Legal rhino horn and ivory trade should benefit Africa, says Swaziland government


Karl Mathiesen, The Guardian

Date Published

The government of Swaziland has called the destruction of rhino horn
“extravagantly wasteful destruction” and accused western NGOs of
compromising Africa’s wildlife by blocking the legalisation of the
ivory and rhino horn trades.

In an official document sent to the Convention on International Trade
in Endangered Species (Cites) the government of the tiny African state
claimed unnamed NGOs have become dominated by “activists who do not
live with the day to day realities on the ground, who do not face the
grave dangers of protecting rhinos [from poaching] in the bush, who do
not cover the enormous costs necessary to protect them”.

Cites banned the international trade of elephant ivory and rhino horn
in 1989 and 1977 respectively. On Sunday, the congress of the
International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) passed a
motion that softened the ground for a ban on all domestic trade in
ivory as well.

Swaziland called trade bans a “failed policy”. The only way to fight
the poaching gangs, the document said, was to sustainably manage
stocks of elephant and rhino and sell their valuable protuberances

“African rhinos belong to Africa and they should surely benefit those
countries in Africa which own them,” the document said. Swaziland
estimates it could raise $9.9m from its 330kg stockpile of horn
collected from naturally deceased animals and confiscated from

Swaziland surprised the wildlife community earlier this year by
issuing a proposal to sell its stockpile in order to pay for the
conservation of its herd of 73 white rhinos. There is a similar push
from Namibia and Zimbabwe to lift the global ban on ivory for tusks
from their countries. The motions will be discussed at the triennial
Cites conference to be held in just over two weeks in South Africa.

None of the proposals are expected to succeed and Swaziland blames
“armchair preservationists or anti-trade activists” for hijacking the
response to a poaching crisis that has seen a 10-year 30% decline in
African savannah elephants and could send rhinos to oblivion within
decades. The Swaziland government says that NGOs are trying to “impose
their foreign values and influence on Africa”.

The idea of legalising the trade in a species’ parts in order to
preserve them it is not without backers beyond the southern African
states. Enrico Di Minin, an economist at the University of Helsinki,
believes the trade could bring $717m to South Africa and protect its
rhino populations.

“Only a legal trade in ivory can stop elephant poaching,” Dan Stiles,
a member of the African Elephant Specialist Group, told the Guardian.

But there is strong opposition from many conservationists to any move
back towards a legal trade. WildAid is one of many NGOs that has
attempted to drive down demand for the products in Asia, using
celebrities to spread their message.

WildAid CEO Peter Knights said: “It’s not just western activists, most
African countries think it’s a bad idea too. The reality is we’ve
tried ‘strictly-regulated’ ivory trade twice [and] poaching quickly

Heather Sohl, WWF-UK’s chief advisor on wildlife said that funding
conservation through a legal trade was merely theoretical.

“At present, there is no proven way for consumer countries to manage a
regulated horn trade without allowing significant quantities of
illegal horn into the market. For these reasons legalising trade runs
huge risks of exacerbating the current poaching crisis rather than
resolving it,” she said.

The Swaziland submission was partially drafted by the operators of Big
Game Parks, a private company that manages three game reserves in the
tiny kingdom. The CEO of Big Game Parks Ted Reilly also heads the
government’s anti-poaching body.

In May, the head of Kenya’s wildlife service Richard Leakey accused
Swaziland of acting as a puppet for South African game farmers who
recently won a legal battle to legalise the domestic trade in that

Reilly, who co-authored the Swaziland position paper, said the
accusation was “absolutely wrong” and denied any influence from South
Africa’s game parks or its government.

“We stand totally independently on this position and we have got a lot
of support from other southern African states,” he said.

The missive did not reserve criticism for NGOs. On Thursday, the US
government and San Diego Zoo destroyed a stockpile of rhino horn worth
$1m. This type of symbolic destruction has become common in recent
years as governments demonstrate their commitment to treat certain
animal products in the same way as illicit drugs.

But Swaziland’s government said these events were “extravagantly
wasteful destruction”.

“What is the difference between burning $170m worth of self-renewing
natural resources and taking $170m in cash out of the bank and
throwing it all on the fire?” said the submission.

“Only a rhino needs a rhino horn, and it’s time we all understood
that,” said US Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe on Thursday
as his officials burned their contraband.