Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

FORMER home affairs director-general Mavuso Msimang, who has been set the task of researching ways of saving the rhino from poaching, is expected to report in the first quarter of this year. His report will also advise on whether South Africa should apply to trade in rhino horn under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (Cites).

The trade issue has polarised many South Africans who have the rhino’s best interests at heart. Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa will have the unenviable task of deciding whether South Africa should apply to trade in rhino horn.

Although South Africa will not be making any proposal on trade until 2016’s Cites meeting, there will be discussion on Kenya’s recent proposal to the international body that a trophy-hunting moratorium be placed on South African white rhinos, says Southern African Development Community rhino management group chairman Mike Knight.

The proposal will be considered at the Cites Conference of Parties in Bangkok in March. If approved, the moratorium will be instituted until 2019, says Lion Aid founder Pieter Kat.

Mr Kat says Kenya argues that despite progress made by South Africa in instituting more demanding control measures, rhino poaching continues to rise.

Controls include the development of an electronic database for licence applications, mandatory registration of existing rhino horn stockpiles, bilateral treaties to improve law enforcement, increasing penalties and improving the gathering of intelligence.

"Kenya is of the opinion that such poaching has resonated across borders and that the recent upsurge in rhinos poached in Kenya is directly linked to a problem made in South Africa," Mr Kat says.

Mr Knight says that integral to the Kenyan proposal is that countries such as South Africa and Zimbabwe, and countries where rhino horn is sought after such as China and Vietnam, should respond to its proposal.

It is agreed that South Africa is not winning the war on rhino poaching. The country lost a record 633 rhinos between January 1 and December 19 last year. The previous record, for 2011, was 448. Already two rhinos have been slain in the first week of 2013.

Arrests have increased and sentences for the convicted are harsher. South Africa also signed a long-awaited memorandum of understanding with Vietnam in mid-December. The agreement aims to curb rhino poaching.

South Africa is home to more than 80% of the global population, and scientists have warned that if poaching increases at the same rate as it did between 2009 and 2011, when the tally jumped from 122 to 448, just more than a threefold increase, the species will be extinct by mid-century. It could go into decline by 2016.

Conservationists see Vietnam as key to curbing the poaching that feeds the illegal horn trade. The country, a known destination for much of the illegal rhino horn poached in South Africa, posted the highest wildlife crime score in the World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature’s 2012 Wildlife Crime Scorecard report.

Rhino horn, prized in Vietnam as a "pick-me-up", cancer cure and even an aphrodisiac, fetches about $60,000/kg in the Southeast Asian country.

The agreement that Ms Molewa and Vietnamese Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Cao Duc Phat signed last month refers only in general terms to addressing illegal wildlife smuggling.

However, there were "clear indications" that rhino horn trafficking would be "top of the new agenda on co-operation between the two nations", WWF-SA said immediately after the memorandum was signed.

Mr Knight says it is likely South Africa will turn more to technology to help it fight rhino poachers, with the possible use of "unmanned aerial vehicles", or "drones".