By Sharon van Wyk
Tourism’s role in combatting the scourge of rhino and elephant poaching was touched on briefly at last week's international conference on the risks of legalizing trade in rhino horn but did not emphasize the importance of that role enough.
The conference, held in Pretoria, illustrated both the international concern at the South African government's plans to lobby CITES to lift the ban on the trade in horn and the weaknesses in these proposals.
It also touched on the incredible value that wild rhino have in attracting international tourists to African destinations like Kenya, Tanzania and, indeed, South Africa.
As one of the fabled "Big Five," the rhino has been used to help market the continent to the global travel community for decades, and yet the travel industry has been slow to take a stance on or even engage with the South African government on their plans for a legal trade.
Dr Ben Okita-Ouma, rhino coordinator at the Kenya Wildlife Service, told the conference that rhino, along with other members of the Big Five - elephant, buffalo, leopard and lion - is a major attraction that international tourists want to see in the wild as part of their African safari experience. He pointed out that due to the drastic drop in numbers in elephants, which are being poached at a rate of 100 animals a day, the loss of lions from habitat reduction and to feed demand for lion carcasses in the Far East and rhino poaching decimating rhino populations, Africa could soon be facing a "Big Two" scenario.
Kenya and its neighbor, Tanzania, depend on tourism for a significant proportion of their annual GDP, and in South Africa tourism's contribution to the economy regularly outstrips mining.
Last year South African Tourism spent R755-million on marketing the country and a further R82-million on consultants to raise the profile of the Rainbow Nation internationally. A significant part of that marketing effort concentrates on the country's wildlife, including the Big Five and, especially, rhino.
Economist, Professor Melville Saayman of North West University focused on the "value" of rhino in tourism terms and said that his research has found that tourists are willing to pay more to see rhino than ever before, and want to see rhino in the wild "before it's too late".
But while rhino are actively used to market South Africa to international tourists, the tourism industry has been slow to take a stance on the plans to legalese horn and the serious threats this places on remaining populations of wild rhino both in Africa and in Asia. "How are we going to market the "Big Four" if we lose our wild rhino?" asked Prof Saayman.
The tourism industry is one of the rhino's most valuable allies, however it's an ally which needs to now apply itself decisively to doing the right thing, rather than expecting a flawed government policy and a handful of private stakeholders to save an entire species.