Failure to Prosecute and Mixed Messages: How South Africa Can Single-Handedly Lose the Second Rhino War

By Susie Watts, WildAid

In the first rhino war, between 1970 and 1994, Africa lost more than 50,000 rhinos. All range states except South Africa were severely impacted. Although the Apartheid government reportedly smuggled rhino horn and elephant ivory out of Angola and Mozambique, there was very little poaching within South Africa. Through the entire period, the South African rhino population grew unaffected by poaching. The country’s southern white rhino population recovered to some 20,000 individuals from a low of fewer than 100 individuals in the early part of the 20th century.

Demand for rhino horn from Yemen for dagger handles was funded by the Saudi oil boom. In Taiwan, mainland China, Hong Kong and other Asian countries, demand was for the traditional medicine market. In 1994 this war ended, as Asian countries banned sales of rhino horn, enforced their bans, and carried out public education to reduce demand.

For around 15 years rhinos across Africa and Asia were recovering, and very little poaching occurred. Everything changed in 2008, when South Africa began to experience a devastating assault on its rhino population. The second rhino war appears to have been stimulated by organized crime, the emergence of Vietnam as a new player in the rhino horn trade, and increasing affluence in China, which has reinvigorated a market that had been dormant for 15 years. In South Africa, the recent rhino crisis has been facilitated by corruption, procedural incompetence, and a failure to prosecute mid and higher level trade operators.

South Africa’s response in fighting the second rhino war has been focused on paramilitary intervention in Kruger National Park. Although more than 300 poachers have been shot, few middlemen and even fewer kingpins have been brought to justice. This has been despite actionable intelligence generated from sophisticated investigations implicating officials in South Africa and Mozambique. New systems in Kruger appear to have reduced poaching very slightly in the last two years, but the problem has shifted to other areas, KwaZulu-Natal province in particular.

At the consumer end, there has been considerable progress in raising awareness and reducing demand for rhino horn in Asia, with a more than 50% decline in the wholesale price there (see below). New laws come into effect in Vietnam this year, which will effectively ban sales of rhino horn for the first time.

Meanwhile, the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) decisively rejected a proposal to legalize rhino horn trade from Swaziland in October 2016. South Africa has subsequently sidestepped CITES by overturning the moratorium on domestic rhino horn trade, and the country is now proposing to allow exports of up to two horns per person, although this limit applies only to foreigners. The previous domestic trade moratorium was rejected by the courts because the South African Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) had failed to follow correct procedures when it introduced the moratorium.

It is rare to hear a statement about rhinos made by the DEA that does not include the sentence “we’re doing everything we can,” but the department’s promotion of legalized rhino horn trade sends a mixed message to Asian consuming nations. Further, its failure to detect pseudo-hunting (where fake hunters exploited legal hunting trophy exports to facilitate illegal commercial trade), and the lack of higher level prosecutions have deeply undermined rhino protection efforts.