Director of the Wilderness Foundation, Andrew Muir, addressed the portfolio committee on environmental affairs on the topic of rhino poaching on, 26 January 2012. Together with a number of other environmental and wildlife organisations, the Wilderness Foundation offered advice and insight into the way forward to help curb poaching in 2012.
SA is the stronghold of free ranging rhino and is caretaker of over 80 percent of the world’s current rhino population. In 2010, a record number of 330 animals were poached. An alarming increase in poaching efforts in 2011 saw 434 rhino killed. In the first 15 days of 2012, twenty two rhino were poached. “It can be safely said that SA is losing rhino at the rate of at least one per day,” says Muir.
“The Wilderness Foundation has an historic institutional obligation, and moral imperative, to help inform the debate on anti-poaching strategies going forward.”
The organisation’s founder, Dr Ian Player, initiated and led Operation Rhino in the 1960’s (under the then Natal Parks Game & Fish Preservation Board) as the senior ranger at iMfolozi Game Reserve. The campaign was initially fiercely resisted, but became one of the most innovative, hotly debated, and ultimately successful conservation ventures of the era – without which we would not be in a position to have this current debate as the rhino would already be extinct.
One of the government’s proposed solutions to help curb illegal poaching is to legalise the trade in rhino horn in South Africa. The Department of Environmental Affairs under the Minister has appointed the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) to conduct a feasibility study to determine the viability of this proposal. “There is much debate on the role and potential impact that legalised trade in rhino horn could have when it comes to the protection and sustainability of the rhino,” says Muir. “The Wilderness Foundation would like to provide input to the feasibility study. One of the elements to be considered includes the sustainable utilisation of wildlife. “While placing a ‘Rand value’ on wildlife is important, it is just a small part of its overall importance and worth to the country. Wildlife is economically significant in many other ways, and adds considerably to the tourism value of the country. Supporting and increasing the trade in rhino horn (for example) could likely place disproportionate importance on the ‘Rand value’ of the wildlife, while ignoring its overall worth.”
Muir also noted that the protection of rhinos in state owned parks and reserves is far from adequate due to budget constraints for specialised anti-poaching equipment, logistical support (vehicles and other supplies) and adequately trained personnel. Most of the anti-poaching efforts have been financed by public support, as conservation budgets have not increased, or very little has been allocated specifically to rhino protection.
The proposed de-listing of rhino horn may take up to 6-10 years for all of the regulations to be put in place. “The Wilderness Foundation’s concern is that within this time period, poaching will continue and the rhino could be on the verge of extinction in the wild by the time all measures are finalised,” says Muir. “In the meantime, we recommend; allocating more funds towards rhino task team law enforcement units; channelling resources into the DNA profiling of rhinos on the national database at Onderstepoort as this is a vital tool in forensic investigations and securing successful prosecution in poaching cases; and a joint campaign between the governments of South Africa and the Far East, there should be a move towards global educational programmes which inform the public at large on the poaching crisis. Particular attention should be paid to the myths surrounding rhino horn and its role in traditional medicine.”
In conclusion, Muir requested Parliament to appoint a Cabinet minister to coordinate the anti-poaching efforts. “We need a political champion to implement everything that was talked about at the meeting today. In a few years time SA might not be known as the country that hosted the 2010 Soccer World Cup, but the country that allowed its rhino to become extinct through lack of action.”
For more about the Wilderness Foundation, refer to www.wildernessfoundation.co.za.