Rhino Poaching in South Africa by Ron Thompson

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Rhino Poaching in South Africa
Ron Thompson at SAHGCA annual congress 2012

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. It is an honour for me to address you this evening. I already feel ‘at home’ because I know I am in the company of kindred spirits.

Although I have spent the last 53 years working for wildlife in national parks, or researching and writing about controversial wildlife management issues, I am not an expert on what is going on in South Africa today – vis-a-vis the current commercial poaching of our rhinos. There are many people in this country who are far more qualified to talk on this subject. Why then did I not just decline the request and suggest the selection of another speaker? The answer opens up a whole can-of-worms which I now propose to expose.

The problem with today’s commercial rhino poaching epidemic – and its solution – is complex. Asking anyone to give a coherent address on this single subject, therefore, is like asking him to describe one piece of a giant jigsaw puzzle whilst ignoring all the other pieces. The importance of that single piece lies in the fact that it is an integral part of a much bigger picture; and its significance will only be clear when all the pieces are put together.

The answers to everybody’s questions about the current rhino poaching can be found only within this bigger picture. There are no shortcuts. And if we tackle this problem in isolation – looking for instant success with the rhino poaching epidemic – we may as well throw in the towel right now

My opinion of the South African wildlife management ‘bigger picture’ is that it is in one hell of a mess right across the board! It is autocratic, over-regulated and its ‘control’ is excessively top heavy. Furthermore, the opinions of those people who know what is best for our wildlife – the practitioners – the people who utilise the resource and depend upon it for their livelihoods – have been largely marginalised.

It is because I want SA Hunters and its members to understand this truth that I agreed to speak to you this evening.

Before I begin, I need to explain a few things.

The big stick solution to controlling rhino poaching.

The current effort to stop rhino poaching is only a stop-gap solution. The ‘big stick’ we are currently wielding has no chance of success, on its own, in the longer term.

It is, nevertheless, a vital step in the right direction although the stick is not nearly big enough. I would like to see very heavy mandatory gaol sentences being imposed on anybody and everybody who is found to be involved with the poaching of rhinos. Furthermore, when officials in our wildlife agencies are involved, the prescribed sentences should be doubled! When game ranchers and veterinarians are the culprits their properties should be confiscated and their licences revoked forever. And finally, when helicopters are used to poach rhinos from the air, they should be shot out of the sky.

THAT is how I feel about the current state of affairs. I support whatever measures are necessary to protect our rhinos no matter how Draconian they might be.

Throughout history nations have gone to war to protect their natural resources, or to protect their trade routes. Using its natural resources, and trading with others for theirs, is a matter of survival for every nation. The wars in the Middle East – over oil – are a fine example. Wildlife is South Africa’s ‘oil’- as is the country’s land, water, crops, livestock and people. Figuratively, we must be prepared to ‘go to war’ to protect all these assets because they are an integral part of our life support system. That is why I support all-out-war on commercial poaching.

We cannot expect the authorities to tell us everything that is going on in this war. To explain the anti-poaching units’ battle plans and tactics to the general public would be playing into the hands of the poachers. From what I have read about the anti-poaching efforts being conducted at this time, however – and what I read between the lines – I must congratulate those concerned for doing a superb job. I believe the correct action is being taken and I don’t pretend to have a better short-term solution. Although what is being done may not be enough!

The de-horning solution to controlling rhino poaching.

I don’t know as much about white rhinos as I do about black rhinos, but I need to comment on the dehorning programmes that have been taking place recently; and that have been suggested as a general solution to the poaching. It seems an easy answer to the problem. Cut off the rhinos’ horns and you remove the incentive for poachers to kill them! And dehorning seems to work well with the gregarious white rhino.

I have grave doubts, however, about cutting the horns off the much more aggressive, solitary, and very different black rhino.

There is a rigid rank structure in black rhino bull society where, from about the age of four, young bulls constantly spar with each other – testing their respective strengths. In later life this behaviour results in the establishment of a hierarchy amongst the bulls; and only dominant bulls hold down territories.

Once they reach the dominant and sub-dominant stage, black rhino bulls avoid conflict by showing submission to those of higher rank. Consider, therefore, what will happen to a dominant bull if it is darted and its horns removed – when the subdominant bulls are allowed (even for a short while) to keep their weaponry! And we must understand that when a dominant bull is deposed its days are numbered – because it not only loses its territory; it loses its home range; it loses its rank; and, from then on, it is attacked by every other bull it comes into contact with.

Spotted hyenas are the greatest predator of the black rhino, accounting for the deaths of more rhino calves in the first six months of their lives than any other. A pack of hyenas make short work of a rhino calf when it only has its mother to defend it. So critical is this predator to the black rhino species that cows become nomads for the first several months of their new babies’ lives; and the babies are hidden far from water, at night, when the mother goes to a waterhole to drink. These behaviours, and her horns, are all the black rhino cow has to defend her baby. Cut her horns off and the next pack of hyenas that come along will have her baby for supper.

The gregarious white rhino doesn’t seem to have this problem.

Dehorning black rhinos, therefore, might be as much a death knell for the species as are the poachers.

The various faces of rhino poaching.

There are essentially two facets to rhino poaching in South Africa. The first is that which takes place in Kruger National Park; and in the game reserves of Kwa-Zulu Natal. The other is poaching on private land. Their respective solutions will be very different.

The ‘big stick’ solution is designed to stop current poaching activity by force. Given the trends of the human population dynamics in Africa, however, this solution, on its own, is undesirable and cannot succeed. South Africa HAS to look at better long term alternatives; ones that will have the support of society – including the rural people who live in close proximity to the national park boundaries.

To succeed, in the long term, we have to supplement ‘the big stick’ with ‘a big carrot’.

Traditional ‘native’ poaching in Africa was nothing more than ‘illegal’ hunting – that is, ‘hunting without a licence’. Whatever you might call it, poaching has always been the means by which rural people obtain wild meat to augment their agricultural livelihoods. As the human rural population expanded, however, subsistence poaching took on greater importance. It became commercial!

Nowadays – in the case of rhino poaching – it has evolved into a means of ‘getting rich quick’ for many people. And it is no longer a pursuit of ‘just’ the poor rural folk – for whom I have great sympathy.

Solving problems

If you want to solve a problem – any problem – you have to remove its ‘proximate’ or ‘underlying’ cause. For example, if you want to remove AIDS from society you first have to eliminate its proximate ‘cause’ – HIV. No matter what you do, if HIV is allowed to persist, you will never eradicate AIDs.

Likewise, if you want to stop poaching you first HAVE to identify its proximate causes, because, unless you do THAT – and remove them from the equation – there is no chance at all that you can stop the poaching; ANY poaching.

POVERTY is the driving force behind most of today’s poaching. And poverty is closely linked to unemployment. Together they also represent the principle cause of most general crime in South Africa today. This situation is not new. We have been moving in this direction for the last 50 years. When poverty started to run rife in Africa – and after colonialism collapsed – from about 1970 onwards – poaching became a means of survival for many families; and that changed the stakes forever.

Rural people started to poach to survive. I would have done the same had I been in their shoes. So would all of you here tonight! People who are poverty stricken will do ANYTHING to stay alive, even risking their lives. That is why ‘the big stick’ will not – on its own – provide a lasting solution.

In general terms, the most important long term solution to poaching in South Africa is to eliminate poverty in all those communities that harbour poachers. This will be easier to do in the case of Kruger National Park, however, than it will be on isolated game ranches in commercial farming areas.

The implications of the human population explosion in Africa

In very rough terms, the ‘rural’ human populations of Africa are doubling their numbers every 20 to 30 years. Since the turn of the last century (1900) the overall populations of sub-Saharan Africa have increased from 95 million people to 622 million. This has huge implications for the long term survival of Africa’s wildlife.

Consider that, in 1950 – when Africa was relatively stable and peaceful – a rural family (average 8 people) made a comfortable and sustainable living from their crops and domestic livestock, on limited land allocated by its tribal chief. By the year 2000, however, the human rural population had expanded five-fold. That meant 40 people were striving to make a living off that same piece of land; and the land could not support that number. By the year 2020 there will likely be10 families (80 people) living on that same piece of land; by 2040 – 20 families (160 people); and by 2050 there will be 28 families (224 people) trying to live off an allotment that supported one family in the 1950s.

By the year 2050 there will be four times as many people living alongside Kruger National Park as there are TODAY. They will probably be more poverty-stricken than they are today, and the majority will be unemployed. Their daily purpose will then be to survive – at any cost.

And right alongside them will be a virtual cornucopia of valuable wildlife resources; including elephants with valuable tusks; rhinos with even more valuable horns; and all other animals carrying meat that they can eat. Indeed, I will predict that poaching for meat – especially with wire and cable snares – will by then have become rife and be a far more important problem than the poaching of rhinos for their horns.

Aghast though we might be, therefore, at the present level of rhino poaching for their horns, we have to understand that this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a whole lot more to come!

The solutions:

(1). An international and legal rhino horn trade

The solution that many private rhino owners are trying to implement – to solve their rhino poaching problem – is the opening of a legal international trade in rhino horn. They want to ‘farm’ white rhinos and to harvest their horns at appropriate intervals. This could easily be done because rhino horns re-grow quite rapidly after being painlessly sawn off; and South Africa can produce legal rhino horn, annually, in greater quantities than the current rate at which rhino horn is procured from poaching. The rhino ranchers reason that this will subdue the demand, and the price, for the illegal product. Ipso facto, it should reduce poaching.

Furthermore, several farsighted (white) rhino owners are advocating that the black people of South Africa should be guided and properly financed to enter this potentially very lucrative ‘agricultural’ practice, too.

Whether all this will work, or not, is not the issue! What is important is the realisation that what is happening now is not sustainable. Any new solution that might work – and that might turn the tables on the poachers – therefore, is worth a try. I therefore give this proposal my ‘thumbs-up’. South Africa has everything to gain if it succeeds and nothing to lose if it doesn’t. I believe this idea should be tested.

The biggest hurdle to this proposal is CITES – which is now a dysfunctional, self-corrupted and thoroughly misguided international organisation that was designed to regulate international trade in wildlife and wildlife products. Nevertheless, if South Africa is to practise a transparent international legal trade in rhino horn, it will require CITES approval – and I doubt that that will ever be obtained.

In 1975 South Africa joined the newly formed CITES organisation and voluntarily gave up its sovereign right to make its own decisions on international trade in its wildlife and wildlife products. At the same time, it agreed to abide by whatever decisions the collective membership of CITES made in these regards. CITES comprises 177 other sovereign states which meet every two years to debate, and to vote upon, all international wildlife trade issues.

Since 1975, however, CITES has allowed the ‘accreditation’ of NGOs to broaden its opinion and advice base. These NGOs are accountable to no one; they do not have a vote at CITES (votes, one each, are confined to the sovereign state members); but they are allowed, and encouraged, to participate in CITES debates at all levels. The NGOs, therefore, have considerable ‘persuasion power’ inside ALL the corridors of CITES; and the greatest majority of these NGOs are rabid animal rightists. Their purpose in life is to ABOLISH all ‘animal utilisation’ practices – including trade. They joined CITES, therefore, to put a spanner in the works of just such proposals as the South Africans are now suggesting – the opening up of a legal trade in rhino horn. And the current secretary general of CITES seems to be a staunch ‘fellow-traveller’. He has become the ‘Heil Hitler’ of the CITES animal rights brigade.

Without any doubt, the time has come for South Africa to resign from CITES and to reclaim its sovereign right to manage ALL its wildlife affairs the way its sees fit. If it does not do so, whatever international trade solutions honest South Africans propose – with regards, for example, the poaching of its rhinos – will come to nought. And this state of affairs is likely to continue because, it seems, the government of South Africa does not understand this CITES debacle; it does not WANT to understand it; and it doesn’t have the guts to do anything to remedy this pernicious state of affairs.

2. Integrating the needs of national parks with the needs of local people

The poaching of rhinos in Kruger National Park is carried out by South Africans; or by others supported by South Africans – except for the poachers that come across the border from Mozambique. Some poachers have entered the park posing as tourists – and they are brazen enough to shoot rhinos in broad daylight not far from the tourist game viewing drives. Most of Kruger’s general poachers, and poacher supporters, however, come from the indigenous rural communities that live on the park boundaries.

Those of us who have lived with African rural communities all our lives understand that within African rural society everybody knows everybody else’s business. The people all know ‘what is going on’. Those who are poachers within their midst are well known to the people of these communities. And when strangers come and go, no matter how secretive they may be, many people know that they have come and gone – and why! When poachers come from far afield they use local people to guide them on their nefarious activities; and, in the case of the current rhino poaching, they pay their helpers good money for their services and for their silence. And the destitute communities support this.

When people are poor and unemployed it is easy for them to be enticed into becoming rhino poachers by city-slicker criminals. It is also easy for poachers from further afield to persuade local people to guide them and to help them kill rhinos inside the park. No matter which way you look at the problem, therefore, the park’s neighbour communities are ‘key’ to finding a solution to the poaching problem. If we can get these rural folk ‘on sides’ with the park authorities, therefore, the battle against the rhino poachers CAN be won.

The prescription within this scenario must be to remove the ‘proximate causes’ that induce the local people to poach; or that makes them agreeable to helping poachers from further afield. To be successful, therefore, the solution must seriously alleviate poverty and provide legitimate employment. This will cost money. Lots of money! And it will require a strategy that creates a win-win situation for everybody.

My proposed solution is radical but it is workable; and it will create the desirable win-win situation. Furthermore, it will generate in the local people’s hearts and minds an ‘emotional ownership’ over ‘their’ national park and ‘their’ wild animals. This is a vital ingredient of the plan.

I have called my proposal ‘The African Wildlife Initiative Programme’ – A.W.I.P. Its essential ingredient is the integration of the ‘needs’ of the national park (which is to stop poaching) and the ‘needs’ of the park’s neighbour communities (which is to alleviate poverty and create jobs). The wild animals in the park will provide the capital. I sincerely believe there is no better and affordable solution to the problem of saving not just rhinos – but ALL of Africa’s wildlife – into posterity. And there is no reason at all why the Mozambique communities immediately across the border should not be included the programme.

My credentials for making this proposal include the fact that I have worked in wildlife management circles all my life; and I have administered some of Africa’s biggest and most prestigious game reserves. I have also captured, on my two flat feet, 140 black rhinos; and some 20 white rhinos. I have also worked with and around Africa’s rural people, in close association with wildlife, for most of my working life. I am confident, therefore, that what I am about to propose to you WILL work if it is applied. The biggest problem will be to have the proposal accepted by government and by society-at-large.

This is a boots-and-all proposal. Nevertheless, I believe its application will work in EVERY large big-game national park in Africa.

I propose that the national park – whichever one you wish to use as an example – should form a unit, a greater whole, with the African rural communities that surround it; the park’s ‘neighbour communities’.

The neighbour communities should be mapped and their tribal affiliations recorded. Every village should be logged by GPS. The village headmen should be identified and the family members listed – as occurs with a normal census. Members of the families who are working away from home should be recorded. And only those same-clan villages located within a reasonable distance of the park boundary, should be included.

AWIP will not work if the neighbour communities include every Tom, Dick and Harry in the country. It is NOT a magic wand that can address ALL of Africa’s woes. Hence the need to properly identify and enumerate the neighbour communities from the very beginning!

They should then be presented with a dispensation – an offer to benefit from the judicious harvest of specified wild animals from within and around the park – provided they agree to STOP POACHING. There must be no ‘hand outs’. The people must EARN – with their honest cooperation – everything that they get from this arrangement.

The park administration would, at that point, start to manage the national park as a ‘wildlife production unit’. Conservation priorities will be for the soil, the plants (habitats) and the animals – in that order of importance. Establishing a sustainable balance between these three elements will become the essence of management; and the maintenance of biological diversity will become its cardinal purpose. The wild animals of the park will be considered harvestable ‘wild products of the land’.

The park will be run by a team of business managers – trained to achieve their objectives by working with and through other people. Wildlife scientists would then comprise one of the administration’s multiple ‘staff’ branches – providing ‘advice and service’ to the Chief Executive Officer. PhD’s are not trained to manage ‘people’!

Tourism would continue as normal and be superimposed on the wildlife management programme. The animals and their habitats would be ‘managed’ in a very hands-on fashion. Any and all current, irrational and bunny-hugging ‘non-intervention’ wildlife management policies will be abandoned and be replaced with a realistic policy of sustainable ‘extractive-resource-use’. Hunting within the park, coupled with humane culling, capture and the judicious use of fire, will become the principal tools of wild animal management programmes – which will NOT clash with game viewing tourism.

The values of the community benefits will be listed on an annual animal pricelist drawn up by the national park administration; endorsed by the park’s neighbour communities. These values could increase or decrease, annually, depending on the degree of attainment of the programme’s goals.

An elephant, for example, might be valued, initially, at R 50 000; a white rhino at R 150 000; and a buffalo at R 20 000. Other animals will have different values. These prices I call ‘community levies’. Every animal in the park – including fish and vultures – would appear on the list and be allocated a community levy value. The community levy values of all these animals could (and should) be increased if the financial realties make that possible. The higher their value to the local communities, the more will this proposal be effective! It will crash if it is parsimonious.

The park administration would institute controlled hunting programmes inside and around the park, at a very high cost price to hunters. The national park would add additional fees (to the levy values) to obtain its own financial rewards from the programme – but the community levies would be the first bills the hunters would have to pay. The acquired monies would be placed directly into a community levy fund, in a commercial bank, by the park manager (to obviate civil service corruption).

To render the explanation simple, I am now going to confine my discussion, for a few minutes, to elephants.

Instead of culling ALL surplus elephants, I propose that the bull component of the culling quota be removed by high-fee-paying hunters; guided by experienced game rangers. The cows and juveniles on the culling quota would be removed by game rangers with self-loading R-1 rifles.

Let us say, that 100 bull elephants are placed on that year’s ‘community elephant quota’. Collectively they would be valued at R 5 million.

The dispensation would work on the basis of “the carrot and the stick” ideal. The communities would be promised the payment of R 5 million from legal elephant hunts at the end of the year, provided they kept their side of the bargain; that is, provided they stopped all poaching of elephants.

The R 5 million offer would be ‘the carrot’. For each and every elephant found poached, however, two elephants would come off the community quota. In practical terms, for every elephant poached, 2 x R 50 000 (R100 000) would be removed from the R 5 million the people had been promised. This would be ‘the stick’.

The values of ‘the carrot’ & ‘the stick’ could be increased or decreased annually. If poaching did not stop, the value of ‘the stick’ would be doubled the following year.

I predict that, after the values of the first punitive ‘sticks’ are extracted from the promised end-of-year monetary award, that elephant poaching will cease. The women in the communities will make sure of that. Very quickly, therefore, the neighbour communities would become convinced that it is in their own best interests to cooperate with the park authorities.

The same principle would apply, of course, to all other species that are legally hunted in the park.

A quota of 100 white rhinos, at R 150 000 each, would bring to the community an annual income of R 15 million; and for every white rhino poached R 300 000 would be deducted from the promised end-of-year monies. This would be a terrible blow to a community whose collective annual income is practically zero!

All these numbers and values can be manipulated, of course, any way you want.

Snares set in the park would incur a penalty also. A fine of R 100 for every snare found would be removed from the end of year monies also. A vulture might be valued at R 500. If a witch doctor then poisons a lion kill to obtain dead vultures for the traditional medicine market, twice the listed value of however many vultures he kills would be deducted from the end of year total, too; AND he would be prosecuted. Fish netted illegally in the park would cost the community yet more money in lost revenues – calculated per kilogramme.

In this way many millions of rands could be made available, annually, to the park’s neighbour communities; and – with high penalties for every animal poached – THE PEOPLE would control the poaching! Poaching, therefore, CAN be stopped.

But this would just be the start. My proposal includes the setting up of businesses within the areas occupied by the neighbour communities: tanneries to process elephant hide and to make leather from the skins of other animals; factories to produce high quality furniture from elephant hide and buffalo leather – for sale all over the world; factories to can venison sustainably harvested in the park; wild honey production from a modern system of bee-keeping; and fisheries. The options are limitless. And the community could buy shares in all of these businesses – making them their own. Employment opportunities would thus increase and the people’s living conditions would be uplifted.

And there is a lot more…..

In all these ways I believe a park’s neighbour communities could become its greatest custodians! They would also become the park’s richest source of anti-poaching intelligence – clandestinely passed on. The system could be structured in such a way that it is simply not in the local people’s interest to poach anything in the park at all.

Is this a pipe dream? Maybe! We will never know, however, until we put it into practice. And whilst considering this question we must not forget the alternative – the loss of ALL our wildlife inside 50 years! THAT is too terrible to contemplate!

My prediction is that if we do NOT put the AWIP proposal into operation soon – and very soon – or something very like it – poaching will get further and further out of control as the century advances. Within 50 years, remember, there will be four times as many poverty-stricken and unemployed people living on the borders of our national parks; there will be at least four times as many poachers as there are today; and poaching will, by then, be uncontrollable. There will then be no ‘wild’ rhinos left in our national parks. Indeed, there will be no kudu, impala or duiker left either; and tourism will be in tatters.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your attention. The message I have tried to convey is that, across the board, South Africa has strayed from the common sense principles and practices of wildlife management that made this country a world leader in ‘conservation’; AND – IF we wish to save our rhinos we need to look at the bigger picture in the longer term. We also need to address our wildlife management problems with a lot more common sense than we have been doing over the last several decades.
I have glossy copies of my AWIP proposal with me, and would be happy to supply a copy to any of you who might be interested in reading more about it.

Ron Thomson
P.O. Box 452,
Kenton-on-Sea 6191.

Email: magron@ripplesoft.co.za
Website: www.ronthomsonshuntingbooks.co.za.