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Lifting the ban on rhino horn trade is no victory for rhino owners

Canned hunting is unethical. The practice has not reduced hunting pressure on wild lions. The marketing of breeding facilities and hunting operations confuses the conservation message and priorities, and results in a misdirection of funding that impacts negatively on wildlife. Captive rhino breeding and canned hunting would simply make matters far worse.

A judgement lifting the 2009 moratorium on domestic rhino horn trade was made in the Pretoria High Court last week. The judgement is considered a victory in pro-trade circles, but it may well lead to their defeat.

Applicants for the removal of the moratorium were rhino owners John Hume and Johan Kruger. The argument they won was that the Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa “failed to comply with her obligation to properly notify the public about the proposed ban or to give members of the public a chance to make meaningful submissions.”

Hume also moved that, because he is the largest rhino breeder in South Africa, the Minister was obliged to give him personal notice of the moratorium, and that failure to do so renders the moratorium reviewable, and subject to be set aside. The Minister indeed did not follow proper procedure, and the judge rightfully set aside the moratorium based on this technicality.

But Judge Francis Legodi did not disagree with the Minister’s reasons for imposing the moratorium. He maintains that the moratorium is rational, reasonable, lawful and constitutional. In his judgement he states that, had it not been for the finding with regard to non-compliance with consultative process and participation of the members of the public, he would have found no unlawfulness in the introduction of the moratorium.

Rhino may owners have embarrassed the Minister, but they have also brought attention to the sound principles of her moratorium. Soon after the judgement, the Minister announced her decision to appeal, effectively suspending the execution of the judgement. Because of their actions, it is likely that they and other pro-traders will receive less support from the government in their efforts to lift International trade ban. And ultimately it is becoming clearer just how dubious their motivations are.

It is safe to assume that rhino owners are motivated by the international black market value of rhino horn, which is said to be as much as US$65,000 per kilogram. But, whether rhino horn is traded domestically or not, there is no legal entry for South Africa into the international market. As John Sellar, former Chief of Enforcement for the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species (CITES) explains, the Ministry of Environmental Affairs “cannot issue the necessary CITES documents for them to be transported for a primarily commercial purpose to, for example, China or Vietnam; which seem to be the countries most smugglers are heading towards for the moment.”

Even with legalisation of domestic trade, there would certainly be strict regulations and control. As Adam Weiz of WildAid quipped, “Hume is not going to set up a roadside stall selling rhino horn anytime soon.”

The only truly profitable course for traders would be to sell to the gangs running illegal poaching and smuggling networks. As Izak du Toit, a lawyer for a rhino owner, said: “We would sell to the poachers to prevent them from killing rhinos.” But at what price? If rhino owners intend to make a sizeable profit from selling horn, poaching rhinos might well be a more economical option. Fuelled by a legal domestic market where laundering of horn is simpler, it could in fact escalate the poaching crisis.

Opponents to trade may feel they are being forced in a certain direction. By overturning the ban, rhino owners might want to influence how nations vote at the CITES convention in Johannesburg in September 2016, where it is widely believed South Africa will seek authorisation for international trade in rhino horn. But this is extremely unlikely as the majority of voting nations are against lifting the ban on international trade. John Sellar, former Chief of Enforcement for CITES, says, “The impression I get is that most nations are extremely nervous about allowing such trade and vast numbers within non-governmental organizations will undoubtedly actively lobby against it.”

Sellar goes on to say that they risk alienating potential supporters, in and outside South Africa. “You will, for sure, encourage opponents to be more vociferous and you might even inspire those currently sitting on the fence to turn against you, on the basis that they’ll feel they are being forced in a certain direction.”

This appears to be a no-win situation for pro-traders. But it does not mean rhinos will be any any better off. Intensive farming of rhinos for profit will ultimately lead to domestication. A potentially legal course for rhino farmers is to profit from hunting operations. This perpetuates the avenue for laundering illegal rhino horn, and increases the potential for canned hunting of rhinos. This barbaric practice has drawn worldwide condemnation with the film exposé Blood Lions which highlights the horrors of captive lion breeding and hunting. The parallels between captive rhino and lion breeding cannot be ignored.

Protagonist of the film, conservationist Ian Michler says, “What this means for rhino as a wild species as we all know is that intensive farming for profit will ultimately lead to domestication. Blood Lions exposes the horrors and fraudulent conservation myths behind the farming model – we cannot have this entire process repeat itself with another iconic African species.”

Welfare conditions of animals kept in such facilities are deeply concerning. Canned hunting is unethical, and has not been proven to reduce hunting pressure on wild lions. The marketing of breeding facilities and hunting operations confuses the conservation message and priorities, and results in a misdirection of funding that impacts negatively on wildlife. Captive rhino breeding and canned hunting would make matters far worse. Promoting South Africa as an authentic, wild and rewarding destination is vital to tourism. The industry would suffer greatly if the perception of the country is one of a domestic feedlot where captive animals are slaughtered by unethical hunters.

Rhino owners like Hume have speculated on an investment that will almost certainly never see a proper return. It was a very dangerous plan from the get go, and its time to accept the losses and move on. If a rhino owner’s true motivation is to preserve the species, then the best course would be to sell or donate their rhinos to governments and organisations best equipped to protect the species in the wild. It would motivate the South African government and conservationists to focus their efforts, and send a clear message to criminals, and the world, that South Africans are not divided, that we are aligned in protecting our wildlife for prosperity. DM