CITES’ embarrassing failure to stop illegal rhino horn trade

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During the investigation, the syndicate had claimed involvement in multiple shipments of illegal ivory from Africa to China, and had been directly involved in the trade for years. Reuters African News Agency (ANA)

Top Southern African conservationists unanimously say that UN Convention on International Trade In Endangered Wild Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES)’s 40-year-old international rhino horn trade ban has failed embarrassingly to stop both illegal International rhino horn trade and also rhino poaching. These comments were ignited by the ongoing reports on the continued increase in illegal rhino horn trade and rhino poaching in Southern Africa, despite the enforcement of the more than 40-year-old CITES international rhino horn trade ban.

One of the biggest and most recent seizures of illegally traded rhino horn worth millions of dollars happened a few days ago at Africa’s biggest and busiest airport, South Africa’s Johannesburg-based OR Tambo International Airport. Big quantities of illegally traded rhino horns, also worth millions of dollars were seized in neighbouring Zimbabwe in December 2018 by that country’s law enforcement agents. Therefore, the point that we have continued to make to the animal rights groups and the Geneva-based CITES Secretariat is being overwhelmingly proved right; that a ban in wildlife products will never stop illegal trade or even the poaching of endangered wildlife. It can be argued that sadly much more illegally traded rhino horn might be going unnoticed because we only know about illegal trade when authorities have intercepted the illegally traded rhino.

“Neither the ban nor demand reduction awareness campaigns have reduced poaching losses,” said Chairman of South Africa’s Private Rhino Owners Association, Mr Pelham Jones. “A well regulated trade of stockpiled horns will reduce poaching pressure on our wild populations. The second benefit is that this will bring much needed revenue to the benefit of conservation and not criminal syndicates.”

Elsewhere, Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority Chief Ecologist Ms Roseline Mandisodza said international trade in rhino horn should be allowed because it is economic and conservation value that will preserve a species not trade ban.

“The listing of rhinos on CITES Appendix I (which prohibits trade) removes the value of the species on legal trade and creates real value in illegal and black market,” said Ms Mandisodza. “Legal trade should be allowed for rhinos to retain value of true animals. It’s only economic and conservation value that will preserve a species not trade ban.”

One of Africa’s top ecologists and former CEO of the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area with the world’s most important and biggest elephant population concentration where Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe share borders, Dr Morris Mtsambiwa said that it does not make sense to ban trade when there is a demand. “In my opinion banning trade in the presence of demand for a product will only fuel illegal trade in that product,” said Dr Mtsambiwa.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission’s African Rhino Specialist Group (AfRSG) recently reported that the number of African rhinos killed by poachers had increased for the sixth year in a row with at least 1,338 rhinos killed by poachers across Africa in 2015. This is the highest level since the rhino poaching crisis began to increase in 2008. Since then, poachers have killed at least 5,940 African rhinos.  

South Asia that include China and Thailand, is by far the biggest market for rhino horn where it is used for medicinal purposes, with one rhino horn selling at approximately $60 000 per kilogramme. Although scientists have discouraged the use of rhino horn after having proved that the horn does not have the healing powers that it is believed to have, this has not stopped rhino horn demand and use in Asia. The Chinese have been using rhino horn medicine for more than 2000 years, treating fever, rheumatism, gout and other disorders. In Vietnam rhino horn is believed to cure cancer and one kilogramme can be sold for up to US$100 000 per kilogramme. The rhino horn ornaments are also increasingly being used to display wealth and success.

So why should international rhino horn trade be banned when Southern Africa countries that qualify to trade have a ready market? To satisfy Western values on how they think Africans should manage their own wildlife? Silly. We have lots of farm-bred rhinos whose horns can be harvested and sold without any danger to the animal or their cousins still living in the wild. The point is that we can add millions to the Southern African economy, if we use what we have. Unfortunately we can’t.  Animal rights groups have imposed themselves on us as our wildlife management masters from whom we should continue taking orders!

Clearly, the Western animal rights groups are robbing Southern Africa of the sovereignty it enjoyed before the colonialists stole its land and now they want to take it back, using wild animals, particularly rhinos and elephants as their cover. Southern African countries should demand and defend their sovereign rights to trade in their rhino horn, in order to help end illegal rhino horn trade, rhino poaching and the corruption linked to illegal trade and rhino poaching.

Equally, by continuing to endorse the Western animal rights groups influenced 43-year-old failed  international rhino horn trade ban; the CITES Secretariat is the reason why one of the UN-supported Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) goals;  poverty alleviation – will never be achieved in Africa by 2030. Therefore, the CITES Secretariat has become an embarrassment to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), UN General Assembly and other pro-sustainable development UN agencies. When racist and colonial tendencies crop-up within the CITES decision-making framework,  sovereign African countries should act decisively to end them.

Emmanuel Koro is a Johannesburg-based international award-winning environmental journalist who has written extensively on environment and development issues in Africa.