By Joe Walsh
Earlier this month, 137 cities took part in a global march against the poaching of rhinos and elephants, amid an alarming surge in killings of the endangered species. South Africa saw a huge swell of support for the movement, with 18 rallies staged across the country, while the United States hosted 39. In China and Vietnam — the world's largest buyers of ivory and rhino horn respectively — there were none.
Home to at least 70 percent of the world's rhinos — a species hurtling towards extinction — the poaching statistics in South Africa make for bleak viewing. Since 2008, when a moratorium was placed on the trade of rhino horn in the country, the numbers killed have skyrocketed, growing from 13 in 2007 to over 1,000 last year. The latest figures released by the country's Department of Environmental Affairs show that this year, as of September 22, 787 rhinos had been lost to poaching.
In an interview with VICE News, South African Environment Minister Edna Molewa said the phenomenon was "a strange coincidence and one we don't yet know the meaning of (as to) why the poaching has gone up and up and up."
The situation has reached such a drastic state in the Kruger National Park, the country's flagship wildlife and tourism site, that in August the government approved the removal of over 500 of its rhinos in a tacit admission that they could no longer protect the species in their most renowned nature reserve. Of those 250 are in the process of being transported to more secure facilities, mainly in the province of Kwazulu-Natal, with the remaining 260 being sold to private buyers.
In Kruger itself, rhinos are no longer recorded at the sightings boards, so poachers cannot find out where they are, and visitors are discouraged from talking too openly about their increasingly rare encounters.
The global march called for an end to all trading of ivory and rhino horn, both illegal and legal. However in South Africa there are calls to legalise the trade in horns from dead rhinos, and release authorities' stockpiles of confiscated horn, in order to flood the market and hopefully reduce the demand which fuels poaching. It is one proposal the South African government is currently considering.
Molewa explained: "Whether we could be able to relieve our stockpiles so that people would stay away from our live rhinos, because there are dead rhinos anyway, and only if we are to do that, release the stockpiles, what would that mean to the long term arrangement, what happens if we no longer have stockpiles? It is one option we are exploring."
The minister was keen to emphasize that no decisions would be made before the next summit of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) which takes place in South Africa in 2016 and where the proposals will be discussed. Yet the government's apparent keenness to explore the option of selling the stockpiles of rhino horn, despite warnings from environmentalists that such a move will not have a significant impact on poaching, has led to accusations that it is putting profit over the protection of the species.
Protesters at the worldwide marches also called for action to address lax laws and insufficient penalties for perpetrators, which can mean the financial rewards of poaching sometimes outweigh the risks. One organizer in New York, Dex Kotze, told AFP: "We are protesting against the political leaders of the world, who do not have the guts and political will to make changes in their laws."
In South Africa, the movement has called for minimum prison sentences of ten years for first time offenders. Molewa argues that steps are being taken to seriously combat the criminal syndicates who are decimating South Africa's wildlife and she is keen to emphasize that the South African government do see this as a serious criminal offence that they are committed to disrupting and dismantling. She dismisses suggestions that sentences of convicted poachers are too light by citing the case of a Thai national who, two years ago, was sentenced to a 40-year prison term for killing a rhino for its horn. This was later reduced to 20 years on appeal as there is currently no prescribed sentence in South Africa law for poaching.
"This is a wakeup call to say let's go and do something about the law and it's for that reason that I spoke to the police minister and he agreed that we should speak to the Justice Minister," Molewa said. "So at least there is a discussion in the justice arena to bring in minimum sentencing."
One part of the world that was conspicuous by its near complete absence from the global march was East Asia. The political situation in Hong Kong led to the postponement of the city's rally from October 4 to November 1, meaning that there was no event in China, the leading market for illegal ivory. A march had been planned in Hanoi, Vietnam — the world's largest consumer of rhino horn — but in the end it did not go ahead.
Critics say there is only so much South Africa and other African countries can do when demand in regions such as East Asia is so high. While anti-poaching measures such as more stringent restrictions and tougher sentencing are key, it is only with a widespread change of attitude in the products' main markets that the battle can really be won.
It is a problem which Molewa is keen to see brought into the discussion. "We do appreciate the fact that people who come from the West support us in this fight, but it is important never to lose sight of the fact that there could be faster attainment of results if we involve those living in those (Asian) countries, because surely it is not everybody who lives in Vietnam or China, for instance, who agrees with this poaching taking place wherever it may be."
"It is for that reason that we approached the East Asian countries directly and said to them, we need to work with you, so we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations)," Molewa said. "We have received groups from Vietnam, taken them to Kruger and they've seen how awful a killed rhino looks like, and they've gone back to their country and started a movement of doing things like marching and raising awareness."
Such efforts have had some success. Last week, a study conducted for CITES and the Humane Society International (HSI) found that demand in Vietnam had dropped by 38 percent in the past year following a major public information drive.
Teresa M. Telecky, director of HSI's wildlife department for HSI, said the results showed that demand reduction campaigns could dramatically alter public perception and behavior.
"Insatiable demand for rhino horn is driving rhinos to the brink of extinction, so reducing that demand is absolutely crucial," she said.
"The results offer a vital ray of hope for the survival of rhinos."