Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa. Picture: ARNOLD PRONTO
Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa. Picture: ARNOLD PRONTO

IF SOUTH Africa decides trade in rhino horn has a chance of saving the species from extinction, it could apply to the next full Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) meeting, in 2016, to be allowed to sell the horn, Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa said this week.

South Africa will be able to use home advantage if it applies to Cites for this exemption, as the 2016 conference will be hosted in the country.

Rhino horn sales have been banned for more than 30 years under Cites, but increasing demand from Asian countries has sparked an increase in poaching. Rhino horn sells for an estimated $60,000/kg.

"Depending on the amount of thinking we will have done by 2016, we could put trade on the agenda then, or we could do it at the one thereafter (in 2019). We can’t take short cuts," Ms Molewa said.

Although the minister and her delegation did some groundwork on the issue at the Cites meeting in Bangkok in March, she says "a whole lot of work still needs to be done".

This includes determining which nations would be potential legal buyers, the size of private horn stockpiles in South Africa, the strength of security in South Africa and in buyer nations, and the way trade-control legislation works in buyer nations.

"We are looking for a solution to a big problem and, having listened for a whole year to (people who made submissions at a series of workshops on what to do to save the rhino), the bigger voice says, ‘If you continue to work as you work every day and you don’t even open up discussion on this issue (trade), you are going to be found wanting in 2026,’" Ms Molewa said, speaking to Business Day at Luthuli House, the African National Congress headquarters in Johannesburg.

Scientists believe the rhino could be wiped out by 2026 if the poaching rate is not reduced or stopped altogether.

South Africa is home to more than 90% of the global rhino population, and scientists have warned that if poaching increases at the same rate as it did between 2009 and 2011, when the yearly 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.

"What is proposed in the RIM report (the document that came out of the rhino issue management work process) is not that we sell rhino horn every day. It would be controlled," Ms Molewa said.

The report, which is yet to be made public, has been presented to the Cabinet. Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife, various economists and some conservationists have proposed that South Africa use a central selling organisation, as with diamonds, to control horn sales.

However, it will be a tough task to get the 178 parties to Cites to endorse trade in rhino horn.

It took the better part of 10 years for South Africa to negotiate a one-off sale of stockpiled elephant tusk at the turn of the century. Ivory trade was banned, despite protests from Southern Africa, in 1990. A two-thirds majority is needed for any pro-trade proposal to be passed.

World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) South Africa rhino programme co-ordinator Jo Shaw says South Africa’s task at Cites, if it were to propose trade, would "definitely" be difficult, and that South Africa would also have to prove that its proposed buyer nations could properly manage such trade.

One of the more positive steps to come out of this year’s Cites meeting was an agreement to set deadlines for Vietnam and Mozambique to "clean up their act" in terms of their management of the illegal rhino horn trade.

Both countries are seen as conduits, and Vietnam has been fingered by wildlife trade tracking organisation Traffic as the world’s main destination for illegally obtained rhino horn.

Vietnam and Mozambique face sanctions that would prevent them from trading in any of the 35,000 species controlled by Cites if they do not take concrete steps to improve the ways in which they monitor and prosecute the illegal rhino horn trade, said WWF International spokeswoman Alona Rivord. They have to file progress reports by mid-2014.

Cites has shown it is not afraid to impose this punishment — this year’s conference slapped these trade sanctions on Guinea for not doing more to curb the illegal trade in great-ape species.

According to the United Nations Great Apes Survival Partnership report, launched at Cites, 22,218 great apes were taken from the wild between 2005 and 2011 to be traded illegally on international markets, primarily for the pet trade.

The WWF is soon to attend a UN Office on Drugs and Crime meeting where discussions on listing wildlife crime as a "serious crime" that carry a minimum four-year sentence will take place, Ms Rivord said.

Ms Molewa said South Africa’s side events on rhino economics, among other issues, at this year’s Cites meeting went well, and she felt some delegates who came ready to oppose the idea of trade left with the understanding that rhino poaching was out of hand and that South Africa was seeking any solutions that might help save the species.

"We left Cites encouraged that the world was not simply shutting us out, that people were saying, ’Let’s think together,’" she says.