Save Our Rhino – Open Letter to Minister Molewa

Stephen Wiggins Article 1 Comment

Banner Image Courtesy of Save Our Rhino

Save Our Rhino  has issued an ‘open letter’ (dated 13 August 2017), seeking clarity from Minister Molewa, Republic of South Africa, Department: Environmental Affairs (DEA). Indeed, we all look forward to the response from Minister Molewa.

Questions about controlling domestic rhino horn trade and the upcoming rhino horn auction.

Dear Minister Molewa,

I dream of our vast deserts, of our forests, of all our great wildernesses. We must never forget that it is our duty to protect this environment”  Nelson Mandela

We write to you as registered Stakeholders, with grave concerns regarding Minister Molewa’s continued failure to act with diligence and professional integrity when communicating her intentions to domestically trade rhinoceros horns, particularly in light of the forthcoming international online auction scheduled for between 21st and 24th August and subsequent live auction to be held on 19th September 2017.

Subsequent to the publication of the Draft Regulations for the Domestic Trade in Rhinoceros Horn, Notice 74 of 2017, the DEA published a press release, designed to provide clarification to the public.

We believe the domestic trade of rhinoceros horns and subsequent approved legal exports for “personal use“ presents both national and international concerns and the constitutional rights to information pertaining to the aforementioned should be available for public scrutiny without prejudice, discrimination or application, as enshrined in the South African Constitution, Section 32 (a.). The Minister should therefore promote openness and ensure that constitutional rights to information are upheld without the public having to resort to applications using the Public Access to Information Act 2000 (PAIA). In her media release of the 24th July 2017, the Minister states:

It is important to state that as government we remain committed to providing regular updates on the state of rhino poaching in South Africa. Without this information the media would be unable to perform its important job of keeping the public updated.”

Looking at the dates of the Integrated Strategic Management of Rhino press releases over the last 12 months, viz. 11th September 2016 and the 27th February 2017, these can hardly be called regular updates. However, we will take the words of the Minister at face value in asking for information.

Such information includes, but is not limited to:

  • The comprehensive research findings of the Committee of Inquiry into the feasibility of a legalised trade.
  • Research pertaining to biodiversity and conservation conducted by external parties and/or appointed internal authorities and/or organizations which have relevance to rhino horn trade.
  • Proposed domestic trade mechanism and pricing model.
  • Population census of rhinoceros in state owned reserves.
  • Declaration of quantity of rhinoceros horns in government stockpiles and percentage suitable for commercial purposes.
  • Any manuscripts, transcripts and/or audio recordings from committees or sub-committees inaugurated to implement a contingency plan to trade rhino horns for commercial purposes.
  • Financial research supporting the premise that trade will help conserve wild rhino populations.
  • Evidence that sales of rhino horn by Private Rhino owners will benefit National, Provincial and Municipal herds.
  • An immediately actionable contingency plan in the likely case that the legal trade increases demand and poaching levels in Southern Africa.

You will be acutely aware that the Minister is duty-bound by the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Act, 1996 (Section 2. Supremacy of Constitution). The Minister therefore has a professional obligation to act with integrity, clarity and transparency, the hallmarks of an open government. We refer to Section 24 of the South African Constitution:

The environment must be protected for the benefit of present and future generations, through responsible legislative and other measures that prevent pollution and ecological degradation; promote conservation; and secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.”

We respectfully request the Minister to provide full clarification of the following points outlined below regarding forthcoming trade and auctions. We will consider withholding and/or restricting such information to be an act of political subterfuge designed to circumvent accountability and prevent public interference.

  1. What processes of due diligence have been instated to screen potential buyers? Will background checks be done to validate South African citizenship?
  2. Will background checks be done on potential buyers in terms of previous involvement in crime or illegal wildlife trade?
  3. Who is classified as a legitimate domestic buyer? South African citizens? South African residents? Foreigners with work permits? International tourists in South Africa?
  4. Is there a limit on the number of permits issued per domestic buyer or in total, for the online auction running between 21st and 24th August?
  5. Is there a limit on the number of permits issued per domestic buyer or in total for the live auction on 19th September?
  6. Have any permits already been issued?
  7. What provisions have been made to follow up after horns are in the hands of buyers?
  8. What provisions have been made to verify the authenticity of permits? How will the DEA check the legitimacy of permits issued by provincial conservation departments, seeing that there are allegations of corruption in some departments?
  9. Has the DEA consulted with international governments to ensure horns exported from South Africa in terms of CITES regulations, remain trophies or “personal use” possessions? What follow up will be done by the authorities in those countries?
  10. What measures have been taken to prevent the “personal use” horns making their way into commercial markets, as was the problem previously with trophy hunt horn exports? What will be different this time?
  11. Are the citizens of any countries excluded from bidding?
  12. Is the government planning on selling national stockpiles? And if so, how will these sales take place and what is being planned for the funds raised by these sales?
  13. Kindly provide a detailed description of the term “personal use.”
  14. Should a buyer of rhino horn state that the “personal use” will be for medicinal purposes, how can it subsequently be verified that parts or shavings of the horn have not been sold?
  15. Who or which entity will cover the costs of the track and trace monitoring (tagging/ DNA sampling) of the horns being sold in order to distinguish legal versus illegal? This is a time consuming and costly exercise in itself, with lots of room for human error that could be abused by traffickers.

We refer to the DEA media release of 30th June 2017 and would appreciate clarification on the following statements made:

In order to populate this database, the Directorate of Biodiversity Compliance and Enforcement in the Department (“the Directorate”) is conducting an audit of all existing stockpiles of rhino horn.”

How far from completion is this audit? We have received confidential information from some rhino owners have not been audited yet.

The Department has developed an electronic database that will capture extensive details on all individual rhino horns in private and government-owned stockpiles and all newly acquired horns (which will be entered into the database on a monthly basis).”

How far from completion is the electronic database, seeing that audits have not been completed and will any domestic trade be allowed before the completion of the database? And what is the security level of this database given insider information stockpile robberies and the online capabilities of black net traders?

Once all comments have been considered and evaluated, the Department will set in motion the process for approval of the final legislation. Once approved, it will be published in the ‘Gazette’ for implementation and to announce the commencement date.”

We have not seen any notices about final legislation, the publication thereof or commencement date announcements. Is domestic trade prohibited until these steps have been taken? If so, surely any auctions are illegal? Or has the auction organizer received insider information which the public is not privy to?

We are very disturbed by what appears to be a surge in poaching since the publication of the Draft Regulations for the Domestic Trade in Rhinoceros Horn, Notice 74 of 2017. This is backed up by increasing reports of rhino poaching incidents and increased confiscations of rhino horn. This appears to be affecting not only South Africa, but other range states as well. Given that the DEA announced that there appeared to be a decrease in poaching in 2016 and that there were private rhino owners who confirmed this phenomenon, it is highly disappointing that South Africa appears to have taken two steps backwards and ignored all research confirming that trade of endangered species or their body parts actually stimulates demand and increases poaching. In the press release of 24th September 2017, the Minister states that there has been a slight decrease in rhino poaching. We beg, however, to differ. From January to June 2017: 529 rhino were poached, 243 from the Kruger National Park. From January to June 2016: 542 rhino were poached, 354 from the Kruger National Park. Excluding the KNP stats shows that poaching has risen 52% nationally.

Since the beginning of July, news has been continuously streaming in from all parts of the country, with KZN poaching stats reaching unprecedented figures for the year. Even Namibia reported 17 rhino poached by the first week of July, 2017. Over a two week period, from the end of June, at least 40 rhino were poached in the Southern Africa region. Including the known stats from areas across our borders paints a dismal picture.

Please see the number of horn seizure incidents from March 2017 (which we could find,) in the table below:

2017-03-10 Suvanrabhum IA, Bangkok ?Africa Thailand 23 horns, 49.9 kg
2017-03-14 Noi Bai IA, Hanoi ? to Kenya Vietnam 118 kg
2017-03-22 Hong Kong IA Namibia China 12 pieces/6.6 kg
2017-03-28 Hong Kong IA ? to Mozambique China 2.5 kg
2017-04-07 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia ? to Mozambique Malaysia 18 horns, 51.45 kg
2017-04-12 Mahamba, Mpumalanga South Africa South Africa 2 horns, traffickers arrested
2017-04-14 Tan Son Nhat IA, HCM City ?Africa Vietnam 4 pieces, 5 kg
2017-04-15 Maputo IA, Mozambique ?South Africa Mozambique 10.5 kg
2017-04-22 Noi Bai IA, Hanoi ? to Myanmar Vietnam 3 kg
2017-04-27 Hanoi, Vietnam ?Africa Vietnam 36 kg
2017-04-29 Assam, India ?India India 1 horn, 1 kg, poachers arrested
2017-05-06 Vryburg, NW South Africa South Africa 2 horns
2017-05-08 Tan Son Nha IA, HCM City ?Africa Vietnam 1.5 kg
2017-05-12 Eros IA, Windhoek ?Namibia Malaysia via ORT 16 pieces
2017-05-17 OR Tambo, Johannesburg South Africa Hong Kong 7.035 kg
2017-05-19 Lusaka, Zambia ?→Zambia Zambia 3.9 kg
2017-05-22 OR Tambo, Johannesburg South Africa South Africa 9 pieces, 13.2 kg
2017-04-06 West Bengal ?India India 1 horn, 145 g
2017-06-07 Hoedspruit, Limpopo South Africa South Africa 13 horns
2017-06-09 Hong Kong IA South Africa China 2.5 kg
2017-06-10 Hong Kong IA ? to Indonesia China 10.5 kg
2017-06-11 OR Tambo, Johannesburg South Africa South Africa 10 horns, 24.96 kg
2017-06-12 Wychwood, Benoni South Africa South Africa Pieces, ± R500,000
2017-06-14 Tan Son Nhat IA, HCM City ?Africa Vietnam 8 pieces, 4 kg
2017-06-14 OR Tambo, Johannesburg South Africa South Africa 5 horns, 28.7 kg
2017-06-23 Schiphol  IA, Amsterdam South Africa Holland→Laos 12 pieces
2017-06-24 West Bengal ?India India 540 g
2017-07-02 Ntamanana, KZN South Africa South Africa 1 horn
2017-07-03 Nagarakata, West Bengal ?India India 1 horn, 1.5 kg
2017-07-10 White River, Mpumalanga South Africa South Africa 1horn
2017-07-11 Hong Kong IA South Africa China Horns, 8.16 kg
2017-07-23 Moc Ba border, Vietnam ? to Cambodia Vietnam 10 pieces, 5 kg
2017-07-25 OR Tambo, Johannesburg ? to Lusaka SA to Hong Kong 11 pieces, 20 kg
2017-07-27 Chanida border, Zambia ? to Zambia Zambia 25 pieces, 32 kg

It is very easy to say that the above seizures have taken place because of increased security at ports of exit and entry, but this does not hold water in light of the surge in poaching incidents. We have to ask the question: how much rhino horn is leaving the country undetected? A recent report about how airlines are exploited to transport illegal wildlife and wildlife body parts is highly disturbing. Furthermore, there are rumours that these seizures at OR Tambo are used as distractions while larger amounts of rhino horn are leaving the country.

South Africa is reeling in the wake of revelations about the ongoing and rising levels of organized crime, corruption, bribery, theft, collusion, undue influence and State Capture. There are worrying questions about enforcement as well. Some examples are:

  • White collar crime has reached pandemic status in South Africa.
  • OR Tambo International Airport being targeted by criminals.
  • The NPA appears to be protecting alleged criminals.
  • Serious questions about the independence and efficacy of the Hawks. Even the NPA has complained. “A source at the NPA said there was mounting frustration among senior prosecutors over the “tardiness and sloppiness” of the Hawks.”
  • Decline in the efficacy of the SANDF to protect our borders, due to financial constraints.
  • Failure to prosecute rhino poaching kingpins, with allegations of bribes paid to magistrates and prosecutors in some cases.
  • High profile political figures allegedly linked to alleged rhino horn traffickers and no investigations done.
  • Break-ins and theft at key institutions and offices.
  • Rampant corruption in the issues of IDs and passports.
  • In 2016, 680 poachers and traffickers were arrested. What percentage has actually been successfully prosecuted? And the 317 poachers arrested in 2015?

These are just a microcosm of the situation and crimes being perpetuated in South Africa. We cannot understand why the Minister did not act to correct the technicalities leading to the lifting of the moratorium on domestic rhino horn trade, as outlined by Judge Legodi in the High Court ruling and thus reinstate the domestic rhino horn trade ban moratorium. Does the DEA honestly think it can effectively monitor and control legal domestic rhino horn trade? In a 2012 TRAFFIC report, the following was stated:

On the other hand, there does not appear to be any kind of regulatory framework in place to ensure that these “personal effects” are not used for “commercial purposes” in violation of CITES.”

We feel that the reinstatement of domestic rhino horn trade will exacerbate the parallel domestic and international illegal trade. Once again, a “perfect storm” for rhino poaching is being created. This will definitely not help organizations such as Interpol, involved in combating environmental crime and assisting countries to locate and arrest wanted environmental criminals. Once again, South Africa appears to be out of step with the Global Community.

In the words of Gayle Pedersen (B.Sc. Animal Biology and Conservation; M.Sc. Conservation Ecology):

As scientific research increasingly directs attention to Earth’s impending ‘Sixth Extinction’ a new publication states that we have already reached that stage (Ceballos et al. 2017.) The authors report a 43% decline in African lions since 1993, a decimation of pangolin populations, and a drop in giraffe numbers from 115,000 to 97,000 between 1985 and 2015. These all just happen to be species in high demand for wildlife trade and trophy hunting. The South African government needs to consider whether feeding the demand by promoting the trade is the answer to preserving wild populations and whether they will be able to reverse the situation if the legal trades do indeed trigger increases in demand and poaching, as many experts fear it will.

Corruption in the 21st century has reached the stage where even the G20 has implemented an Anti-Corruption Action Plan 2017-2018, with a specific focus on the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products. This is testament to the level of globalisation enabling the increased demand for illegal wildlife products. The G20 Leaders Declaration lists risk mitigation and the identification of corruption risks along the trade chain as two of the points to action under the “Prevention” focus. There is serious concern amongst global anti-trafficking players regarding South Africa’s forethought, planning and long term risk assessment associated with the online auction of rhino horn for domestic trade. The likelihood of these legally purchased horns finding their way into the illegal S.E Asian markets is great, and the implications that will have on possible demand increase,  as well as jeopardising long standing national and international agreements and demand-reduction efforts, is something the South African government does not appear to have seriously considered. The tracking of legal versus illegal trades of specific products are prone to attract further corruption through bribery and issuing of permits to make it appear as if illegally sourced products are in fact legal, the cost implications immense, and the time required substantial. This is another issue South African officials facilitated during the Vietnamese pseudo-hunting era, and there is no reason to believe that facilities are in place at this stage to prevent such corruption enabling the illegal trade of legally acquired horns into commercial markets once again.”

The Minister said in her press release:

Rhino poaching is a National Priority Crime and we continue to pursue a number of strategies to tackle this problem, working with vigour and determination, and as a collective.”

We have to ask why SA’s National Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking is still unsigned more than a year after it was drafted.

Finally, we would really like the Minister to explain the term “Demand Management,” as used in her press release. We are sure that the many organizations involved with demand reduction and education in the consumer countries, would appreciate a definition as well. Opening up the domestic rhino horn trade market sends mixed messages and flies in the face of all the work done by these organizations. Is the Minister aware that countries like Vietnam are calling on South Africa to stop the proposed rhino horn auction?

We look forward to your response.

Original can be found at Save Our Rhino

Further reference: “Proposed trade in rhinoceros horn, South Africa,” IWB, 11 February 2017

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