Home News S.African parliament tackles rhino poaching crisis

S.African parliament tackles rhino poaching crisis

Published on 26/01/2012

From legalising trade in rhino horns to an outright ban on hunting the animals, South Africa's parliament Thursday wrestled with sometimes conflicting ideas on how to curb a devastating surge in poaching.

Last year a record 450 rhinos were poached in South Africa, a crushing blow for a country home to more than 70 percent of the animal’s global population.

The gruesome toll came despite stepped-up policing and prosecution last year, with soldiers deployed into the world-famous Kruger National Park, where most of the animals are killed.

South Africa arrested 232 poachers last year, but the kingpins of the illegal trade in horns still have to be found, said Gareth Morgan, shadow environment minister from the main opposition Democratic Alliance.

“We are not going to stop poaching by catching small guys,” he told the committee.

The dramatic spike in rhino killings — up from 13 in 2007 — feeds the Asian traditional medicine market, despite scientific evidence that the horns have no medicinal value. They are made of the same substance as human fingernails.

The increase is driven by highly organised syndicates who deploy shooters with night-vision goggles, high-powered rifles and sometimes even helicopters to make their kills.

Wilderness Foundation South Africa head Andrew Muir told the committee that the slaughter could be eased by legalising trade in the horns of the up to 500 rhinos that die of natural causes every year.

“We need political will, and a champion at the highest possible level which will lead South Africa’s response,” said Muir.

A rhino management team under the 15-nation Southern African Development Community called for creating special environmental courts to fast-track poaching cases, arguing that speedy convictions would act as a deterrent.

Others called for tighter rules, or even an outright ban on trophy hunting, which allows game hunters to kill certain rhinos and export their mounted horns.

That system was exploited by one syndicate in which a Thai man hired prostitutes to export horns obtained through fraudulent hunts, in a case now before the South African courts.

“There may be many changes in the regulatory environment that can be relatively easily affected, such as by requiring that conservation officials are present at all hunting events and that they sign off on the hunt,” said Sybert Liebenberg of the Eastern Cape Tourism Agency.

Last year South Africa issued 181 hunting permits for white rhinos, which number nearly 19,000.