This is my Man Friday column in Friday's Cape Times: time to get some objective facts into this discussion

Selling off our rhino horns could be the spark that ignites the inferno

THERE is a terrible feeling of déjà vu about the announcement by Environment Minister, Edna Molewa, that South Africa intends lobbying Cites to allow us to sell off our estimated 18-ton stockpile of rhino horn. This, she says, would flood the market and stem the slaughter of South Africa’s rhinos.

Sadly, this is a “been there, done that” scenario - in the elephant world. Between 1986 and 2008, Cites, mostly under pressure from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, all of which have well managed elephant populations, cleared over 600 tons of ivory for legal sale. Despite these sales, the price of ivory has gone ballistic.

More than 2 500 elephants have been poached in southern Africa in the past two years, and over 50 000 in the rest of Africa. It’s rapidly becoming a scenario to rival the terrible “elephant wars” of the 1970s.

Starting in the early 1960s, there was wholesale slaughter of Africa’s elephants. Between 1963 and 1989, 86% of Africa’s elephants were poached. By the early 1980s, the elephant population of the continent had dropped from 1.3 million to 600 000. Just in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley, more than 100 000 elephants were butchered between 1975 and 1986. Tanzania lost 80% of its elephants, Uganda 73%, Kenya 80%.

Then, in 1989, Cites enacted a global ban on the trade in ivory. Overnight, the ivory price dropped one hundred-fold to less than a dollar a kilogramme. In many areas that had been heavily poached, it was as though a tap had been turned off. Conservation officials at the time reported that poachers were telling them that the “big bosses” had told them it was no longer worth poaching elephants. But by then, the sentient pachyderms had been decimated.

The crime syndicates then realised that rhino horn was even more valuable, and easier to get, than ivory. Elephants are very dangerous to hunt - they move in big herds, are highly aggressive when threatened, and have acute hearing and smell. Rhinos are often solitary, or move in pairs, and have terrible eyesight and are easy to hunt.

More than half of Africa’s surviving elephants are in South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia, with nearly 14 000 in the Kruger National Park alone. An estimated 65 000 to 70 000 live in the wilderness areas of Botswana’s Chobe National Park, the Zambezi Valley, and Namibia’s northern Kalahari woodlands.

The Kenyan conservationist, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who founded Save the Elephants, wrote in a recent article in National Geographic that “the new wave of killing of elephants in Africa is in many ways far graver than the crisis of the 1970s and 80s. Firstly there are fewer elephants, and secondly the demand for ivory is far higher. Record ivory prices in the Far East are fueling poachers, organised crime, and political instability right across the African elephant range.”

Worst hit are those areas close to West and Central African conflict zones: Iain reports that “in January last year, Janjaweed militia gunned down more than 300 elephants in Bouba N’Djida National Park in Cameroon. In March 2012, 22 elephants in Garamba National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), were slaughtered in a single attack, many with shots to the top of the head. A Ugandan army helicopter was seen flying low-level over the park a few days after.”

And the NGO, African Parks, which manages several parks across the continent has documented some of the most depressing news of the lot, from Zakouma National Park in Chad. As recently as 1970, Zakouma had over 300 000 elephants. By 2002, there were just 4 300 left. Today? Only 450 elephants still survive in Zakouma.

And in September last year, five game scouts employed by African Parks in Zakouma were gunned down by poachers as they kneeled for morning prayers.

Now the ivory poachers are moving south: Cites monitoring for 2001, according to Douglas-Hamilton, “shows that the high levels of illegal killing in central Africa have spread to East Africa and the northern parts of southern Africa. Only three large populations - Kruger in South Africa, Chobe in Botswana, and Etosha in Namibia - have remained unscathed.”

My fear, and the fear of conservationists like Iain Douglas-Hamilton, is that selling off stockpiles of rhino horn, just like the sale of ivory stockpiles, will fuel the demand rather than undermine it.

And let’s not forget that while there are 600 000 elephants left in Africa, there are only 26 000 rhinos left.

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Tony Weaver