President Ramaphosa needs to step in to save Africa’s elephants and rhinos


Western animal rights groups are again using their formidable resources to demand that world trade in both elephant tusks and rhino horns be banned. But this effort will only have the effect of increasing demand and prices for these products as consumers fear for their future unavailability, triggering yet another episode of elephant and rhino poaching.

An average of about three rhinos a day are being poached in South Africa, despite the total international ban on rhino horn trade. Poachers take enormous risks to obtain these horns because East Asian demand continues to be so strong.

South Africa has the world’s largest rhino population — 20 000 animals representing 80% of the world’s population. Their horns are like fingernails. They can be trimmed painlessly and grow back in two years. Allowing trade in South African rhino horns is an absolute no brainer. Such trade is legal in South Africa. The nation has the animals to supply the worldwide demand for horn. The supply is perpetually renewable. The East Asian consumers want to buy that supply, and yet South Africa’s bureaucratic authorities refuse to issue the permits to allow the commerce to begin.

Why? The Department of Environmental Affairs has not indicated the reason for the delay. Is it lethargy or could it be something else?  All we know at this point is the permits required for international trade remain in Pretoria. But the marketplace is not being denied the products it wants. While the Department of Environmental Affairs dawdles, poachers working with international gangs are meeting the need through the illegal black market. In the process, South Africa loses income, loses animals, loses job, and will lose its iconic wildlife in the future unless something is done. How clever does South Africa look in this situation? 

There is no doubt that South Africa could be raising enough revenue to support the conservation of both elephants and rhinos if the sale of both elephant tusks and rhino horns were permitted. This in turn will provide better management of these and other mega fauna. But no sales are happening — not because of any law prohibiting them, but by the inaction of the Department of Environmental Affairs.

Rather than figure out what is wrong, the highest levels of South Africa government needs to act immediately to save the assets of those farmers who raise rhinos. Take the case of North West Province-based John Hume. He is the world’s largest rhino breeder. He owns 1600 white rhinos with an impressive 18% growth rate of 300 calves per year. While this represents great hope for continued rhino population growth in South Africa, the sad news is that Mr Hume has spent a fortune raising rhinos that cannot return the capital he has invested. He has stockpiled almost 6000 rhino horns that he cannot sell. A few days ago, Mr Hume sent a letter to businesspeople around the world saying that he no longer has any remaining sources of income to continue funding his breeding programme. He said that his rhino herd will die without an injection of funds.

So is the South African government going to allow the most successful white rhino-breeding programme in the world fail because of its inaction? Could the more than 300 other members of the Private Rhino Owners Association (PROA) soon face a similar fate? The collapse of these breeding projects with a total of about 7000 rhinos is a ticking time bomb that can negatively impact all of South Africa’s wildlife conservation efforts.

What can President Ramaphosa do to save South Africa’s elephants and rhinos? First he has to recognize that fair and balanced trade in wild animals produces the funds needed for sustainable use conservation. Then he needs to appoint one of his closest and most trusted advisors to take over the Department of Environmental Affairs to unclog its decision-making processes. That individual needs to find out how Western animal rights groups have prevented the agency from acting in the best interests of South Africa’s conservation needs. The Presidential representative needs to recognize that the people in rural communities who live side by side with wild animals need to benefit from the rhinos and elephants in their midst.

Some will say that, politically, it is smarter for President Ramaphosa to wait until after the May elections before confronting this issue. Perhaps, but in the meantime the world’s largest rhino breeder may see his animals die of starvation, get sold off to the detriment of South Africa’s economy, and poachers invade his land because he cannot maintain its security system.

In his State of the Nation address last week, President Ramaphosa indicated that his government would focus on five key tasks. Three of them —the need to improve the lives of poor South Africans, stepping up the fight against corruption and strengthening the state — all seem to touch on the issue of rhino and elephant conservation. With a Presidential commitment to solve the problem at the Department of Environmental Affairs, Mr Ramaphosa can provide rural communities with conservation funds, create jobs, and reassert South Africa’s sovereignty over its economic assets. In short, he can meet his objectives for the year and attract voters to his cause.

Sending a signal without delay now would also honour the 25th anniversary of the inauguration of Nelson Mandela. It would say that the independence of South Africa is not something that Western Big International Non-Governmental Organizations (BINGOs) can buy. Taking the lead in opening Africa’s wildlife industry to South African-managed sustainable use conservation techniques will invigorate South Africa’s economy, cut unemployment, and reassert its leadership position among the nations of the world. How cannot that be good for Mr. Ramaphosa’s re-election campaign?

Paul Stevens is a Harare-based writer who has interest in ensuring that African elephant and rhino ranges state protect both their economic and political sovereignty from outsider influence.