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SOS Rhino : In the News : Africa's dilemma in wildlife conservationism

Africa's dilemma in wildlife conservationism

  The Star Online
Tuesday, October 19, 2004

For a continent that is synonymous with sprawling safaris, wildlife conservation seems to be at a crossroads for several African countries.

Disagreement over the best management approach for large fauna like the African elephant and black rhinoceros which were poached to near extinction in the Central African savannah by the late 1980s, is pitting the advocates of total protection against those in favour of consumptive utilisation.

The differences of opinion provided fodder for emotionally-charged debates at the recently concluded 13th Conference of the Parties (CoP13) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in Bangkok.

Kenya, regarded as a "total protectionist" party, failed to block the proposal by South Africa and Namibia to increase their respective export quotas on trophy hunting of the leopard, an Appendix I species, as well as the proposal to grant hunting quotas for the black rhinoceros. The quota for the Appendix I species which is otherwise prohibited from trade is allowed under a special resolution adopted at the 9th CoP.

Kenya, which has succeeded in reviving its elephant population from a low of 16,000 individuals in 1973 to 28,000 through eco-tourism, appears to be fighting a lone battle against the well-organised Southern African Development Community (SADC) which consists of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

The pro-trade camp is arguing that the leopard population is viable and an increase in quota from 100 to 250 for Namibia and from 75 to 150 for South Africa, would be sustainable. Furthermore, they reckoned that trophy hunting would bring economic benefits to the local community.

Delegates from Namibia acknowledged that during the past century, the black rhinoceros suffered a drastic decline. Between 1970 and 1992, the population decreased by 96%, from 65,000 to 2,300 in its range states, due to poaching. However, since 1996, intense anti-poaching efforts and innovative management have turned the tide and numbers have been recovering.

The South African delegate argued that the country's success in rescuing the black rhinoceros from two breeding populations of about 110 animals in 1930 to the approximate 1,200 individuals in 24 populations is testimony to the effectiveness of its conservation programme.

As these populations reach their ecological carrying capacity, more private landowners would be willing to expand wildlife estates if they could derive incentives from hunting.

Their optimism, however, was not shared by conservationists. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) questioned the ability of South Africa to control the black rhinoceros hunting industry, given the dismal management of its white rhino hunting industry which has been in place since 1968.

"Although the private sector has contributed significantly to rhino conservation in South Africa, there are weaknesses in internal controls and compliance within the private sector that need to be addressed before such a request can be approved for black rhinos," said the organisation.

WWF also cautioned that large healthy males would be hunted, leading to genetic erosion which would have a detrimental effect on the population. It suggested that the proposal be reconsidered at the next Cites meeting to allow time for an effective monitoring system to be set up.

South Africa admitted that its private sector white rhino horn stockpile was less than ideal but that had not prevented the country's population from increasing five-fold from 1,800 in 1968 to 10,300 in 2003.

Kenya Wildlife Services Elephant and Cites coordinator Patrick Omondi said while he agreed that parties should be rewarded for their good biological management of species, he was not convinced that trophy hunting would ensure the overall survival of the black rhino which was categorised as critically endangered, taking into account their low population in other range states.

Several central African nations such as Mali, Nigeria and the Central African Republic had called for the translocation of surplus animals to rejuvenate impoverished populations.

Omondi said the available rhino habitat in Kenya could accommodate up to 2,000 animals and criticised states with surplus of wanting to make a fast buck from hunting instead of assisting other African countries in reviving depleted stocks.

Omondi's concern is real given that Kenya has a poaching problem despite strict enforcement. It lost 23 rhinos to poachers over the last two years, indicating that the market for illegal horn is still active and any fresh entry into the market would only keep the trade going.

Former animal committee chair of Cites, Hank Jenkins, who has since formed a group to argue for the application of economic incentives in wildlife management, said he was not convinced that trade for one population would affect another.

"There is no clear evidence. Prohibiting trade doesn't put a stop to illegal trade. If anything, it is going to stimulate illegal trade. The bottom line is people must be able to use wildlife to encourage them to conserve," said the president of the newly-formed Species Management Specialists.

He said that the differing views of the African nations were regrettable and were shaped by external forces in the form of animal rights NGOs which based their arguments on sentiments.

"I don't believe that conservation through total protection works. Its interesting to find out what rural communities think," he said, suggesting that wildlife officials living in the cities were making unsuitable management plans for local communities that have to put up with human-animal conflicts.

Citing the example of the leopard, Jenkins said when environmental NGOs pushed countries to list the sub-Saharan population under Appendix I, they were driven by the mistaken belief that it would protect the species.

"This resulted in a complete turnaround, taking the species from one that had value and could be managed as an asset to one where it had no value in terms of trade and was consequently treated as a pest by landowners and local communities.

"All opportunities for sensible management techniques were thrown out the window to the detriment of the population," he added.

Responding to Jenkins' criticism on the lack of local participation in Kenya's total protection model, Omondi said over 33 community-based wildlife management schemes were in operation.

"We are sceptical of the consumptive utilisation approach. We are not sure if it is benefiting the local communities and not just a few individuals who can afford the licence to hunt," he said in reference to wealthy Caucasian hunters from the developed countries.

While the jury is still out on the best way forward, Kenya has recognised the need for a regional dialogue to resolve the African nations' predicament.

"Kenya suggests that the wildlife issue be brought to the African Union (the highest inter-Africa political body) for deliberation," said Omondi. ­ By Hilary Chiew

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