me considerably in the period immediately prior to my leaving CITES. I was convinced that some of the illicit acquisition of rhino horns taking place around the world involving: the purchase of old hunting trophies and antique horn carvings; burglaries of homes, taxidermist premises and museums; and robberies at a government store, might have nothing to do with medicinal issues. I believed it was intended that some, at least, of these horns would be carved into ‘libation cups’ or other pseudo-antique carved horn items, to then be passed off into the objet d’art and antique markets. I found my concerns were shared by some anti-fraud officials in the antique industry. I describe this in more detail in my book.[ii]

Regrettably, my fears were proved to be well-founded and the commendable ‘Operation Crash’, conducted by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agents in recent years, has led to the arrest and conviction of persons engaged in just this activity. When I tell you that, in 2009, a carved rhino horn antique (hopefully a genuine one) sold at an auction house in America for 900,000 dollars, you can see what attracts criminals and, as ever, organized crime groups and networks to enter this field.

There is one more source of demand, currently dormant, which also must not be discounted. In years gone by, adult males in Yemen would hope to, one day, be able to afford to have the handle of the traditional dagger they wear, as part of their national dress, made from polished rhino horn. These daggers are known as Jambiyas and you’ll see the majority of men wearing them every day. Rhino horn handles went out of fashion, because of changes to the socio-economic situation in Yemen, demand-reduction campaigns and, significantly, instructions issued by Muslim leaders that use of rhino horn should cease.

The recent period of dramatic increases in the incomes among some sectors in China seemed to lead to an upsurge in their interest in, and ability to purchase, historically-significant cultural items and products, made for instance from jade, lacquer, porcelain, gold, silver, ivory or rhino horn. Is there a lesson to be learned there? Should we keep an eye on the economic situation in Yemen? I think we should.

One of the speakers at the university conference, and other Cape Town events last week, was Professor Alejandro Nadal, a renowned economist from Mexico. Prof. Nadal has developed an interest in wildlife trade and one of his principle findings is that far too little is known about the dynamics of much of the trade, but especially that involving ivory and rhino horn, for us to make effective predictions or decisions. Not surprisingly, the anti-trade lobby delights in his each and every pronouncement.

It has been my pleasure to sit alongside the good Professor on previous occasions and he is an impressive, plain and good-natured speaker. I am reluctant to go against his views in relation to sufficient data. But I trust he may forgive me if, rather than draw conclusions, I simply describe some of my own observations and leave others to decide whether they offer any guidance.

I was very active in the period when CITES authorized ‘experimental’ and ‘one-off’ sales of government ivory stockpiles from a limited number of African countries. I was personally involved in several audits, trade control assessments, and other verification activities.

The first such sale involved only one importing country; Japan. (Interestingly, that sale appeared to have negligible impacts upon elephant poaching – but that’s a discussion for another day.) The second involved two countries of import; China and Japan. Each of the sales involved auctions conducted in the countries holding stockpiles. Not surprisingly, the Japanese buyers did not engage in any bidding wars and the prices paid, although bringing significant amounts of profit, were much lower than the selling nations had hoped for. Things were not a great deal better the second time around. If I recall correctly, the average price paid per kilo of ivory was USD 156.

One reads that rhino horn may be trading in some clandestine markets at 50,000, to 70,000 or even as much as 80,000 per kilo in the equivalent of US dollars. Are those who suggest legal commerce expecting such returns? I presume you see where I’m going with this?

The ivory sales I refer to were strictly restricted to solely government stocks. All profits had to be devoted to conservation purposes, including enforcement, anti-poaching and support to local communities. If I understand correctly, areas of the private sector in South Africa wish to sell their stocks. Further, I understand some of those sectors wish to engage in ongoing trade, where horns would be ‘shaved’ from rhinos after existing stocks had been depleted.

I am pleased that I no longer work for CITES because I think it would be a nightmare to design internal trade control systems to regulate what will happen in both ‘producer’ and ‘consumer’ States. Let’s think about the consumer-nation scenario for a moment.

What form(s) would consumption take? Unlike ivory where there is usually an end-product, if rhino horn is applied to medicinal use, the horn will be totally consumed. How does one measure and monitor that? Microchips are the existing means of marking rhino horns. Once imported, the chips would presumably be removed at an early stage, so that the horn can be ground up? Do you employ DNA profiling instead? Do countries such as Viet Nam have the capacity to conduct routine DNA profiling?

If past CITES practices were to be followed, audits of existing rhino horn stocks would be insisted upon. In the case of South Africa, this will involve government and private stores spread throughout the land. It will be a massive undertaking.

New legislation will be needed in any nation that seeks to participate in such trade. Each and every element of trade controls will need to be assessed and verified; presumably by the CITES Secretariat or specialized consultants. Not only will it be time-consuming, it will be very costly. In the case of ivory, the trading countries paid next-to-nothing towards all the work conducted by the Secretariat. Considering the ridiculously-limited budget it has a present, how on Earth are these activities to be funded?

A reporter asked me in Cape Town how soon trade could occur, if the CITES conference in 2016 gave approval. I said 18 months at the very minimum. Upon reflection, that is probably ludicrously optimistic. It is more likely to take years. How many rhinos will be killed in the meantime? How many poachers will be shot dead or injured in the meantime? And how many rhino and poacher (and God-forgive law enforcement) deaths will occur in the period while we wait, with crossed fingers, for the beneficial impacts to take effect once trade begins? And what if it doesn’t work? Is there a fallback position? Not that I have heard of.

I have no regrets over my participation in the CITES ivory sales’ processes. And I don’t rely on any, ‘I was just doing my job’, stance. I still believe that the trade controls I assessed met the standards required by CITES. Were they sufficiently robust? That, with hindsight, may be debatable. More importantly, though, were the controls that I, and others, found satisfactory rigorously implemented and enforced? I think the answer must be, ‘No’, or certainly not sufficiently.

Equally importantly, the decision to authorize limited trade in ivory was not taken against a background of rampant and apparently out-of-control poaching of elephants, in the way that rhino poaching is rampant and apparently out-of-control. If you try to compare apples with oranges, and here I think Prof. Nadal would agree with me, you risk getting wrong or misleading results.

Before I move away from trade matters, my pride in CITES prompts me to address a claim that several pro-trade individuals are making, namely that the current prohibition on commercial rhino horn trade failed and, subsequently, that is another reason it needs to be reversed. NO IT DID NOT!

Go look at the statistics. In 2007, 13 rhinos were poached in South Africa, which was generally consistent with numbers throughout the 2000s. Yes, a clandestine market still existed for rhino horn after China banned its use in 1993. Just as a similar, but very significantly smaller, demand continued for tiger bone. The demand in Yemen almost disappeared. When I twice toured the markets of Sana’a, its capital city, in 2008 I found one Jambiya with a rhino horn handle. It was an antique, which was being repaired by a specialist craftsman. It was not for sale. In my opinion, and I don’t have the data to satisfy the Prof. so it is only an opinion, it was what happened in Viet Nam in relation to the cancer-treatment belief, which prompted a change in circumstances.

Two other questions were posed to me by several journalists last week:

Would a proposal for legal trade succeed at CITES CoP17 in South Africa next year?

Should the Government of South Africa submit such a proposal?

I think the first is easily answered. No. Given the current climate in the CITES community, I would be astonished if it received the three-quarters majority that would be necessary. And, at the technical and practical level, I think it has absolutely no chance of success unless an importing country steps up and identifies itself. If one doesn’t, then the world will debate a hypothetical suggestion pointlessly and needlessly.

My response to the second, Yes, may surprise you, especially given the main thrust of what I have written here. I answered in the affirmative, however, with my ex-international civil servant’s hat on. I acknowledge, and wouldn’t necessarily dispute, the argument that prolonging the debate might actually aggravate the situation. For example, one runs the risk that organized crime controllers may instruct poachers to get in and kill as many rhinos as possible now, in case legal trade does come into being.

So, it was Yes, but with reservations. I began this writing by saying how divided the debate has become in South Africa. Personally, I don’t see how one resolves it or reaches any consensus or compromise. Not at a national level in any case. Therefore, part of me believes that the only way to settle the matter is to move forward with a proposal. That, after all, is democracy-in-action. (But see my remark above regarding an importing nation.)

In conclusion, I think my career as a cop showed me that outright prohibitions are seldom the answer to the ills of the world. Just as enforcement alone can never be the solution. That’s why, if forced to choose, I probably lean towards strictly-regulated trade, as opposed to no-trade. But, this time, I’m not coming down on the trade side for the moment. Especially as the debate is getting in the way of locking up criminals.

Final thought for the moment:

I once wrote that observing debates on wildlife trade was, for a law enforcer, like watching Nero play the fiddle as Rome burned. I was reminded of that today when I read the total of rhinos extinguished in South Africa this year has allegedly reached 550.

[i] http://voices.news24.com/john-m-sellar/2015/05/whats-happening-in-kruger-is-so-much-more-than-poaching/

[ii] http://www.whittlespublishing.com/The_UNs_Lone_Ranger_Combating_international_wildlife_crime

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