Last Friday, the Department of Environmental Affairs issued a curious media statement in which it notes with concern what it terms the misrepresentation of facts associated with the international trade in rhino horn. It warns that this trade is prohibited in terms of the Convention on International Trade in Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES). As a case of slamming the gate after the horse has bolted, this is hard to beat.
In April this year, the Constitutional Court upheld a High Court decision overturning a 2009 moratorium prohibiting the domestic trade in horn. This followed a successful application brought by rhino farmers challenging the moratorium. Environmental Affairs took the decision to the Constitutional Court and lost. The Department is now preparing legislation to ratify the trade.
The result of the ConCourt decision requires an unbanning of domestic rhino horn trade retrospective to 2009, opening the gate for charges against the department by farmers for restriction of trade and loss of earnings. How it came to this, in the face of massive rhino poaching (over 1 000 a year) and an international ban on cross-border trade and massive public support for rhinos is simply disastrous bungling by the department. The outcome was so startling that there have been questions raised about collusion between the department and rhino farmers.
The point, though, is why would anyone want to buy rhino horn if it could not be sold illegally to dealers in Asia where it’s worth more per kilogram than gold or heroin? With sophisticated poaching syndicates running circles around highly trained military personnel in the Kruger Park, the cost of protection to private owners is massive. Even storage of horn is at risk from weaponised raids.
So, if anyone buys horn – and with a provincially issued licence, almost anyone can – what do they know that we don’t? Will the price be set against massive returns if the horn can be smuggled out of the country, or simply as a local commodity like wildlife skins and trophies?
The latest press release says, rather cryptically, a set of draft regulations published for public comment in February 2017 are not meant to circumvent any CITES process as such will be tantamount to non-compliance (sic).
The possibility and inducement of non-compliance is massive. A transaction can only take place with a permit issued by ‘the relevant provincial department’, some of which have been found to license Vietnamese prostitutes as legitimate hunters.
All horns sold are required to have their DNA recorded and microchips inserted. Quite apart from the fact that such chips can be removed, the Environmental Department’s machinery for doing the insertions is not yet in place. And its Directorate of Biodiversity Compliance and Enforcement has yet to complete its audit of rhino horn stockpiles.
Of course, selling horn beyond South Africa’s borders will be the hoped-for pot of gold at the end of this particular rainbow. Rhinos – and by definition their horns – are listed by CITES as Appendix 1. This means no trade for commercial purposes. So are there devils in the detail?
According to the CITES regulations, horn can only be traded for personal use. It needs to be asked, what possible personal use could horn be used for? And who will monitor its use once it disappears into the carving sweatshops of Laos, Burma and other hidden corners of the Golden Triangle? CITES is a trade convention, not a police force , and no longer has any compliance capability
There are other unanswered questions. Will this spawn a local carving industry in bangles and libation cups ‘gifted’ to deserving Asian tourists? Or microchip extraction workshops?
The Department says it’s presently evaluating public comments following the publication of the three draft notices relating to the management of the domestic rhino horn trade.
‘Once all comments have been considered and evaluated,’ according to the press release, ‘the Department will set in motion the process for approval of the final legislation. Once approved, it will be published in the Gazette for implementation and to announce the commencement date.’
One thing’s for sure, that legislation will permit the domestic sale of rhino horn because, in terms of the ConCourt finding, it has to. The possibility of containing the sales within the country after that is minimal.
Such export would not flood the huge and growing Asian market for horn and bring down poaching, but will undoubtedly stimulate it. Poaching will go up and, at the next CITES meeting: CoP 18, South Africa will undoubtedly make a case for the reduction of restrictions on international trade. This is not good news for rhinos.