THE RHINO POACHING TIMELINE:
On the 3rd March 1973, at the World Wildlife Conference in Washington D.C, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) was established with the objective of ensuring that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
By the time the CITES convention finally came into force in 1975, wild rhino populations across Africa, custodian to more than 75% of the world’s rhinos, had suffered catastrophic declines. Numbers were reduced to an estimated 16,000 from 65,000 in just seventy five years due to excessive hunting and rampant poaching. In an effort to address the threat to the continents last remaining wild rhinos, in 1977 CITES granted both species of African rhino (white and black) with the highest level of protection, classifying them as appendix I, prohibiting all commercial and international trade of rhinoceros derivatives.
Today the governments of 187 member countries (known within the convention as parties) have voluntarily agreed to adhere to the CITES international convention, which provides a framework in which individual countries adopt and implement their own domestic legislation to ensure the agreement is observed on a national level. This intervention has led proponents of a legalised trade of rhino horn to aggressively argue international trade bans have failed to protect South Africa’s rhinos, stripped the economy of potential revenue through the renewable sale of rhino horns, driven market activity underground allowing criminal syndicates to become entrenched in African society as well as sentencing thousands of rhinos during the last forty years of the convention to their deaths.
It is counterfactual for pro-trade advocates to denounce the CITES convention and hold the trade ban responsible for today’s rhino poaching resurgence. Encouragement of a legalised trade is sending conflicting messages, not only to current consumer countries, but also to potential users, contradicting demand reduction campaigns. Endorsing the use of and financially benefiting from a medically fallacious product is unethical, exploits false beliefs, misguided perceptions and feeds on public naivety. Lobbying to endorse legalisation without sufficiently establishing a trade mechanism and neglecting to inform the public of any contingency plan is irresponsible, carrying potential irreversible damage.
The reality is that, under closer scrutiny, pro-trade arguments hold little weight. Arguments to support trade appear to be manipulating the public through a succession of false allegations and failure to publicly supply evidence to substantiate their claims. South Africa held an enviable record for rhino protection for thirty two years (1975-2007) and while other rhino range countries such as Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Mozambique, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda were besieged by poachers, South Africa, together with Zimbabwe, remained relatively unscathed. The CITES ban did not perpetuate poaching in South Africa and is not responsible for the current rhino poaching crisis. Looking back through South Africa’s well documented history, one can pin point a clear timeline of events that would be instrumental in leading to today’s crisis which, with foresight, could have been prevented.
1977 – 1999: South Africa: A Refuge For Rhinos:
For thirty three consecutive years during the CITES ban, South Africa’s rhino poaching incidents remained negligible, due to a greater level of protection than other range country. Just 261 fatalities were officially recorded in statistics provided by the DEA (Department of Environment) over a 27 year period (1980-2007), statistically equating to just 9.66 rhinos lost each year throughout that period.
1977: Indonesia and Sri Lanka ratify the CITES convention and all five species of rhino are listed as Appendix I, prohibiting commercial and international trade in rhino derivatives.
1980: Japan, the world’s largest consumer of rhino horn during the 1970s, ratifies CITES and the Japanese Ministry of Health requires manufacturers of rhino horn medicines to find substitutes for their products. The same year, China, only a minor consumer of rhino horn during the 1970s and 1980s also ratifies the convention. The Chinese government would subsequently ban imports of rhino horn the following year and exports in 1988.
1981: The Philippines ratifies CITES and China bans imports of rhino horns
1983: Korea implements an import ban of rhino horn
1985: Taiwan implements an import ban of rhino horn
1987: CITES implements regulation, banning domestic trade of rhino horn. Operation Lock was conceived in 1987 during a meeting between Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, the founder president of the World Wide Fund for nature (WWF) and John Hanks, conservation expert and WWF’s head in Africa. The initiative, funded by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and sanctioned by the WWF (who later denied involvement) was staffed by ex SAS servicemen and private security company KAS Enterprises. The purpose of Op Lock was to train game rangers to pose as rhino horn traders in order to entrap buyers, in an attempt to penetrate, expose and neutralise the cartels. However, within just a few years, the initiative’s own personnel would be involved in a scandal after they were implicated in profiting from the very products they were employed to protect. The project was disbanded in the early 1990s
1988: China bans exports of rhino horn
1989: The ESPU (Endangered Species Protection Unit) is formed with a key function of infiltrating international syndicates through the identification of poachers and trade smuggling routes, and implementing the destruction of criminal organisations by apprehending individuals and taking down entire networks.
Consisting of 27 highly skilled, hand picked law enforcement agents, the unit under the command of Colonel Pieter Lategan conducted investigations into poaching incidents and handled crime scenes where rhinos had been poached. Covert operations allowed the agents to penetrate illegal markets and take control of contraband while posing as dealers. Over a thirteen year period, the ESPU proved to be instrumental in alleviating rhino poaching and expanded its operations to include the removal of illegal markets in other flora and fauna.
1992: Private rhino owners in South Africa are starting captive breed rhinos, despite wild populations showing healthy recovery.The Taiwanese government prohibits the sale of rhino horn.
1993: South Korea, a major consumer during the 1980s, predominantly from prescribed medicines, ratifies the CITES convention. China, a user of rhino horn to treat a variety of ailments including fever and convulsions, removes rhino horn as an ingredient in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) from their pharmacopoeia, an official publication containing a list of medicinal drugs with their effects and directions for their use. The same year, Taiwan prohibits domestic trade of rhino.
1994: A significant year for both South Africa and black rhino populations. South Africa witnessed a brief spike in poaching incidents at the same time they experienced political upheaval, as the country transitioned from apartheid to a majority rule and for the first time, multi-cultural voting.
CITES down lists South Africa’s (and Swaziland’s) Southern white rhinos from Appendix I to Appendix II subject to a clause which allowed for restricted commercial trade of live animals and trophies only. The annotation reads as follows: “for the exclusive purpose of allowing international trade in live animals to appropriate and acceptable destinations and hunting trophies. All other specimens shall be deemed to be specimens of species included in Appendix I and the trade in them shall be regulated accordingly.”
Vietnam, the last major consumer country of rhino horn ratifies CITES and all countries have now implemented domestic trade bans with the exception of Yemen (a major consumer during the 1970’s and 1980’s), who will not join until 1997. By 1994, Yemen’s economy had suffered a dramatic downturn. The country could no longer afford the increasing prices of horn and was no longer deemed a threat.
After the elections, the four original provinces of South Africa were replaced by 9 (Eastern Cape, Free State, Guateng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North West, Northern Cape and the Eastern Cape). Each province had its own legislation and procedures for governing imports, exports and issuing permits of species under CITES regulations and there was little coherence between any of them. A notable lack of consistency in penalties and violations of controls would have catastrophic consequences a decade later, exposing severe laxity in law enforcement, consistency and inability to combat corruption. Fast forward ten years and South Africa will fail to meet four separate deadlines made by CITES to adopt adequate legislation to impose the minimum standard set out by the CITES treaty. By 2014 they will still not have updated legislation in compliance with CITES.
1996: Appointed by the then president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, a Commission of iInquiry into the illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn, is released by chairman Justice Mark Kumbleben. The extensive document lambasts Operation Lock, claiming officers of the covert operation misappropriated more than 100 rhino horns, provided by the Natal Parks Board and conservation authorities in Namibia for supposed sting operations. Poaching syndicates and Swazi and Mozambican smuggling networks were infiltrated. Rhino horns were bought and sold. The Taiwanese Embassy in Swaziland was one of the routes used to export the rhino horn. Those involved were accountable to no one and were suspected of pocketing money from the sale of rhino horns and helping to destabilise African countries.
Set up in 1988 by the defence forces, the report also exposes the earlier Roos Commission, which was set up in the wake of allegations that the military were involved in the illicit trade of rhino horns. The Kumbleben report found the Roos Commission had failed to honestly declare the amount of ivory and rhino horn which was taken from poachers and handed to the military, effectively covering up South African Defence Force (SADF) involvement of both decimation of wildlife and also smuggling of ivory and horn. Although Kumbleben was unable to identify the exact quantities of rhino horn being smuggled through South Africa from 1975 to 1987, the amount was extensive. If leading authoritative figures such as Kumbleben were unable to determine the illegal quantities of horn hitting the market, how are we, in this increasingly sophisticated and complex era, going to determine if demand can be met legally today without confirmation of the demand level?
Private rhino owners and officials were also being implicated in assisting the trafficking of horn through South Africa. Is it possible that these owners and public figures implicated in the illegal movement of rhino horns did not anticipate the increase of demand due to their actions? Could these same owners also have also been involved in pseudo hunts a decade later?
1997: Yemen, a major consumer of rhino horn during the 1970s and 1980s, where rhino horn was used to make dagger handles known as “Jambiya”, ratifies the CITES convention. By now, Yemen was no longer a prolific user of rhino horn. Rising inflation and devaluation of the local currency caused the country to experience a long term economic downturn and rhino horn was no longer affordable. Also playing a role was the threat of the Pelly Amendment and the issue of a fatwa by the Grand Mufti, stating that Islam prohibits the killing of animals, except for those for their meat and is not allowed. Specific reference was made to rhino.
Addressing the 10th CITES Conference of Parties (Cop10) in June 1997, Harare, Zimbabwe, Natal Parks CEO, Dr George Hughes argued the trade ban had been ineffective at providing protection for rhinos and economic incentives to promote protection were vital to securing the species survival. He further claimed legally sourced rhino horn would provide a strong disincentive to purchase horn on black markets and so South Africa put forward a proposal to lift the ban and allow trading. The application was unsuccessful, failing to secure a majority vote by party delegates.
As the South African government sits in quiet contemplation at the prospect of legally off loading an estimated 22 tons of stockpiled rhino horn (a sale which could net an estimated $1.36bn) providing over two-thirds of member states vote in favour of trade at next years CITES CoP17 (Conference of Parties), pro-trade protagonists have been industriously touting the trade tender across mainstream media with increasing vehemence.
It’s no wonder trade lobbyists are throwing their weight behind the governments agreement to “evaluate the viability of a legalised trade of rhino horn” by steadily applying pressure to garner public support when enormous financial incentives are the driving force behind the proposed trade mechanism. However, the government’s insistence on pursuing the feasibility of trade is at the enormous expense of the countries rhinos. As efforts remain focused on potential future profit and not implementing its mandate to protect its remaining rhinos, the species is left vulnerable and at ever increasing risk.
The whole trade proposal appears to sit behind a screen of smoke and mirrors as, disturbingly, true motives hide behind very public agendas. It has to be questioned if the South African government are being complicit towards the crisis in an effort to attempt to position itself in a more favourable light at next years meeting. Likewise, are hardened trade lobbyists not deliberately colluding to undermine global efforts to both reduce demand and heighten public awareness? If not, then why dismiss campaigns, education initiatives and jeopardise horn devaluation projects designed to curb both poaching and consumption if financial incentives are not the fundamental reason for trade? If conservation and long term preservation were the motivation backbone, and not a mere afterthought, the logical route would be to invest in greater protection, implement tougher penalties, dissolve internal corruption and instigate pressure on consumer countries to eradicate demand. Like any business however, trading rhino horns for profit will solely rely on user demand. With no users, there’s no market and no need to sell and it’s no coincidence, China, a major consumer country of both rhino horn and elephant ivory have both an economical and political investment in many African countries, including South Africa.
Pro-traders have been exceptionally conscientious in touting the current crisis as a result of trade prohibition imposed by CITES despite a lack of credible evidence to substantiate their claims. They haven’t however (intentionally or otherwise) been so vocal about the actual course of events which led to today’s carnage, opting instead to hoodwink an unsuspecting public with misconstrued facts. A successful but deceptive approach which has gained lobbyists a substantial amount of support. How many of those supporters however, would be willing to back the cause if they were presented with the truth?
For thirty two years (between 1975 and 2007) South Africa held an exceptional high record of protection. Poaching was negligible and the countries white rhino population was increasing steadily (black rhino populations only began to increase after 1994, once all consumer countries (except Yemen) had ratified CITES). A key course of events however, changed the fate of South Africa’s rhinos and for the second time in the countries history, rhinos are once again heading towards extinction and regardless of the bias reporting by pro-trade lobbyists, the ban didn’t fail South Africa’s rhinos, the government did.
2000 – Present Day: Generation Genocide For South Africa’s Rhinos
As the world heralded the new millennium, Y2K also signified a whole new era for South Africa’s rhinos. Despite early indications South Africa’s rhinos would eventually become a target of the illicit trade of wildlife, its rhinos were under attack. Poachers had inched their way through range states across the continent, decimating rhino populations in dozens of countries and had headed south. Three decades of enviable wildlife protection and effective anti-poaching efforts were abruptly ended and South Africa’s near unblemished reputation for rhino protection was tarnished. The country was under siege by criminal syndicates utilising the profits from the sale of rhino horn to fund further illicit activities.
South Africa was propelled into the global media, the focus of a crisis which could have been averted had the South African government had the foresight to execute greater measures to prevent poachers entering the country at any of its entry and exist points rather than sitting complacent on the side lines. Today, if South Africa fails to get a stronghold on the crisis wiping out it’s rhinos at an exponential rate, its lasting legacy will be one of complete failure.
2000: The Endangered Species Protection unit (ESPU) raises serious concerns about South Africa’s capacity to effectively enforce CITES regulations. Doubts are also raised about customs ability to control illegal trade at South Africa’s ports of entry and exit.
2002: Occupying an area larger than the size of Wales the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLTP) straddles South Africa and Zimbabwe with Mozambique linking the Kruger National Park with Gonarezhou National Park, Zimbabwe and Limpopo National Park in Mozambique. The removal of fencing to create the GLTP reopens natural migration routes previously blocked by political boundaries. For the first time in decades, wildlife can cross borders at their own will. It also provides Mozambique with an open link with Zimbabwe and South Africa. Today, the Kruger National Park is the ground zero of South Africa’s poaching crisis and Mozambique has been identified as a major conduit of rhino horn.
Founded in 1989, the Endangered Species Protection Unit (ESPU) is disbanded after 13 successful years. The specialist police unit, started to combat illegal trade in endangered species was one of the most successful law enforcement agencies responsible for infiltrating smuggling operations dealing in abalone (an edible mollusc), ivory and cycads (a tropical palm plant). The 27 officers forming the unit will be absorbed into the police organised crime unit.
South Africa witnesses a spike in rhino poaching and the price of rhino horn starts to sharply rise. Over the next decade the price of raw rhino horn will increase by 196%. A country not previously identified as a concern, Vietnam emerges as a new consumer of rhino horn (the same year the countries economy increases between 6-7%). South Africa’s rhinos would be besieged by a new enemy, the Vietnamese pseudo hunter.
2003: Traffic (the wildlife trade monitoring network) reports concerns to CITES about pseudo hunts taking place in South Africa and the international convention being broken. Vietnamese nationals were purchasing permits under the guise of legal hunts, exploiting loopholes in CITES legislation and South African permit controls. The hunts permit the transportation of rhino horn (as trophies) but these horns were destined for Vietnam’s black market.
2007/08: South Africa’s impressive 28 year straight of protecting wild rhinos is abruptly ended. Poaching peaked at 83 mortalities, the highest number in decades, despite numerous warnings of an increase in pseudo hunting. Vietnamese crime syndicates had already began changing tactics in anticipation of the South African government stopping all permits to Vietnamese nationals (which incidentally doesn’t happen for another four years). Sport hunters from countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic are now being recruited.
At some point during this period, an unfounded rumour was started, allegedly by a Vietnamese politician who claimed the use of rhino horn in medicine helped cure his cancer, a rumour which almost certainly helped stimulate greater demand in a country whose economy was booming.
2008: In 2002, CITES agrees to a second “one off sale” of elephant ivory permitting South Africa, Botswana and Namibia to off load 60 metric tons of government stockpiled ivory. In 2008, Zimbabwe is also permitted to sell stockpiled ivory and the total amount is increased 108 metric tons. Japan and China were the named recipients in a sale which would raise approximately $15 million and The China National Arts & Crafts Group Corporation, Beijing Ivory Carving Factory, Guangzhou Daxin Ivory Factory and Beijing Mammoth Art Co., Ltd participated in China’s purchase of raw ivory collectively received 62 metric tons. As a consequence of the sales, demand escalated and for the second time in CITES history, Africa’s elephants faced a crisis as demand for ivory once again increased.
In 2004 there were just nine ivory carving factories and 31 authorised retail outlets in China. By 2013 37 factories were in operation with 145 retail outlets selling hand carved ivory across China. The “one off” controlled sales re-stimulated demand for ivory which caused black market prices of raw ivory to quadruple in just two years yet despite all warning signs that legal sales have stimulated markets of other African wildlife derivatives and that South Africa’s rhinos were now being targeted to fulfil demand from Asia, the South African government began a process of lobbying to legalise trade of rhino horns.
2009: ANC leader Jacob Zuma is elected president of South Africa by the national assembly. The controversial politician has been involved in several legal scandals associated with corruption and racketeering despite attempting to position himself as a man of the people. During his election, Zuma faced mounting criticism and during his elective years has failed to improve the nations economy, effectively combat corruption or adequately protect some of the countries largest tourist assets despite living an openly extravagant lifestyle.
First woman Premier of the North West Provincial Government, Edna Molewa was appointed Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs after a cabinet reshuffle. Key imperatives for Molewa will include monitoring rhino poaching and implementing strategic plans to combat poaching and corruption particularly within the countries own national parks.
South Africa’s government also imposed a moratorium on domestic trade of rhino horn six years after TRAFFIC initially relays concerns of pseudo hunting. The moratorium was established in an attempt to close down loopholes being exploited by pseudo hunters.
2012: In response to the growing number of Vietnamese nationals taking part in pseudo hunts under the guise of legal sport hunts, in April 2012, South Africa finally stopped issuing permits to all Vietnamese nationals, 8 years after TRAFFIC relayed concerns of pseudo hunting and four years after pseudo hunts peaked in South Africa.
2013: July 2013 the largest ever rhino horn seizure of 24 rhino horns and arrest of 16 suspects in the Czech Republic pointed yet again to South Africa’s failure to properly monitor its own trophy hunt industry and borders. Officials reported a syndicate had hired Czech nationals who went to South Africa as hunters with permission to shoot one rhino, keeping the horns as trophies.
2015: Final rhino poaching statistics for the year 2014 were released to the media in January revealing the country had experienced the highest number of fatalities since official records began in the early 20th century. Edna Molewa, now environmental affairs minister (a position she was appointed after a cabinet reshuffle in May 2014) announced the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) no longer had the capacity to release statistics on monthly basis. Throughout the year, poaching statistics have only been released on two separate occasions to date, May and August despite declaring they would be made public “on a quarterly (or so) basis”. Neither statistics contained a provincial breakdown and May’s stats which cited 393 mortalities (290 of which were within the Kruger National Park) up to the end of April, were actually incorrect and only valid until the end of March.
Edna Molewa’s competency and understanding of the complexity of the poaching crisis has been questioned on numerous occasions throughout her ministership but none more so than this year. In response to increasing public scrutiny, Molewa has imposed a media blackout of reporting rhino poaching incidents as well as coming under increasing fire for blocking the accounts of Twitter followers requesting poaching statistics or wishing to contact her on the popular social media platform.
Despite a huge public backlash surrounding her position and failure to address the public regarding the government’s stance on legalisation which would allow trade in rhino horns, Molewa finally released a media statement in January announcing the panellists who would make up the Committee of Inquiry who had been appointed to assess the feasibility of trading rhino horns.
Comprising of a panel of experts, the media statement expressed members would comprise of representatives from law-enforcement, immigration, economics, science, conservation, private wildlife owners, traditional leadership and revenue services. However, there has been controversy over the selection of the Committee’s 21 strong team when it finally emerged the government had not only cherry picked individuals who were predominantly trade bias but candidates had only been vetted post-appointment, casting doubt on both the integrity of any research and credibility of any findings. Minister Molewa was forced to admit only pre-screening had been completed to check members were South African nationals and that the vetting process was incomplete.
At least two committee members credentials came under scrutiny. Nana Mangomola who resigned from the position of vice chairperson at the National Gambling Board in November 2014 after Minister Rob Davies suspended her based on irregular findings by the Auditor General was appointed chairperson of the committee and Lourence Mogakane’s position of financial director of the Bohlabela District Municipality was terminated for gross misconduct and financial mismanagement in 2005.
On Thursday, 26th November 2015, judge Francis Legodi overturned the 2009 moratorium banning domestic sales of rhino horn at the high court, Pretoria after two of South Africa’s largest private rhino owners (John Hume and John Kruger) launched legal action against the South African government claiming the moratorium contravened their constitutional right to sell rhino horn. The judge made the ruling because of “substantial non-compliance” with the consultative and participatory process by members of the public contemplated by the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act although judge Legodi did not disagree with the reasons the ban was implemented. In basic terms, Edna Molewa and the DEA failed to follow protocol before the ban was put in place.
The lifting of the ban, which essentially allows for domestic trade to be resurrected within South Africa can only be viewed as a minor success at best for those touting legalised trade because the DEA have already submitted an appeal against the ruling, essentially rendering the decision useless throughout the duration of the appeal process.
On the surface the appeal by the DEA appears to condemn legalised sales despite the fact the DEA appear to be trade bias and even expected to challenge the International ban at next year’s CITES meeting (CoP17) in Johannesburg. So why appeal a ruling? The answer is quite simple. Firstly, the South African government need to prove to CITES they are taking firm action against poaching but it is also not beyond the realms of possibility, this move has been carefully planned an orchestrated. The DEA are widely suspected to be favouring the trade route, a move which has incensed conservation groups, NGO’s and those backing demand reduction campaigns. What better way to garner public support than to condemn the recent ruling and appeal against the decision?