December 16 2011

Lam Tak-fai, acting head of Ports and Maritime Command, arranges rhino horns, part of a 33 rhino horns, ivory chopsticks and bracelets shipment seized by the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department, during a news conference in Hong Kong November 15, 2011. Hong Kong Customs seized on Tuesday a total of 33 rhino horns, 758 ivory chopsticks and 127 ivory bracelets, worth about HK$17.4 million ($2.23 million), inside a container shipped from Cape Town, South Africa, according the a customs press release. REUTERS/Bobby Yip (CHINA - Tags: CRIME LAW BUSINESS ENVIRONMENT ANIMALS)

There is no single silver bullet to solve the complex issue of saving the rhino in our country. No party can claim to have the solution. No organisation can claim to have the high ground in this treacherous terrain.

South African Breweries (SAB) CEO Norman Adami has a favourite saying: “Make reality your friend.” That means we must plan for the future as it is likely to be, not the way we would like it to be. Looking at the rhino situation in South Africa, it seems that there are too many voices arguing for the future they would like to see, rather than facing up to the terrible threats of a new record year of rhino poaching.

There is a need for all those concerned about the situation to be unified around an agreed and bold strategy, and then to focus on a co-ordinated execution of the plan.

This time last year, South Africans were appalled at the number of rhinos being poached as the country headed for a record number of rhinos killed – we ended the year with 333 slaughtered for their horns.

If there was one hope, it was the sense of the country pulling together to combat the killing. The fact that the white rhino came within an inch of extinction within our lifetime seemed to drive a collective consciousness and willingness to act.

Radio stations held phone-in marathons. Ministers called press conferences and environmentalists called for action. NGOs arranged endless discussions and fund-raising events. Ordinary citizens were appalled at the pictures of rhinos brutally dehorned while still alive. Private rhino owners ordered night-sight equipment, helicopters and special response teams. Millions of rands were raised from concerned citizens and corporations. The SAPS made some high-profile arrests. Some newspapers reported that the attention seemed to be slowing down the rate of the killing.

So where are we today? With less than a month remaining in 2011, we have already passed the record set last year: to date 405 rhino’s poached… and counting.

Surely there is something wrong?

A closer look at what is happening does not bear out the perceptions of some that government and conservation agencies are not doing enough. There are hundreds of dedicated and competent people engaged in this fight on a daily basis. Private game ranchers are investing millions of rands in protecting a key national asset.

There are debates on the best solution. Some want to poison the horns so that end consumers think twice before consuming it, even though innocent people may die. Others believe the best way is to deploy the army and shoot on sight. But what about the innocent caught in the crossfire?

Cape Town - 110821 - Aquila Private Game reserve has lost one rhino and another is severely injured after poachers dehorned them. Story: Michelle Jones Picture: David Ritchie

In addition to all the views out there, what does the situation look like from a business perspective? SAB shares the many concerns raised about the plight of the rhino and other threatened species.

What is the optimal contribution a corporation can make in these uncertain times? Maybe a good start is to provide an honest business perspective on the issue.

Clearly the value of the rhino and environmental assets can never be measured in monetary values alone. But what would a hard-nosed economic analysis of the problem look like? Four business perspectives come to mind.

The first observation is that there is no apparent coherent game-plan – if you want to achieve a strategic goal there must be alignment on the overall vision as well as a clear strategy of how to get there.

In the rhino support groups there is no such alignment. On the contrary, various groups are competing for funding and are unconsciously undermining each other.

Those who believe in a complete ban of trade in rhino horn often question the motives of those arguing for managed trade. Providers of different technologies compete with each other. In the meantime, the rhino poachers demonstrate a singular purpose in killing rhinos and removing their horns.

We are in a war and desperately need unity. The power of a unified system will allow us to do things we did not think were possible, and which we could not do individually.

Secondly, it is important to understand the market dynamics within which you operate. The most striking reality of the rhino market is that a rhino is worth more dead than alive.

Today, you can buy a rhino on auction for about R300 000. Tomorrow you can sell the horn of that animal for R1.5 million.

It doesn’t take an actuary to work out the economics of the rhino trade. Rhino ranchers fear their assets will be slaughtered, so the price of live rhino is decreasing. Factor in the cost of security and the emotional trauma of the situation and it is not surprising that owning the animal can become a liability rather than an asset.

The horns from animals who die of natural causes are locked up in vaults because it is illegal to trade in rhino horn, following a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) ban.

With the growing demand for rhino horn primarily based on emerging middle class consumers in the East, it is easy to understand why a constrained supply of horn would drive the price sky-high.

This imbalance between supply and demand is at the heart of the contention of those arguing for legal, managed trade of rhino horn.

It is best to keep sentimentality out of this argument but it is hard not to notice that the bulk of those screaming against legal trading of rhino horn are from countries that no longer possess a single rhino. It is critically important that South Africa works out a national solution, but keep in mind the global concerns.

From a conservation perspective, the key issue is the protection and survival of the species, rather than the vagaries of the market economy.

One cannot ignore the important contribution made to the growth in number of white rhinos by the game ranching industry. In 1961 Operation Rhino was launched to save the white rhino, with only 437 left in the wild. By 1970 the white rhino was added to the hunting list, leading to an expansion in the number of ranchers buying rhino and land on which to ranch.

Today the total white rhino population in the country is estimated at more than 18 700, with about 25 percent in private hands. The self-interest of these ranchers made a massive contribution to the common interest of saving this animal from extinction.

What would happen if we legalised the rhino horn trade? The risk of keeping a rhino would diminish and game ranchers would increasingly seek to keep rhino, with the increased demand likely to raise the price of live rhino, while promoting their growth and conservation.

The supply of rhino horn would be guaranteed as the horns regrow and can be reharvested. This would result in a significant reduction in the current price.

In addition, releasing the stockpile of rhino horn held by authorities and the private sector would result in an immediate reduction in the price of rhino horn, all of which would make poaching less attractive for criminal syndicates.

And if the revenue was dedicated to more effective policing, it would be possible to substantially raise the risk to poachers. Together with effective standards, rules and enforcement, this could be the beginnings of a sustainable model to secure the future of the species.

The third business lesson is that every strategy contains risks that must be managed. Wildlife Ranching South Africa and the SA Hunters and Game Association (have called) for the ban on rhino horn sales to be lifted and with every transaction of selling a rhino or buying a horn being subjected to a valid DNA certificate. In the way the Kimberly Protocol aimed to sideline blood diamonds by being able to verify their origin, it would be essential to establish the origin of horn.

Fortunately the technology exists at the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at Onderstepoort, where a substantial database is being built up of the DNA profiles of rhinos in the country and even neighbouring countries. For transparency purposes, SAB is a proud sponsor of this project.

Clearly there are risks. No one really knows what the ultimate demand for rhino horn could be, or if legal trade would satisfy such demand, or whether burning all the horns would achieve anything except make the Chinese rhino farmer a great deal richer and the poachers more bold.

Finally, there is the importance of educating the customer. Applying this to the rhino trade seems to point to a global campaign on the lack of physical or nutritional value of rhino horn.

It is important to remember that using rhino horn for traditional medicine is a custom that is thousands of years old, and it won’t be changed overnight, if ever. But a systematic campaign in partnership with authorities in those countries can hopefully make a positive difference over time.

It is clearly time to stop talking and to act in unity. This does not mean the situation is not hugely complicated. When dealing with complexity in the market, the approach of SAB, or Simplicity, Action and Boldness, is really effective.

We need a clear strategic plan that the public and private sectors agree with. Of course the plan can’t be simplistic, but it will have to be simple and crisp, with clear objectives.

And this is not a call for another talk-shop. We need to agree a set of actions and we must be prepared to be bold and courageous in order to stop the rhino poachers from slaughtering our environmental heritage before our eyes.

This will require leadership and co-ordinated, bold action from government, major conservation agencies and environmental NGOs as well as the key private sector agencies.

It will be easier for a dozen leaders across the spectrum to achieve consensus than in another large meeting of well-meaning individuals. And then every concerned individual, organisation, department, corporation and NGO needs to put personal interest aside and focus on the agreed national plan.

Now that would be a move the poachers would have to take note of.

l Andre Fourie is Head of Sustainable Development at SAB, and Dr Ian Player initiated Operation Rhino and received the SAB Lifetime Achievement Award.