Rhinos: Why did South Africa skip a vital conference on illegal wildlife trade?

Rhinos: Why did South Africa skip a vital conference on illegal wildlife trade?

In London last week international media scrambled to cover the high-level and much anticipated international conference on illegal wildlife trade.

However, there was one notable absentee. South Africa’s absence at the conference and non-participation in the signing of the London Declaration are raising serious concerns regarding its commitment to ending the onslaught on its rhinos.Conservationists and South African taxpayers want answers!

The London Summit was hosted by the British government and led by Prime Minister David Cameron, Foreign Secretary William Hague, Prince Charles and his son William, the Duke of Cambridge. More than 40 countries and 4 Presidents from Africa attended. Participants, including end-user countries China, Laos, Vietnam and Nepal signed a declaration aimed at eradicating illegal trade in wildlife products. The London Declaration urges practical steps to end the illegal trade in ivory, rhino horn, tiger parts and that of other wildlife. Some very powerful people who gathered in central London have now signed this commitment, but not South Africa!

The African elephants’ plight was a key focus, with nearly 50 000 (one every 15 minutes) slaughtered each year due to demand for ivory in Asia, particularly in China. It is estimated that there are less than 400 000 elephants left in Africa. Demand for rhino horn in Vietnam and China has seen 2453 rhinos killed in South Africa over the last 4 years, where more than 80 percent of the world’s rhino populations live. Less than 25 000 remain worldwide and if the current poaching trends continue, both elephants and rhino in the wild will become extinct in the next 10 to 15 years.

Seventeen African states are signatories to the London Declaration, including Mozambique (where rhinos are now extinct and from where the majority of poaching incursions into Kruger National Park take place). At the conference, the governments of Botswana, Chad, Ethiopia, Gabon and Tanzania signed an Elephant Protection Initiative – to put their ivory stockpiles beyond economic use and to observe a moratorium on any future trade for at least 10 years.

This implores the question why South Africa’s Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa was not present. In President Zuma’s State of the Nation address last week (which event is no excuse for South Africa’s absence from the conference), he highlighted tourism as one of 5 key areas for job creation and economic growth. The survival of the Big 5 is a key component of job creation and influx of foreign exchange in safari tourism.   Does the absence of South Africa in London last week perhaps underscore conflicting views between South Africa and other African nations on rhino and ivory trade?

Is SA so committed to serving the narrow self interest of a few powerful private rhino owners that it is prepared to chance becoming isolated from the rest of the world? Considering that the Swedish and Dutch Postcode lotteries donated R232 million for rhino conservation a week ago, it is rather an embarrassing moment for all South Africans that the country was so conspicuously absent at the conference and failed to sign the London Declaration.

While conservationists from outside SA seem to be coalescing around non-trade initiatives, with the five Asian range states reaffirming their support for the international ban on rhino horn trade in October 2013, South Africa remains split  into two camps.  The pro-trade lobbyists, supported by the South African government, deem rhino horn trade as the Holy Grail for funding of rhino conservation. In order to achieve this, Minister Edna Molewa will apply to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 2016 to legitimise trade in rhino horn, risking severe damage to our international reputation when the bid fails, as fail it must.

Yet, in recent weeks we have seen the international community do the opposite: they have chosen to destroy their ivory stockpiles as a message against trade. Today the Tanzanian president announced the decision to destroy his country’s ivory stockpile, while Chad’s Environment Minister announced last week that Chad would also destroy its entire stockpile of ivory on February 20, following in the footsteps of Gabon, Philippines, USA, China and France.  Hong Kong has also committed to destroy 28 tons of confiscated ivory. At the same conference the US announced a comprehensive ban on the sale of ivory in the US, the worlds second biggest ivory market.

By most accounts, the last CITES ivory sale in 2008, when 108 tons were sold to China and Japan, has been a  failure as it fueled demand.  With China now becoming the  world’s leading consumer  of both legal and illegal  ivory,  the price has skyrocketed from $153/kg to about $2000/kg. These sales have given the illegal ivory traders a route to market as it is extremely difficult to differentiate legally held ivory from illegal supplies.  Since these sales,  elephant-poaching has increased siginifcantly with the species now threatended with extinction in numerous countries, the same is likely to happen to rhino should SA’s trade bid be successful.

With the plight of the rhino left unrepresented at this crucial forum, South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs have a lot to answer for.

By Dex Kotze 17 February 2014

(Daily Maverick 24/02/2014)

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