Poaching Can Be Stopped.
Habitat Constrains Rhino Population Growth.
Poaching can be managed, if not eliminated entirely, if reserves have access to the funds needed, and if demand for horn can be satisfied through legal means. The availability of protected habitat is the critical issue for growth of African rhino, and it is getting worse as trade is delayed.
Poaching can be stopped. The four biggest private reserves have not lost a rhino to poaching in more than three years. Two of them have not lost an animal in more than five years. Protecting rhino so successfully is very costly, and it comes at great personal risk, but it can be done if enough money is available. Some reserves have invested in radar systems and thermal cameras to detect intrusion. Others that cannot afford such hardware rely instead on rangers and vigilance. Still others, unable to afford the salaries required to cover so much ground, suffer the worst of the poaching slaughter.
Poaching only happens because two realities collude to make it worthwhile. First, it is high reward. Second, it is low risk. If we could change either of those two factors, poaching would diminish significantly. If we could change both, poaching would be virtually eliminated from the extinction equation.
Trade changes both.
As will be discussed in greater depth in the chapter below dealing with Mistake #6, rhino reserves have enough horn to swamp the market with seven or eight times as much material as the poachers managed to send out in their most destructive year. Such a flood of product would decimate the prices for horn in Asian markets and make poaching far less financially rewarding than it is today. Suddenly, the criminal syndicates behind the poaching would find themselves competing for sales against reserves that have zero marginal production costs of production. In other words, the syndicates would still have to pay their poaching teams at least as much as they do today, to acquire the meagre 4-5 tonnes they typically manage in a year, but would be wildly undercut on the price they could earn for that horn when selling against reserves that are suddenly able to offer the 90 tonnes of horn that is already in storage and would otherwise rot.
In addition, the physical risks of poaching would shoot through the roof. Today, the syndicates – rich on the profits of horn in a market in which they enjoy a monopoly -- send wave after wave of well-equipped poachers against a handful of under-equipped rangers on reserves that earn nothing. When the income from horn goes instead to the reserves and the state, those currently underfunded reserves are empowered with access to the latest high-tech equipment. When all rhino custodians are able to implement the same sophisticated security infrastructure that has already made poaching against the best funded private operations a suicide mission, the syndicates will find few volunteers willing to die for the cause.
So poaching can be removed from the existential equation. But why does habitat then rise to the fore? Let’s look at the lessons of South African conservation history.
South Africa’s wildlife economy first sprang to life in the 1860’s, with ostriches. Hunting of the birds had been banned in 1821, as demand for the feathers, which were wildly popular with European ladies, took them to the brink of extinction. By 1865, the first 60 ostriches were in captive breeding programs. Ten years later, in 1875, South Africa had 32,000 ostriches in captive breeding operations, and nobody had any reason to bother the wild birds again. This massive success created an entire industry that remains to this day. It also saved the species from extinction. Even now, ostriches are highly endangered, and are listed on CITES Appendix I, for much of Central and North Africa, while in South Africa and Namibia, thanks to captive breeding programs (which are motivated by commercial trade) they are wildly abundant.
So, in the late 1980’s, when the conservation giants of the Natal Parks Board – Dr. Ian Player, Dr. George Hughes, and Dave Cook – found that their breeding success had produced more rhino than the national parks had land to hold, they looked to the successful ostrich model of harnessing private commercial self-interest to ensure that their burgeoning rhino population would be given room to expand and grow.
At the same time, the South African government recognized that they could dramatically increase the quantity of land made available for native wildlife if they introduced laws – the first of their kind in the world – allowing private individuals to own and profit from wildlife on land they provided for it. These laws gave farmers a reason to turn from cattle to wildlife, and to return huge tracts of previously agricultural land to its formerly wild state.
By harnessing the potential of private citizen conservation, South Africa created the world’s first fully-fledged wildlife economy. This private, commercially-driven conservation is why South Africa has better biodiversity today than at any point in the last 150 years. It is why South Africa has increased its wildlife numbers by 20x over the same 40 year period that has seen Botswana lose 45% of its wildlife and Kenya lose 85%. And, as we will see in a moment, it is why we still have rhino to discuss.
The excess rhino from Kruger and other parks, needing room to expand, were sold in small numbers Into this massive expansion of conservation via private investment. Private reserves invested, they learned, and their rhino populations bred and grew quickly.
If you are protecting 100 rhino or more, you can assume your average cost will be between R25,000 to R50,000 per rhino, per year, plus the capital cost of your initial investment. That means a spend of R4m to R12m. Every single year. (And if you protect over a thousand rhino, you can multiply that by 10-15 times.) If you are protecting fewer rhino, you will have many of the same costs, but they will be spread over fewer rhino. Thus, your average cost per rhino might be in the millions of Rands each year.
With absolutely no financial benefit to be enjoyed, and such peril and expense required to keep them alive, fewer and fewer private reserve owners are willing to take the risk of owning rhino. Without a market willing to buy them, prices for rhino have been in free fall for several years. So now, it costs more to feed a rhino mother and calf than you can earn if you sell that calf when it matures. To summarize, protecting rhino has gone from a safe and profitable endeavour to a dangerous way to lose frightening sums of money.
This is no way to encourage private conservation.
We are seeing the emergence of the perfect storm for the demise of the species – the same storm that Kenya brought upon itself to cause the extinction of the Northern White Rhino. Reserves lack funding to protect themselves, and cannot sell horn to shift the battle in their favour. Western NGOs have tried for years to influence consumer habits in Asia, but these efforts have failed. Horn remains a popular commodity and consumers of horn have no choice but to get it through poaching syndicates. This gives those syndicates the revenue they need to win the fight with those of us who have chosen to give our all to rhino conservation in spite of the odds stacked against us. All of this makes the situation so dire that private individuals faced with financial ruin and huge personal risk are choosing not to play a part in protecting rhino any more. This leaves the surviving rhino in desperate need of a safe home, but nobody willing to provide that home.
We must act now to return the rhino dynamic to a healthy footing here in SA. We must harness the same realities that conservation giants before us harnessed in the first wave of this fight to save rhino. We must take the clear and easy steps required to encourage private conservationists, yet again, to step into the rhino battle. Creating opportunities for these private individuals to earn money on trimmed horn is the simple and obvious move.
We can see the fruits of this conservation strategy when we examine the chart of rhino populations on government reserves vs. private reserves over the past 40 years. Despite only starting their rhino efforts in the late 1980’s, private reserves quickly grew their numbers to the point that they became a significant pillar in the overall conservation effort.
Then the poaching scourge hit the public parks, and the real importance of the private conservation reserves became apparent.
As seen in the next chart, over the past ten years, as rhino populations on government reserves have plummeted, the efforts of private conservationists have continued to succeed. If it were not for these privately-funded efforts, we would have far fewer rhino left to discuss today.
The continued willingness of private individuals to throw their money and energy into protecting rhino – into providing rhino with protected habitat – has been the key to continued conservation success. But we are at risk now of losing their investment and their habitat as we find ourselves discussing trade-ban strategies that would destroy completely the private conservation initiatives that have kept this species alive and viable.
In the past, we have encouraged private individuals to invest in protecting wildlife and the land it needs by giving them ways to benefit economically. Now, at the time rhino are most desperately in need of the protected habitat that only private reserves have been able to provide, we are creating an economic disaster that threatens to take these safe havens away. Indeed, the number of private individuals willing to incur the cost and risk of protecting rhino has plummeted.
The Limpopo Rhino Group (“LRG”) – an association of rhino owners in that province – used to have over 20 members. Today, ten years later, it has nine. More than half of those who were previously willing to own and protect rhino are no longer willing to take that risk. And LRG is not alone. Across South Africa, the number of private land owners who are willing to hold rhino on their land has plummeted.
The reasons for this decline are simple. Ten or fifteen years ago, if you bought a rhino, you faced virtually no risk of having it poached. And you could benefit economically – either from the sale of horn, or from selling the right to hunt a small number of bulls who were too old to breed, or who might be particularly dangerous to other rhino. Today, either you accept that the animal will be poached (in which case you have just lost your entire investment), or you spend millions of Rands each year on security. And in exchange for that massive spend, you can earn ... nothing. Horn sales have been blocked by a bureaucracy that refuses to honour the existing legal right to trade. And hunting rights are too limited to be commercially relevant, and run contrary to the mission for many of us in the rhino conservation space.
Too few private conservationists are willing to throw all their money into saving rhino when they know there is no way to make that money back. Investment demands a return on the money spent. And saving rhino requires one to spend a lot of money.
The average private rhino reserve is estimated to be approximately 3,000 hectares in size. While the costs of land vary, a reasonable rule of thumb is R10,000 per hectare. That’s R3m. Reserves must have fencing capable of keeping the rhino in, and of slowing down the entry of poachers. Such fencing costs several million Rands more. You need staff – both to operate the reserve and to protect it. And you need housing for them. When rainfall is inadequate, you must buy feed for the rhino (and other animals), all of which must be delivered by truck, often from distant parts of the country. Veterinary care, tractors, patrol vehicles, health insurance, and much more must all be purchased.