Thursday, June 27, 2013

Rhino Horn: To Ban or Not to Ban the Trade

As readers of this, and other blogs, FB and Twitter posts and the occasional piece of print media are well aware, rhino poaching has continued to escalate, somewhat like a slow tsunami, for the last five or six years. I have posted on this subject thirteen times since 2010.

Most of the increase in annual numbers has taken place in Africa and it is no surprise that the vast Kruger National Park has taken most of the hits. The numbers change from week to week, but it would seem that well over two animals a day are being taken out. The latest figure I have seen, for mid-June, was 428 dead rhino, 267 of them in the Kruger alone. One June 22 a South African National Parks report stated that 25 rhino had been killed in the Limpopo district in one week. 

A Linkedin group flying under the banner of The Wildlife Conservation Society has seen a considerable amount of traffic of late. There has been a lively debate about the pros and cons of lifting the ban of the trade in rhino horn.

There can be no doubt that the policing efforts in many places have not worked, or not worked as well as one might have hoped. These increases have come at substantial cost to governments and park managers. Ranger and military forces have been increased, sometimes by considerable numbers, but the poachers have persisted, and just like in other walks of life the “bad guys” are one step ahead of the forces of law and order. The CITES ban has simply not worked.

The protagonists of an open market and lifting of the ban have quoted scientific article titled A Market Solution For Preserving Biodiversity: The Black Rhino,  prepared in 1999 by Gardner Brown and David Layton.

The article was published in a book titled Protecting Endangered Species in the United States and edited by Jason F. Shogren and John Tschirhart.

The article contains a bunch of mathematical formulas, and maths is definitely not my strong suit. The very opposite. I recall (dimly) something about differential equations, but I have no idea what they do.

Much has changed since that paper was published and some of the assumptions are out of date. The new, and entirely false claim of the horn having cancer-cure properties was a clever marketing tool used by unscrupulous vendors in Vietnam. 

A woman grinding rhino horn in a specially designed bowl
Who could resist such a claim when we know that folks with cancer can be desperate for any sort of solution.  On top of that came the ridiculous claim that the stuff is a cure-all for hangovers, which led it to become a “fashion” tonic for the newly rich and upwardly mobile in Vietnam. Not bad for an overgrown fingernail!

On the price side, the Vietnamese marketing has driven the price to something close to double that of gold. Wow, my fingernails are not worth that much.

While many poachers have been killed and even more arrested, the carnage continues and the rangers are at constant risk. That they are willing to run that risk, the loss of their own lives, speaks volumes for them, and it is even sadder to realize that rangers, senior park and wildlife officials and military forces in some countries have been implicated in the poaching, rather than the efforts to stop it. For me personally, the saddest example of this lies in the country of my birth where, it is reported, that over 30 senior staff of the Kenya Wildlife Service have been suspended over allegations of complicity in poaching.

Thousands of words have been exchanged on the issue. Those who wish to see the ban lifted seem to come from the very considerable number of South African game ranchers who have successfully, and at no trivial cost, successfully bred rhinos on their properties. Nobody has provided actual numbers, but the ranchers obviously see the potential of the sale of horn into the oriental (mainly Vietnamese) market as being no different than the sale of any other commodity derived from a business venture. The only other sources of income for these ranchers are through tourism or livestock auctions. For those who wonder about the latter, they have been an integral part of the South African game ranch industry for at least twenty years. Ranchers have become expert at rounding up and transporting just about any species that one can ranch.

Among the arguments in favour of the legalization of trade one correspondent suggests that poachers could be taught to breed rhinos and harvest the horn every two years or so. The horn of a white rhino (the commonest species) grows at about 0.9 kg per year and at prices in the $60,000 per kg range that would mean a substantial income from just a few animals. The writer makes the point that the communities that engage in this enterprise would guard their assets with their lives.

Those who are against any form of legalization of the rhino horn trade point to the disastrous results of the lifting of the ivory ban by CITES. Nobody (except perhaps those who work within CITES) thinks that the partial lifting of the ban in 1997 has been anything but an utter catastrophe for elephants.  There is a lot of traffic on Internet sites about this mess, and Wikipedia has an interesting look at the long history  of this subject, but I’m trying to focus on the rhino issue here.

There have been some changes in the law and penalties for those who are caught poaching. The Kenya government recently changed their laws so that those found guilty might be fined up to $120,00 and prison terms of up to 15 years. This was quite a change form the previous fine of $480.

Harsh penalties for offenders may help a little, but only a little. The real culprits either live in Vietnam or are middle-men in Africa who make the real profits. They would never risk the actual poaching, which involves killing, hard work blood and so on.  They are the ones who need to be targeted. Of course some of them work inside the various wildlife agencies and park systems, or in the military. They will be much harder to catch, but if not caught the carnage will continue. The actual poacher on the ground may be a man who earns a few dollars a day and is trying to support a family. He may be desperate. If he has killed a few rhino (or elephants) he may have upped his social status a bit, and will therefore be even keener to be involved.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Elephant and rhino poaching update

If the reports are accurate hundreds or rhino and thousands of elephants have been poached this year, never mind the numbers from previous years. It has become difficult to keep up with the amount of traffic about rhino and elephant poaching on various social media sites and in on-line newspapers. On the one hand there are the announcements about famous people who have come out in support of anti-poaching efforts.

They include a United Nations story that China’s top film star, Li Bingbing has stepped up in support of her countryman Yao Ming. To assist in these efforts the Chinese media have been asked to back the war on poaching  Of course these two are trying to influence things that take place in the world’s major consuming country, where stunningly beautiful ivory carvings have been created for centuries and where an increasingly affluent and growing middle class can afford to make expensive purchases.

A YouTube video featuring Vietnamese singer My Linh is an attempt to raise awareness of the ‘Say NO to rhino hornin her country.

The Secretary General of the United Nations has come out with a strongly worded statement calling poaching a “grave menace.” 

A MailOnline article about Prince Charles and Prince William has a strong personal link for me.

Most folks are aware that William proposed to his wife Katherine in Kenya. Many know that the actual words were spoken high on the eastern slopes of Mount Kenya under the shadow of a flat-topped minor peak named Rutundu at an altitude of 3311 metres (about 10,200 feet). We used to be able to see Rutundu from our living room window and I once walked up to the table lands on the shoulders of the mountain to the nearby at Lake Alice at the foot of a sister flat peak called Ithanguni.

image from
But this was before the days when the lakes were stocked with trout by a wealthy Scadinavian who flew them in by helicopter. Nowadays the site has become an upmarket tourist destination and has rustic log cabins for guests.

Bald and one tooth missing at right. Rugby days with Mt. Kenya!
I have an even stronger link to this story as the Royal couple had been staying with a mutual friend Ian Craig at his home on Lewa Downs, which was one of my client cattle ranches for the best part of ten years. In those days Ian’s parents David and Delia ran the ranch and Ian played alongside me in pale blue strip of the Mt. Kenya rugby club as a hard-hitting open side wing forward.

Since then the ranch has become a major wildlife conservancy and is home to many rhino as well as other species, including the Grevy's zebra, which is another endagnered species.
Grevy's (at right) and Burchell's zebra near Lewa. Photo by Dick Neal.
Sadly the rhino there are being targeted and a recent report told of the coordinated killing of four animals on a full moon night at Lewa and three other well-known parks. 

Although these famous folk, like many of us around the world are horrified by the destruction of these iconic creatures I do wonder if the high profile and greatly increased attention is not driving the other side of the equation. If anti-poaching efforts are gaining momentum, are the bad guys grabbing what they can before the effort becomes too risky? There has been a continued increase in the rate of rhino poaching. The latest figures state that 381 have been taken in 154 days. On that trajectory the numbers for 2013 will exceed the 688 of 2012.

Two US businessmen (Vinh Chung “Jimmy” Kha and Felix Kha) were recently jailed and fined for trafficking in rhino horn.     

Of course, as I have suggested before, the poaching for a commodity (I choose the word deliberately as that is what some see it as) is not a one-sided story. A recent FB post suggests that trading in LEGAL horn derived from one of the many South African game ranches should be allowed. Johan Kurver has argued that the cost of preventing and policing poaching makes no sense when ranched rhino could provide a good income and tax base. You can follow the rhino conversation on Facebook.

Two more stories (among many) about the twin threats. The Kenya parliament has just passed an emergency bill upping the punishment for wildlife trafficking by a huge amount. Previous fines might have been as much as USD 480, a tiny proportion of the value of a single rhino horn and no sort of deterrent. Now fines may be as much as $120,000 with a 15-year jail term as well. The most striking thing about this amendment is that the vote was not unanimous. There was one quiet “nay” but nobody seems to have reported who made that call. Was that parliamentarian somehow involved in the illegal trade?

The Kenya cabinet were reacting to a country-wide upsurge in publicity that included protest marches and a well managed campaign led by people like Paula Kahumbu, who has been very active in blogs, on Facebook and Twitter on this issue.

Even a very young elephant has some ivory
On the other side it would seem that in Tanzania some thing different and ugly is taking place. Some reports claim that about 10,000 elephants a year are being poached (yes, ten thousand). Of course this form or poaching is indiscriminate. Entire families are being taken out, adults, infants and everything in between. It seems that high-placed officials and even the military are implicated. David Smith, writing on the economicsof the wildlife trade states that “More than a third of all elephant tusks seized by law enforcement last year came from Tanzania, with neighbouring Kenya a close second.” This is particularly striking in light of the interview with a senior Tanzanian minister carried out by Aidan Hartley  The minister claimed no knowledge of the problem. There can only be one of two explanations for his words, neither of them pretty. Incompetence or Collusion.