By Cameron Duncan
Over the course of the last two or three years, the plight of African rhinos has become an issue of international concern. With Eastern demand for rhino horn products seemingly ever increasing, the numbers of rhinos poached annually is skyrocketing to potentially fatal levels –but what is actually being done about it? The Southern African Tourism Services Association (SATSA) – of which we are a member – recently hosted an informative presentation by renowned wildlife activist Colin Bell about just that. What follows is a synopsis of Mr. Bell’s extremely enlightening presentation.
Colin Bell is a longtime proponent of sustainable ecotourism and has several decades of experience under his belt in his various capacities at Wilderness Safaris and Great Plains Conservation. Now a fulltime conservation activist, Colin has used his extensive network and skillset to highlight African issues such as community development, poaching and habitat loss. His real passion though is the preservation of the African White and Black rhino – an animal for which he has a deep affinity.
The figures are truly staggering. In 2014, there is an estimated maximum of 25 000 rhinos left in the wild and this number could be inflated by as much as 5000. At present, we are losing over a thousand rhinos per year and climbing. Just a month or so ago, Mozambique lost their very last wild rhino to poaching. There are no more wild rhinos in Mozambique. That sentence is one we do not want to ever repeat for other African countries, and it could apply to South Africa in as little as five years time…[sic\.
At this stage you are probably wondering why are more people buying rhino horns? What has changed in the last three years? The answers to these questions are multifaceted and encompass both social and cultural considerations. Firstly, there has been an incredible growth of the Asian middleclass. This has lead to greater demand for substances that were previously the preserve of the elite – such as rhino horn, which is believed to have aphrodisiac properties. Secondly, there was an unsubstantiated claim made in Vietnam that rhino horn has cancer-fighting abilities. These two factors have sent demand sky high. In fact a recent WWF survey determined that while 5% of the population in Vietnam’s biggest cities Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh are currently using rhino horn products, a whopping 16% still aspire to. Scary stuff indeed!
The trade of illicit rhino horn is big business. The estimated street value of the horns from poached rhinos in 2013 exceeds three billion Rand. That money is being used to finance militias, to buy arms and to fund terrorism. The recent terror attacks in Kenya were committed by an organization that derives almost all its funding from rhino horn trade. This is a global issue, not just an African one.
All throughout Africa, some of the poorest communities live on the fringes of pristine wilderness and national parks. They have become increasingly marginalized and do not see enough benefit from tourism and conservation to actively pursue it. Little wonder then that they turn to poaching as a means to support their family. In South Africa, 60-80% of the illegal rhino horn passes through Mozambique right through these very same ‘fringe’ communities.
Having played his part in several successful rhino reintroductions in Botswana and Namibia, Colin has now shifted focus to South Africa – a country where 80% of all African rhinos are located. He envisions a scenario such as that in Damaraland, Namibia, where reintroduced rhino now freely roam across thousands of kilometers without being poached. The reason for this is that the local communities are stakeholders in the project and it is in their interests to ensure the rhinos conservation. It is this sort of ‘holistic’ approach that we need to implement in South Africa.
Colin proposes a number of solutions that, when implemented together, have a real chance of combatting not just rhino horn trade, but illegal wildlife trade generally. These are:
- Integrate communities: The communities around national parks need to be consulted and considered. Their lives need to improve in order for any real change to be lasting and effective,
- Make use of technical advancements: The United States military has developed an incredibly advanced mobile field unit that is capable of observing areas as large as 50 hectares. This technology is capable of identifying animals, humans and even weapons from incredible distances. Costing $1million each, they’re not cheap, but they are obtainable.
- International lobbying and diplomacy: With enough pressure, changes will be made. Chinese demand for shark fin almost halved recently when the Chinese government took shark fin soup off all official menus due to international pressure.
- Establish a National Capital Tourism Fund: Colin proposes that an extra 1% be added to all tourism related fees and that that money goes towards National conservation endeavors.
Although the situation is dire, it is not yet critical. There are positive developments being made – this talk to key stakeholders in the South African tourism industry being just one example. Colin and his team are mobilizing and a movement is building. We’ll be sure to keep you in the loop as we join forces to keep our wildlife around for many generations to come.