Friday, August 27, 2010

Of Rhinos and Citrus Trees

This blog post is long overdue about the desperate situation faced by rhinos in Africa but also in response to this post by Kevin Leo-Smith, who believes that our "Western bunny-hugging, conservation attitudes ARE BUSY pushing the Rhino towards extinction." Now while I find that statement, as well as his Facebook statements about "armchair rhino activists" quite insulting and offensive, the future of the rhino are more important than either of our opinions. Thus in the interest of constructive debate, I will engage with Mr Leo-Smith as far as possible. Due to time constraints, I can't nearly address everything I'd like to address, but here goes.

My first question to Mr Leo-Smith is as follows. Is it really our bunny-hugging conservation attitudes, or does it have more to do with the following issues?
  • Certain people believe - despite clear evidence - that rhino horn has medicinal properties, and they are willing and able to pay for these. In Tanzania, among others, there is a thriving trade in the skin and body parts of albinos, as they are believed to possess magical properties. I am sure that Mr Leo-Smith will agree that sustainably harvesting skin from albinos is not an option, but that educating their countrymen could be.
  • Many people in Africa are poor and disempowered. Now we can create a new industry in rhino horn but I have a sneaking suspicion that - much the same as with mining - the (mostly white) investors and business owners that will make the money, while the impoverished Africans will still need to poach rhino to get a slice of the pie . Tourism is widely seen as a part of the answer to Africa's economic problems - I have a hunch that over its lifetime a live rhino is far more valuable to the country than a bit of horn. Also, these are expensive animals and losing them at such a rate must deal quite a blow to these game reserves - not good for our economy.
  • There are people illegally flying around in South African airspace with hi-tech weapons, invading private property and endangering the lives of, not the armchair rhino sympathisers but the actual game rangers, conservationists and normal staff working on the ground. Does anyone else see a problem here? The anti-poaching committee discussion was the first real peep from SANParks, those people to whom us taxpayers entrust this work, and nothing from the government. Perhaps I am paranoid but I am sure there are kickbacks involved here. Why is the military not involved in what is essentially a small-scale invasion? Why does it fall to private reserves to fight this when the military has the skills and the equipment to track poachers and intervene?

Secondly, I would like to point out to Mr Leo-Smith that not all conservationists are privileged whites; not all Africans are potentially poachers, or at all pleased at the wholesale killing of rhinos; and, while I appreciate their circumstances, it is worth remembering that the poachers are also armed and are often more than willing to shoot to kill, and that their opponents - game rangers and the like - are often also poor Africans.

One thing Mr Leo-Smith and I seem to agree on is that education is key, and that we need a multi-pronged approach. I just think that legalising rhino horn is not part of that approach. We will only be endorsing rhino horn as a legitimate product and (as others have pointed out) opening up easy distribution channels for illegal rhino horn. How will the end user be able to tell the difference? And honestly, if we can't monitor armed helicopter gangs, how will we monitor the rhino horn trade? Legalising rhino horn will make a few people a quick buck, and will exacerbate the problem in the long run.

Education, ground-level enforcement, diplomatic efforts between our government and buyer countries, economic empowerment of our people and the commitment of all stakeholders will be necessary. I am willing to, and do, financially support conservation efforts, and am willing to dedicate physical resources to the fight, Mr Leo-Smith, with no expectation of return other than the conservation of a magnificent animal. So, other than legalising rhino horn, what are your suggestions? I am looking forward to hearing them.