by Professor Keith Somerville, ICWS Senior Research Fellow
Swaziland has submitted a proposal on the legalisation of trade in rhino horn to the Conference of the Parties to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), which opens in Johannesburg from 24th September. The small southern African kingdom – home to 73 white rhino and an estimated 18 black rhino – wants permission to sell its small stock of rhino horn from natural mortality and seizures from poachers and to have a small annual quota to sell horn collected from its two national parks that house and protect rhino.
The Swazi bid in detail
Ted Reilly, the veteran Swazi conservationist who runs the Hlane and Mkhaya Royal National Parks and is the kingdom’s CITES representative, told me that the income that would be derived from legal sales is desperately needed to provide the tight security needed to protect the rhinos from poachers, to pay game rangers a decent wage to remove the temptation of accepting bribes to help or turn a blind eye to poachers, and to ensure that the protected areas can also benefit poor rural communities. Swaziland, for all the pomp and wealth of King Mswati III, is a very poor country with a per capita income of $7 per day on average and far less in the rural, subsistence or cash crop farming areas around the national parks. He, with support from the government of the king, who fully supports the CITES bid, wants to bring in income to ensure both conservation and development.
The official bid submitted to CITES by Swaziland says that “proceeds from the sale of stocks will raise approximately $9.9 million at a wholesale price of $30,000 per kg. That amount will be placed in an endowment fund to yield approximately $600,000 p.a. In addition, the proceeds of the annual sale of 20 kg will raise a further $600,000 pa, bringing total recurrent annual revenue from horn to $1.2 million”, which would make a huge difference to resources available for protection, development of wider conservation programmes in protected areas and benefit staff and local communities.
South Africa was expected to make a bid to CITES for trade legalisation but, following the deliberations of a committee of inquiry, decided not to. Swaziland took up the trade baton at the last moment and brought down upon itself the self-righteous wrath of animal welfare and conservation NGOs in Europe and America.
At a debate on rhino horn in London on 3rd August, Will Travers of the Born Free Foundation totally rejected the Swazi proposal as “deeply flawed” and selectively misquoted the South African conservationist Ian Player (who almost single-handedly saved the world’s white rhino population) to try to undermine the bid. In South Africa at the beginning of September, I spoke to John Forrest and David Cook, who worked with Player in KwaZulu-Natal during the programme to save the wild rhino and reintroduce it throughout southern Africa, and they said Travers’ quotes were a total misrepresentation and ignored Player’s support, albeit reluctant, for the use of a legal trade to fund rhino conservation.
Leakey leads the attack on Swazi bid
The strongest attack on Swaziland came from Dr Richard Leakey, the chair of the Kenya Wildlife Service which burned the biggest ever stockpile of seized horn at the end of April. He was quoted by the UK Guardian newspaper as saying, “Swaziland will be seen for what it is, a puppet.” Jason Bell of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) launched an equally vituperative attack, saying “Resorting to legalization of rhino horn trade as a way to reduce poaching of rhinos is a theoretic assumption which fails to take market dynamics and consumer preferences into consideration… Swaziland’s proposal is not only biologically unsound, but politically naïve too. The international community has made it clear that there is no room for discussion when it comes to proposing trade in rhino horn in any form whatsoever…and IFAW urges Parties to OPPOSE this proposal.” (IFAW’s emphasis retained in the quote). But no evidence was presented in this swipe at the Swazis to demonstrate why a legal trade was “biologically unsound”. IFAW claimed to be backed by expert opinion but the expert it quoted was its own Asia programme director and not an independent conservation practitioner or peer-reviewed academic specialist.
The influential and more measured Save the Rhino Trust was more guarded, but its director, Cathy Dean, commented, “The wording of Swaziland’s proposal makes clear that it was submitted at the eleventh hour after it became clear that South Africa was not going to table one. One wonders how much influence certain pro-trade advocates had on Swaziland’s decision to gauge international reaction via this proposal to the possibility of a legal trade in rhino horn.” Save the Rhino does not oppose trade or sustainable use per se but is wary of committing itself until there is a more definite and structured plan for how a trade would take place and indications of how viable it would be as a means of ending poaching and conserving rhinos across the range states.
Swaziland proposes that “Big Game Parks, the CITES Management Authority in Swaziland, will be the sole seller and horn will be sold directly to a small number of licenced retailers, which is likely to include Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospitals, in the Far East provided that CITES agrees to the trade and approves Swaziland’s trade partners. All horn will be properly documented and recorded on a DNA database and recorded on a national register and with TRAFFIC [the Cambridge-based body that monitors international wildlife trade]”. Ted Reilly is head of Big Game Parks, which runs the two national parks and the Mlilwane Sanctuary and is the Swazi CITES representative.
Opposition at CITES but consensus cracking
Cathy Dean rightly predicts that CITES will not agree the Swazi proposal. It needs to be approved by two-thirds of the 182 member countries at the CITES meeting and this will not happen. The Swazi proposers of the legal trade are in no doubt, themselves, that this will be the case. But following a meeting of the region-wide Southern African Development Community in Swaziland in late August, a Swazi MP and the most senior civil servant in the Tourism Ministry told me that there was considerable sympathy for the Swazi position in southern Africa, especially Namibia. But so far the indications are that while Namibia might support Swaziland and possibly Zimbabwe, South Africa is less likely to do so and Botswana certainly won’t. A member of the official South African committee of inquiry which advised the Zuma government not to legalise the trade, told me in early September that support for the proposal was highly unlikely as South Africa felt the bid was premature and that no viable trade mechanism or safeguards had been worked out. Until a watertight trade system was worked out with security from penetration by illegal traders was put together, my informant felt that South Africa would not throw its weight behind a legalisation bid.
Although John Scanlon, secretary general at CITES, has been quoted as saying that the consensus for several years on banning international trade in horn and ivory was beginning to tear and “completely opposite viewpoints” would be aired in Johannesburg, he has tried not to be drawn on the pros and cons of a legal rhino horn trade, admitting that “The history of the convention has shown well-regulated legal trade can work for people and species, but it’s very species- and region-specific”.
But the CITES secretariat has already indicated that it opposes the Swazi proposal. As soon as this became evident, according to veteran southern African conservationist and former WWF Africa director John Hanks, the Swazi CITES team led by Ted Reilly, with support from the King’s legal adviser David Millin, started to draft a letter to request a change in the Secretariat’s position on the proposal. Hanks, Reilly and Pelham Jones (the head of South Africa’s private Rhino Owners Association, PROA) all told me that the Swazi bid was an important step forward and Reilly and Jones vehemently denied that Swaziland was acting as a puppet for the South African private rhino owners, who are very keen see the development of a regulated, legal trade to fund their rhino breeding ventures.
How would a legal trade work?
If the visceral opposition of animal welfare NGOs and governments like Kenya was expected and will be a severe obstacle to those pressing the case for a legal trade as a means of conserving rhinos across southern and eastern Africa’s range states (where there are now between 5,042 and 5,455 black rhino and 19,682-21,077 white – though with over 5,500 poached across Africa over the last 10 years to feed the huge demand for horn, with prices at $60,000 per kg), an equally hard obstacle to overcome is the search for a viable, secure and sustainable trading system. Ted Reilly told me that his proposal before CITES did not have a fully worked out system for trade because until there was an indication that trade would be agreed it wouldn’t be possible to be precise and the former must come first. But CITES and other range states will want a much clearer picture of trade plans at or after CITES, as the debate won’t end with the expected rejection of the Swazi bid.
The objectives of legal trade are not just that it would generate income for the uses already outlined but it would also weaken market support for the illegal trade by providing a regular supply of risk-free horn and could serve to reduce the price so that it cuts profits from poaching (and so alter the profit v risk equation for the poachers and crime syndicates). The combination of heightened security, community benefits from conservation and lower profits from smuggled horn would diminish the illegal commerce and help reduce poaching substantially – though no one to whom I talked in the pro-trade camp felt poaching would disappear completely.
But there is no one plan or evidence of sufficient joined-up thinking on exactly how trade would work. The Swazi bid puts forward a target price of $30,000 per kg (half the black market rate), while Pelham Jones of PROA put it to me that his private owners in South Africa, could sell horn at $10,000, undercutting criminal profits and forcing them to sell more cheaply which combined with increased risk could help drive them from the market.
A pro-trade business and investment specialist, Michael Eustace, has put forward a totally different set of ideas, arguing that “in the rhino horn market, you do not want competition amongst the sellers if it leads to a drop in the horn price, because that will lead to higher demand, which cannot be satisfied in the long term. If you sell 3 000 horns a year at lower prices, you will run out of stock in five years. What then?“ He suggests, taking his model from the old De Beers diamond cartel, the formation of a Central Selling Organisation (CSO) that controls volumes and prices. It would sell, he forecasts, 400 horns a year from stocks, 300 from natural deaths, and 500 from farmed horn. He says that “China should agree to be our partners in trade, subject to CITES first agreeing to trade. Why would they not prefer a legal trade? Nobody wants to accommodate criminals.” But China, and the other main market for illegal horn, show no sign of agreeing to this. They have been urged to clamp down on their domestic trade and the illegal importation of horn into their countries and are hardly likely now to suddenly jump at legalising and being willing to become open trading partners when most CITES states and lobby groups are violently opposed to it.
Some trade supporters, such as business specialist Jane Wiltshire, have even suggested to me that you should bring the current criminal “kingpins” of the illegal trade into a legal trading system to get them onside. This ignores the major problem that the criminal syndicates involved are not just buying rhino horn illegally because there is not legal trade, but are also heavily involved in drugs, gun-running and the people trade. They are professional criminal networks and not legal traders criminalised by a CITES decision. Any serious promotion of this view could consign the chances of a legal trade to the dustbin of conservation history. Leakey, Travers and conservation NGOs would have a field day if such suggestions were part of a future trade plan.
A long road to find a solution
It is clear that the Swazi proposal at CITES will fail. However, Swaziland and those private owners in South Africa (and perhaps the governments of Namibia and Zimbabwe) who want a free trade will not stop there. I was told in Swaziland and South Africa that there will be a concerted effort to get SADC member states to support trade legalisation and the campaign will continue. Certainly, to me, the arguments for a legal trade to develop sustainable-use, community-friendly programmes of conservation, anti-poaching and rural development are very strong and could be one way forward to combat the illegal trade and ensure the survival of viable wild and privately-held rhino populations. But, and it is a but as big as a rhino’s substantial butt, there has to be a much more concerted effort to work out a secure, regulated and internationally-accepted trade model to sell to likely buyers and, crucially, to CITES member states in the years to come.
There must also be an attempt to overcome the trench-warfare between pro- and anti- camps. Leakey, Travers, Bell and other NGO heads refer to Swaziland as puppets and also say PROA and other trade supporters act out of greed and care little for the rhinos. Some of the South African private rhino owners and Ted Reilly deride their opponents as bunny-huggers or allege all sorts of malicious intent in those opposing the trade. This will not help the rhinos. Compromise and alliance-building on behalf of rhinos and those who live alongside them and those who seek to protect them is the only answer – but it sadly seems a long way off.
Professor Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London; teaches journalism at the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent; his book – Ivory Power and Poaching in Africa is published in November 2016. He is grateful to the Comanis Foundation for funding and organizing his research trip.