Legal horn trade debate produces heat – and light

The world rallied to the global financial crisis and the ebola crisis; they need to rally to the current global poaching crisis.

Fierce debate over legalising the trade in rhino horn has split South Africa’s conservation lobby in recent months. Now a groundbreaking debate on the issue, held recently in Cape Town, has paved the way for a possible truce in hostilities, with the two sides coming together to mount a united front against poaching.

Horn trade

CITES is unlikely to agree legalising the horn trade

The debate took place shortly before South Africa’s Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa set up a ‘Committee of Enquiry’ to investigate the feasibility of a limited trade in rhino horn.  Many observers believe the South African government, which is sitting on an estimated 20 tons of stockpiled horn worth billions of rand, has already made up its mind in favour of legalisation.  Few believe, however, that the next meeting of CITES, due to take place in Cape Town in March 2106, will vote for legalisation, so trade is likely to remain illegal.

This hasn’t dampened down the heated, and at times vitriolic, debate between those for and against legalisation. To bridge this gulf, find common ground, and develop a unified and collaborative approach to tackle poaching, anti- and pro-rhino trade lobbyists came together in Cape Town for a debate on the issue. Those in favour of legalisation were economist Dawie Roodt, and rhino activist and director of the Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa (IFAISA) Braam Malherbe. Those against were conservationist and wildlife tourism expert Colin Bell and Ian Michler, a well-known safari guide and environmental writer. Advocate Jacques Joubert, of Mediation in Motion, facilitated the discussions.

Ian Michler gave Project African Rhino an exclusive interview on what happened:

Why was the Cape Town debate convened?

I work closely with Colin Bell and others under the umbrella of the Conservation Action Trust (, a group committed to advancing the arguments why allowing trade in rhino horn and elephant ivory may well hasten the demise of these species.

AMHRW17 White rhino

Rhino horn can fetch up to $65,000 on the black market

We recognised the current debate has become polarized to the extent that conservation fatigue could hamper efforts. With this in mind, Colin Bell, Braam Malherbe and The Institute of Accountability forged the idea of the meeting, and Colin then approached me to join the discussion.

You soon realise both sides agree on over 90 per cent of the issues, with trade being the only significant stumbling block. The aim is to seek the common ground and focus on this without the distraction of the trade issue.

Were you all poles apart at the start about trade and solutions to the poaching problem? One report suggested the meeting was ‘seriously confrontational’ when it began…

When opposing sides meet to try and seek common ground on a serious issue, there’s always going to be friction. So yes, there was heated discussion to start with as both sides laid down their markers. This is an important process as each side gets to understand the other’s reasoning.

But we had Advocate Jacques Joubert as our professional mediator. His role was central to us being able to move from firm standpoints to touching the common ground.

How did consensus come about and around what main issues?

We started reaching consensus when it was agreed that given the current voting procedures within CITES, it’s unrealistic to expect any changes to the legislation governing trade in rhino horn when the vote comes up in 2016. The outcome of the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade (held in February 2014) served to strengthen this conclusion.

We also agreed that the pro-trade economic modelling is weak and inconclusive, that the time frames involved to try and get trade mechanisms up and running are too lengthy, and that South Africa withdrawing from CITES if its trade proposals do not succeed is not a well-reasoned option.

It was easy to move forward from this point.

You ended up agreeing a multi-pronged approach going forward. What are the key elements of this and how will you promote them?

Very few people disagree it must be a multi-pronged approach. All initiatives within this framework can be viewed as either ‘local’ or ‘international’.

Locally, the typical elements remain the ones that almost everyone agrees upon: improving security and policing, stricter bail and sentencing procedures as well as trophy hunting regulations, using the best technology, completing the DNA database, and including local communities in tourism and conservation models in significant and meaningful ways.


Rhino horn samples are being collected to create a DNA database

From these, two points are worth stressing: firstly, we believe policing should target the ‘middlemen’ within the crime syndicates rather than the poachers. Probably the most instrumental players in the syndicates, there are actually not many of them, they work and reside here in Southern Africa, and between the law enforcement agencies and the politicians, many of their identities are actually known.

Secondly, the idea is to bring the wider South African tourism industry into the solutions in a significant way. Rhino viewing is a major factor in getting tourists to come to South Africa and one in seven South Africans rely on this industry for some sort of income. We are hoping this sector of the economy becomes a major contributor to easing the poaching crisis.

On the international front, initiatives embrace awareness campaigns and demand reduction strategies, policing and political lobbying. The world needs to understand this is an international crisis as it embraces Africa, Asia and the rest of the world through security and crime concerns. While the awareness and demand reduction campaigns are vital, currently the most important element here is to increase the political lobbying. All countries must become involved, especially those that are CITES members. And all forums ranging from the African Union through the UN and the EU to trade bodies must be used to promote the urgency involved and to apply pressure wherever it is needed.

And the South African government needs to take this aspect more seriously – they are at fault for not carrying a more strident message.

Has there been any response so far to your proposals?


Dehorned rhino on rhino ‘farm’: private rhino owners hold tons of horn in stockpiles

The responses have been mostly positive and supportive, but as we expected, there has also been some negative feedback. Some commentators are suggesting it’s unrealistic, and I have heard that some within the pro-trade lobby are simply not prepared to consider shelving trade options as per the discussions.

This is all understandable as there are professionals on both sides that have staked their life’s work on this issue, while some within the pro-trade lobby stand to make significant sums of money.

The meeting has been described as ‘groundbreaking’. How would you describe it?

I guess it is ‘groundbreaking’ in that it’s the first time a serious public attempt is being made to seek a common agenda. But, in essence it’s simply an honest and sincere attempt to be logical about the issue and to then act accordingly.

If it doesn’t work because not enough of the pro-trade lobby can be persuaded to join, then so be it and we will have to wait until the 2016 vote.

You’re now drafting a ‘working paper’. What will this set out to do and where do you go next with this?

The ‘working paper’ will embrace everything described above and more. It has to be done in a transparent manner in order to allow everyone that believes in the initiative to buy-in and make additions/amendments to it. This process is now under way.

Some will call it an exercise in compromise, but I prefer to see it as an attempt to be pragmatic. Ultimately, government also needs to buy-in.

Currently, we have the stakeholders split into a pro-trade and an anti-trade camp: we hope to end up with 80 per cent in the middle united behind the common ground and the remaining 20 per cent will be the diehards from both sides unable to take a more pragmatic approach for whatever reasons.

What’s most urgently needed to tackle the poaching problem and is there anything readers outside Africa can do to help?

There are two points that require urgency:

First, the poaching must be addressed and dealt with as an international crisis and the levels of lobbying around the urgency and action must be upped. For example, this includes putting pressure on Mozambique to deal with the poaching syndicates on their side of the border, and getting the Vietnamese and Chinese to accept the roles they play as consumer nations and to act accordingly. The world rallied to the global financial crisis and the ebola crisis; they need to rally to the current global poaching crisis.

ACPP36 Anti-poaching unit on patrol

Anti-poaching patrol in the field

Second, the wider South African tourism industry must be brought on board in a significant way – and this will be addressed in our initiatives.

The best way for readers to assist is to become better informed about the issues and what is at stake. Then you can support one of the many organizations that are involved in on the ground anti-poaching initiatives, awareness campaigns and demand reduction campaigns.

Ian Michler has spent the last 25 years living and working across 15 African countries as a safari operator, specialist guide, consultant and environmental journalist. He works with the Conservation Action Trust (, Eden to Addo ( and is a partner in Invent Africa Safaris (

There’s an interesting critique of pro-trade arguments, published in June 2014:
Leonardo’s Sailors: A Review of the Economic Analysis of Wildlife Trade, by Alejandro Nadal and
Francisco Aguayo of the Leverhulme Centre for the Study of Value, at the University of Manchester.

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