INCREASED government action against rhino horn traffickers, better intelligence gathering and data capture, and stricter sentencing for rhino poaching-related crime appeared to be turning the tide against those involved in the illegal trade in rhino horns, Tom Milliken, rhino expert for trade monitoring organisation Traffic, said on Monday evening.
This year’s arrest rate for rhino-related crime is twice that of 2010 and 2011, and in the second quarter of this year there were a number of "high-value arrests" of Vietnamese and other Asian nationals believed to be operating as international exporters and playing senior roles in horn crime circles, according to research released by Traffic at midnight.
"This success is primarily attributed to increased intelligence activities, better analysis of data, greater communication and collaboration between different government departments, and improved co-ordination…. These developments have coincided with a significant decline in the rate of rhino poaching in South Africa since April 2012," the research report’s executive summary says.
News that South Africa and Vietnam are poised to sign a memorandum of understanding aimed at curbing rhino poaching and the illegal trade in rhino horn was "a useful step forward", Mr Milliken said at the Johannesburg leg of a simultaneous release of the report in South Africa and Vietnam.
"We are in a pivotal situation. If poaching keeps increasing then we will lose the rhino, but we haven’t hit the downside yet," said Endangered Wildlife Trust ecologist Jo Shaw.
Vietnam and South Africa were poised to sign an important deal that would see the Asian country help to clamp down on rhino poaching and the illegal trade in rhino horn, Deputy International Relations and Co-operation Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim and Vietnam’s Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Le Luong Minh said after a meeting on Friday. A date for the signing still has to be set.
The deal would encompass bilateral co-operation in criminal investigations, Department of Environmental Affairs spokesman Albi Modise said on Sunday.
Mr Milliken said while the pending memorandum of understanding was welcome, South Africa was "not close" to ending the escalating slaughter of rhinos.
South Africa is home to more than 80% of the world’s rhinos, and it is estimated 22,800 are under threat from poachers who sell the horn in Asia for up to $60,000/kg.
South Africa lost 281 rhinos to poaching between January 1 and July 17, and rhino could become extinct in the wild by 2050 if they are killed at the current rate.
Overall South Africa’s rhino horn trade has evolved into a "sophisticated, efficient and highly adaptive phenomenon that loosely links various combinations of rogue wildlife industry players, government rangers or officials who can be coerced or corrupted into illegal activity, and Asian criminal operators", according to the report. It took Traffic three years to research the report.
Ms Shaw said the memorandum of understanding needed support from President Jacob Zuma, who should be talking to his Vietnamese counterpart about the issue.
Mr Milliken said it was also necessary that the Vietnamese government took its nationals’ complicity seriously, but it appeared the Vietnamese government was "beginning to admit it has a serious problem". There had been important, large seizures of illegal horn imports into Vietnam, he said.
Mr Milliken also said Traffic had an open mind regarding the possibility that South Africa apply under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) to legally trade in rhino horn. Experimentation appeared to show that "farming" rhino horn did no lasting damage to the animals.
However, Mr Milliken said talking about trade "in the abstract" was useless. "The devil will be in the detail (of how trade is managed)," he said.
South Africa has a chance to apply to Cites in 2013 to legally trade in horn, but has to decide by October whether it will do this.
Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa has remained resolutely silent on whether South Africa will do so.
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