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Contested policy could help save South Africa's endangered wildlife

F dS, Y
topics: Conservation
by: Cyril Zenda
located in: South Africa
tags: Africa, biodiversity, conservation, indigenous rights, rhino, wildlife

A proposed policy that could result in South Africa outlawing the breeding of some wildlife species in private sanctuaries has caused apprehension among players in this exclusively white sub-sector.

South African wildlife farmers are livid. The government is on the cusp of outlawing the breeding of members of the “iconic five” - the elephant, lion, white rhino, black rhino and leopard - in private sanctuaries following a recommendation by a panel of experts that concluded that the practice does more harm than good to conservation efforts.

Phasing Out wildlife Breeding Recommended

In 2020, the South African government appointed a panel of experts to look into legislation, policies and practices relating to the management, breeding, hunting, trade and handling of the country’s five iconic wildlife species. The panel submitted its findings in December of that year.

In its 582 page report, the panel recommended, among other things, the phasing out of intensive and captive rhino and lion breeding in the country, as part of a broader set of policies for wildlife conservation. 

After a series of meetings with a whole cross-section of stakeholders in the wildlife, natural resources and environment sector that were held throughout the country, the panel concluded that captive breeding operations are potentially harming the species’ future and recommended that they should be phased out. Of these, the white rhino and the lion are extensively bred in private sanctuaries in South Africa.

“Captive facilities for the five iconic species should be reviewed, with a view to phasing these out,” reads the panel’s report. “The domestication and intensive and selective breeding of the five iconic species should be prevented and restricted in legislation and regulation.” 

Compromised Genetics And survival skills

The panel concluded that the domestication and selective breeding of the animals compromise both the genetics of the populations as well as their ability to independently survive in the wild. 

“The Game Theft and Fencing Acts, which have the unintended consequence of degrading the naturalness and wildness of the wildlife estate through the fragmentation of the landscape, interrupting and degrading natural ecological processes (prevent movement, gene-flow, cause mortality etc.),” the report said. “This leads to over-management of the ecosystem and species of concern (require fencing, waterholes, artificial burning, supplemental feeding, reproductive control, supplementations, culling etc.).”

The report added “special consideration should be given to mechanisms to re-wild captive rhino from breeding facilities, as these could provide a strong conservation benefit to the species, both in South Africa and for other range states.”

The panel’s report has been accepted by the South African cabinet, and after a public comment period, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries, and the Environment will refine the policy, then draft a white paper to send to Parliament, resulting in the proposed changes becoming law.

“Importantly those objectives reversing the domestication of lion and rhino will enhance their survival in the wild,” noted the policy document issued by the government in June, which has since been the subject of intense discussion.

Proposed Policy Unsettles private sector players

It is these recommendations and their subsequent inclusion in the government’s policy paper that have rattled many in South Africa, including the 330-plus members of the Private Rhino Owners Association (PROA) to whom these changes mean sure doom for their operations.

PROA, whose members own a combined 6,300 rhinos, describes itself as “a non-profit organisation that promotes the conservation, protection and proliferation of all species of rhino on private land in South Africa and the rest of Africa.”

Sincere Conservation Or Profit-Motivated? 

As PROA considers all the options available to safeguard the interests of its members that are being imperilled by the proposed policy, there are some who question the bona fides of these private breeders as conservationists, with suggestions that they could be in it for profit, while they conveniently hide behind the fig leaf of conservation.

“He is the largest rhino owner in the world, and de-horns his rhino and stockpiles them, in anticipation of the international ban on trade of rhino horn being lifted,” the Southern African Fight For Rhinos (SAFFR), a conservation group, said of John Hume, the South African rhino baron. Hume is the proud owner of some 2,000 white rhinoceros, which account for at about 13 percent of the highly endangered specie’s global population.

Hume is seating on an oversized stockpile of close to 10-tonnes of rhino horn. “Actually, we have over 300 private rhino owners in South Africa, and most of them are also de-horning for the same reasons,” SAFFR added. 

This is an allegation that infuriates the private wildlife ranchers.

“It is simply idiotic to state we own rhino for profit,” reacted PROA's chairman, Pelham Jones, in written responses to questions from FairPlanet. “Ownership of rhino is today a massive liability in cost, risk and loss. Many private reserves are in financial distress due to some of these costs. Further, how is it possible to make profit from the ownership of rhino it is simply NOT POSSIBLE to commercially exploit rhino for profit. Please remember we are committed conservationists especially of the iconic rhino.”

'End Apartheid Inequalities'

With private game farmers being exclusively white due to the country’s brutal history of racial segregation, the complexion of the sub-sector did not escape the notice of the panel, with the report recommending that these proposed changes also tackle the proverbial elephant in the house: the politics of land ownership in South Africa - a country that the World Bank says suffers from the worst economic inequalities in the world. 

“There was a broadly held view that the wildlife industry remained a white-owned and white-managed industry and that steps needed to be taken by both government and the private sector to ensure transformation of this industry,” the panel recommended.

The National Committee of People and Parks expressed the view that 26 years after democracy the wildlife industry had remained in the hands of a minority and demanded a robust discussion around the issues of transformation and empowerment.

There are over 9,000 private game reserves covering some 50 million acres, virtually all of them in white hands. White South Africans, who make up only nine percent of the country's 60 million population, own over 70 percent of the land while blacks, who constitute 80 percent of the population, own only four cent of the resource. 

“This results in the persistence of apartheid inequalities and prevents the achievement of environmental justice through transformation of the wildlife sector and the bio-economy, as well as effective land-restitution with achievement of the components of the environmental right for this and future generations,” the panel observed. 

Fears Of Increased Poaching

With poaching being rife in South Africa - 24 rhinos were killed in the first two weeks of December - private game parks are seen as sanctuaries for most of the embattled wildlife species and some conservationists fear moves to pull down the fences could give poachers a field day.

“We now own over 60 percent of the national population and grow our numbers by about seven percent per annum whilst numbers decline on national and provincial reserves,” Jones wrote to FairPlanet. “Private rhino owners or private reserves are required to generate [their] own income to cover operational expenses, which includes security and management costs.”

Hume spends more than $2 million annually on his security, which has seen him not losing any of his stock to poachers in many years.

During the panel’s outreach, stakeholders within the ‘welfare sector’ condemned a conservation funding method in which animals pay for their own up-keep.

“Privatisation, commercialisation and commodification of wildlife is not a desirable or effective way of financing biodiversity protection - with wildlife ‘paying’ through the role of individual animals and species within functioning ecosystems, and via the real value of the services those ecosystems provide,” the report recorded them as saying.

Giving Indigenous People a Sense Of Ownership

The panel suggested that the current wildlife ownership structure in the country was in a way contributing to this poaching, as communities living near these animals do not have a sense of ownership.

“South Africa was a global pariah state under Apartheid, and South Africa is signatory to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but the wildlife sector has moved little from 1994 (when Apartheid ended), and the rights of access and traditional appreciation and use of wildlife to communities that live with are near wildlife have not been restituted; this manifests most strongly in the high levels of rhino poaching emanating from poor communities.”

Some stakeholders are demanding that just like what used to happen before private game ranches were allowed, wildlife should be held in public trust for the people, and its beneficial use must serve the public interest and be protected as the people’s common heritage. Jones vehemently dismisses claims that their stock was transferred from what is supposed to be common goods. 

“Every head of game we own, was paid for and NO transfer of common goods went to private reserves,” he wrote.

Image by Red Charlie

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Author
South Africa
John Hume, hotel magnate and rhino farmer, poses for a photograph on his ranch outside Johannesburg, South Africa.
© Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Trimmed rhino horns are seen in the back of a pick-up truck after being weighed, measured and marked, at the ranch of rhino breeder John Hume in the North West Province of South Africa.
© Leon Neal/Getty Images