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FM Edition:

A speed racer in the bush comes to mind when you think of Ted Reilly in his old Mazda as he makes his way along the roads in the Mkhaya Game Reserve on the eastern side of Swaziland.

He races along the dirt roads with the certainty of someone who has driven on them for decades and knows the land. He stops only at a fork or bend to check the mini-bus carrying journalists that is attempting to keep up. A few moments later he stops again; to the right, a black rhino and her calf stand under the shade, surprised by the appearance of Reilly’s car.

Reilly and his wife Liz are behind a proposal made to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in the hopes of legalising the trade of Swaziland’s rhino horn. The organisation is meeting in Johannesburg this month.

Not the most popular of ideas, it seems, as the Cites secretariat, along with other organisations such as the WWF, has already recommended that the idea be rejected. Nevertheless, the Reillys’ proposal will be heard. Because of the way the convention is set up it will be debated, irrespective of any rejection.

To the Reillys, who, with the support of Swaziland’s royal family, pioneered and implemented the establishment of the kingdom’s protected areas, having the debate in itself is a victory, because it will force a discussion about their proposal and the current approach to rhino conservation, which they believe is not working.

The couple believes that selling rhino horn will create a funding model to meet the escalating cost of protecting the species. It won’t stop poaching, but it should put Swaziland in a better position to fund the defence, pay rangers higher wages, offer higher rewards to people who bring forward information about poachers and help the communities that live in ever closer proximity to parks and conservation areas.

"Why persist with something that isn’t working and has not worked for 39 years?" asks Reilly. "Of course there will be poaching and laundering, but who is going to protect rhino if [doing so has no value]? Who will protect rhino if it costs too much to do it?"

The couple had only a week to decide whether to take on the challenge after SA announced that it would not make such a proposal. The pair’s submission to Cites was made only an hour before the deadline.

If passed, the proposal will allow Swaziland a limited and regulated legal trade in white rhino horn. The white rhino populations of Swaziland and SA are listed in Appendix II of the convention. The appendix is a list of animals that are not necessarily threatened with extinction, but may become extinct unless trade in specimens of such species is subject to strict regulation. For instance, SA is allowed to send rhinos overseas to zoos and other countries for conservation purposes.

Rhino horn can fetch as much as US$60,000/kg on the black market. The Reillys believe that the sale of Swaziland’s stock would enable it to put the funds in a conservation endowment fund that could yield as much as $600,000/year. Coupled with the sale of horn from natural deaths and harvesting, the Reillys say they would be looking at income of $1,2m.

But the couple’s proposal has been criticised for not naming a viable buyer for the horn. Their proposal says that a trading partner will be found if the proposal is approved.

Jo Shaw, rhino programme manager at WWF SA, says the Swazi proposal lacks detail on how rhino horn could be sold and who the buyers could be. She says there is little information on how the proposed trade could be controlled. The overarching governance concern relates to consumer countries in the Far East, such as China or Vietnam, which do not have mechanisms in place to manage proposed legal trade or prevent legal horn from being laundered into the illegal market.

"We don’t know how the consumer market will react to the availability of legal trade," says Shaw.

She says there are indications that the dramatic escalation of poaching that started in 2008 has begun to be brought under control in SA.

"You are not going to turn a problem of this scale and complexity around overnight," Shaw says. "I think those who have studied the role of sustainable use [of the horn] in supporting conservation recognise that it may be part of the tool box to be used to raise funds or meet demand, as long as effective governance is in place along the entire trade chain. But it is not something that on its own can combat illegal wildlife trade."

A 2015 Cites-mandated report shows that figures for the rhino population are at about 20,000 for white rhino and at over 5,000 for the black rhino in the 11 range states (countries that have rhinos) in Africa. The fate of Asian rhinos is far more dire, with around 3,500 greater one-horned rhinos left in the wild, fewer than 100 Sumatran rhinos and just 63 Javan rhinos.

Shaw says Africa has reached the point where the number of rhino being born is about the same as the number of them dying. She says the critical point, where the losses will no longer be sustainable, is being reached.

Shaw says there is an urgent need to make communities — in particular those living around protected areas — players in rhino conservation.

This is something that is echoed by environmental affairs minister Edna Molewa as one of the reasons SA was not ready to make a proposal on trade.

Molewa says integrated sustainable livelihood programmes are needed in communities that live near parks and game reserves. She says while rangers and other staff come from nearby areas, the communities are not integrated to the extent that they are able to take ownership of the rhinos or can be prevented from being lured into poaching.

Molewa says the research SA conducted has shown other stumbling blocks that need to be overcome before the country can move ahead with trade and convince members of Cites of the proposal.

One of those impediments is establishing a viable trading partner and a market. Molewa says trade could be an additional measure to what is already being done. There is still a need for an integrated security strategy that does not operate only within the country, which is the current approach, but links up with organisations such as Interpol. Molewa’s integrated security strategy is in the final stage, but she says it is not ready to be taken to Cites.

She says SA has some concerns regarding Swaziland’s proposal and whether it will stand the test at Cites. However, SA will not stand in its way.

The minister says SA operates at the level of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) when it comes to matters such as Cites, and that members of SADC have expressed support for the Swaziland proposal.

The legal trade of the horn could be done in different ways.

Jane Wiltshire from RhinoAlive, who has done research into the effect of rhino horn trade, says that if the trade were legalised it could follow the example of a central selling organisation such as the De Beers diamond model to control the scarcity of the commodity.

"We are almost shovel ready. The one thing we don’t have is the trading organisation," Wiltshire says.

She says the central selling organisation would be able to control how much horn is released into the market and to some extent the price of the horn. Mechanisms such as DNA tagging and other security measures would have to be implemented to ensure horns taken from poached animals do not find their way into the market.

Wiltshire says the price will fluctuate if the trade is legalised.

And because SA has the know-how, Wiltshire says it would have first-mover advantage if it entered the trade.