Latest Lion Aid News


Thursday 20th October 2011


Last year, 333 rhinos were poached in South Africa, and this year’s latest counts are already up to 324. Shock and horror have been expressed worldwide, and people are scrambling to find means to prevent such slaughter. It is a sad tragedy, but one that has many roots and was in many ways predictable. It is essentially a sad tale of connivance, corruption, complicity, commerce, and complacency.

Rhino horn has been commercially valuable for many years, either finding its way to Yemen where the elite find it attractive to be made into dagger handles and/or to the East Asian Traditional Medicine trade where it was supposed to relieve a number of symptoms such as fever. The Yemeni dagger trade has died down a bit, but the Traditional Medicine trade can only be described as a growth industry. Why? Well, apart from the long-standing ascribed medicinal value of ground horn, some years ago a high official in the Vietnamese Government announced that he had been cured of cancer by regular doses of a rhino horn potion. That single testimonial has now apparently blown the roof off the rhino horn trade, and there has been a great flurry of activity ever since.

Let me back up a bit and tell you about white rhinos. The name derived not from their colour (grey) but because as opposed the black rhino (again not the colour), the white rhino mouth is wide, or weit in German. White rhinos are huge animals, a sort of reminder of what was around in the Pleistocene era. They are grazers (hence the wide mouth) and pretty docile compared to the smaller but stroppier black rhinos that like to charge at anything irritating their day.

Now, because of the dagger handles, traditional medicine, and overhunting, white rhinos suffered great declines. Especially in the case of the northern white rhino, a subspecies now extinct. But the southern whites remained at relatively good numbers in South Africa in mainly Kruger National Park, and a number of game ranches have bought rhinos on auction to breed them. Not for conservation purposes, mind you, but for sport hunting. So, say the trophy hunters, another feather in our cap as there are now something like 20,000 white rhinos in South Africa, and we have saved another species from extinction by giving it a commercial value.

Not so fast boys and girls. The ranch rhinos contribute nothing to conservation, and their sport hunting has indeed contributed greatly to the current poaching drama. Let me explain, and let me also tell you why CITES and TRAFFIC (Mission Statement - TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, works to ensure that trade in wild plants and animals is not a threat to the conservation of nature) have not been paying attention. And I’ll also let you in on a worrying trend in Russia and Spain…

Vietnam is not known as a country with a great passion for trophy hunting. In fact, trophy hunters there are pretty much nonexistent, with the single exception of going to South Africa and hunting rhinos. CITES duly recorded this trend, and it should have raised some eyebrows among even their most dense staff members. From 2005 to 2009 (when CITES records end) Vietnam imported 207 rhino hunting trophies and 84 horns. Before 2005, there seemed to be no interest at all. Like zero. So why did Vietnam suddenly develop a great interest in rhino trophy hunting? You guessed it. Trophy hunts were sold at much lower prices than the horn was worth. Did anyone pay attention? Did the UK-based charity Save the Rhino International raise a question (in fact they support trophy hunting)? Did the UK-based Tusk Trust? Did the IUCN? No. Is it difficult to get this trade information from CITES? No, just go to the trade website and it is all there.

Sorry, but this level of inattention is just not acceptable. “Legal” hunting spurred the market for rhino horns and spurred the poaching market. It should be noted that a CITES rhino trophy is only allowed to be exported under the legal agreement that it will not be used for trade purposes. I’m sure that contravening that legality must have weighed heavily on the minds of the Vietnamese while they were grinding up the horns for medicine.

South Africa was complicit in the trade, as they knew where the horns were going and should have noticed the sudden influx of Vietnamese “hunters”. The hunters did not even arrive with guns and did not know how to shoot for goodness sake! Most recently, a bit of a scandal was raised when a bunch of Thai women arrived at a game ranch, equipped with the necessary licenses, and then sat and had lunch and tea while a professional hunter shot their trophies…

But now, under international scrutiny, South Africa is taking measures. Yes indeed. On September 30 it was published that Mr. Fundisile Mketeni, Deputy Director General of Biodiversity and Conservation in the South African Department of Environmental Affairs, and Dr. Ha Cong Tuan, Deputy Director General, Viet Nam Forestry Administration, announced technical agreement on promoting co-operation between the two countries to enhance wildlife protection, law enforcement and compliance with CITES.

“We are now on the cusp of proactive law enforcement collaboration that harnesses the political will of both nations to actively combat the illegal trade in rhino horns.  This can only be good news for Africa’s beleaguered rhinos and hopefully leads to a new era of diminishing rhino losses” said Tom Milliken, head of TRAFFIC’s Elephant and Rhino Programme.

And belatedly “the South African government is imposing new rules on hunters. All legal rhino hunts must be supervised by a conservation official or an environmental inspector, and training sessions will be organized for officials who issue permits.

To prevent the illegal export of rhino horns, trophy hunters will be obliged to have microchips implanted in any rhino horn that they want to take home, and the environmental inspectors will be required to register the microchip numbers with the government immediately after every hunt.

If any hunter or hunting operator is under investigation for violations, the new rules will allow authorities to deny them a permit.”

Shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted? You bet.

In closing, I would like to advise the South African government, CITES, and TRAFFIC of another worrying trend they will perhaps not have noticed from their own data. Russia has suddenly developed an interest similar to the Vietnamese in terms of rhino trophies and horns exported from South Africa. From 2005-2009, Russia imported 113 trophies and 16 horns. From 1995 to 2004, Russia imported 3 trophies. And also have a look at Spain, with 112 trophies and 28 horns imported form 2005-2009. CITES - nice to have LionAid do your investigative research for you is it not?



Posted by Pieter Kat at 18:28

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