China has demonstrated to the world that the health of its citizens is of paramount importance. On October 29, 2018, the Government of China published a Notice that it was re-opening domestic trade in rhino horn and tiger bones. The Notice states that “rhino horns and tiger bones” must be used in “medicinal research or healing” and “can only be obtained from farmed rhinos and tigers, not including those raised in zoos.” Southern African countries such as Eswatini, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe all have Captive Breeding Operations (CBO) facilities and CBO-sourced rhino horn stockpiles that they can sell to China.
Article III of the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) permits trade in otherwise restricted wild animal parts for non-commercial purposes. The political parties in SADC countries ought to immediately recognise the socio-economic importance of the Chinese initiative. SADC ministries of environment need strong political support. It was the African political parties that took the lead to fight against colonial oppression and exploitation. The ANC also successfully opposed apartheid in South Africa and ended it.
Dr Morrison Mtsambiwa, one of Africa’s top ecologists and former CEO of the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (where Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zambia share their borders), praised China for taking decisive action to buy rhino horn from CBO sources. He urged SADC political parties and governments to reject animal rights groups and announce their readiness to supply China’s needs.
A Hwange Rural District Council ecologist Mr Nxolelani Ncube said that China’s reopening of the rhino horn trade has made countries with smaller rhino populations “see the incentive for massive breeding of white rhinos.”
The large animal rights groups — Save the Rhino Foundation International and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) — instantly opposed China’s initiative, claiming that re-opening the rhino horn trade would increase poaching. They still have not learnt the essential lesson that a ban on international trade in wildlife products has not stopped poaching after more than 40 years of trying. Einstein is said to have observed that the sign of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
Southern Africa needs to pay attention to China’s lead in exercising its sovereign right to buy rhino horn for the medical needs of its people. SADC countries also ought to articulate their sovereign right to sell their resources for rhino conservation and for the socioeconomic wellbeing of their people. Eugene Lapointe, former CITES Secretary General (1982-1990) and President of the Switzerland-based IWMC-World Conservation Trust, said, “… we share a common opinion with China … that the old order governing the trade in wildlife products … is in need of urgent reform.”
Animal rights groups have for a long time been imposing their anti-wildlife products trade agenda on Africa. Now it is time for SADC countries to move forward. Therefore, it was strongly recommended to them at a meeting held in Pretoria, South Africa, in August 2018 that they should declare CITES decisions they deemed unfair to their interests as “null and void,” as the CITES treaty permits. In supporting the Chinese initiative on rhino horns and tiger bones before the 2019 CITES meeting, they will be taking a further step towards aligning themselves with a wildlife policy that makes sense to Africa.
Nearly everyone in the SADC countries knows that as long as rhinos do not have economic value to the people who live among them, there will be no need to protect them from poachers. Giving rhinos the kind of value that the Chinese are now creating provides the reason to protect them.
“China has taken a principled position on rhinos and tigers, and has a very strong backbone to allow it to stand tall and straight against the inevitable backlash of the animal rights groups. The governing parties of the SADC countries should need nothing more in the way of political cover to join China in enthusiastically supporting its new initiative,” said the Managing Director of the Los Angeles-based Ivory Education Institute, Godfrey Harris.
As poverty, unemployment and poor economic growth continues to plague some SADC countries, it would seem that only those governments already captured by animal rights groups would oppose selling their CBO-sourced rhino horn to China. Accordingly, SADC’s environmental ministries (led by their political parties), need to make a collective effort towards implementing the Chinese rhino horn trade initiative, in order to defeat rhino poaching. The SADC habitat-damaging elephant overpopulation problems present an opportunity for SADC and China to engage in new negotiations to reopen trade in ivory in the future.
Emmanuel Koro is a Johannesburg-based international award-winning environmental journalist who has written extensively on environment and development issues in Africa.