I was working this morning when a story about the legalization of the rhino horn trade in South Africa drifted across my computer screen. The South African Supreme Court yesterday struck down a ban on domestic sales of rhinoceros horns. International trade is still illegal, but the verdict makes it possible to now sell horns inside the country.
Harvesting horns can be done without killing the rhinoceros. If the horn is cut off above the root it will grow back. One rhino rancher in the story said he had stockpiled five tons of horns since the domestic ban was implemented in 2009.
But the lifting of the ban opens the door for the sale of illegally harvested horns too. And considering the value of rhino horn, the market demand in Asia and the corruption prevalent in South Africa, it seems destined to bolster the illicit trade.
Two years ago I was in South Africa. I was there for work, but I had time to tour Kruger National Park, one of the largest game reserves in Africa and home to many rhinos. I drove through after a week in Mozambique alongside Majka Burhardt working on a development project in the newly-born Limpopo National Park. The project was short-lived, but it gave me a chance to see Kruger, and Limpopo.
It also gave me a chance to see just how complicated effective conservation can be, even when what is at stake is something as endangered and iconic as rhinoceros.
Limpopo abuts Kruger National Park, sitting just over the Mozambican border. It’s about half the size of Kruger, running roughly half its length. On paper the two are similar—massive game reserves that together form a transnational park—but where Kruger has a 100+ year tradition of conservation Limpopo is brand new. The roads are rough, the facilities primitive, the infrastructure nonexistent. Mozambique is nowhere close to South Africa in its development or its ability to provide effective governance. One South African telling us, “This is real Africa,” like his country was Africa-light.
And it seemed true: South Africa is far more developed than its neighbors. The Mozambican government had hired a team of white South Africans to help implement the new national park and teach Mozambique the techniques that had made Kruger successful. And those South Africans collectively shook their heads at the challenges in Limpopo.
The largest challenge? Poaching. Specifically, rhino poaching. But not in Limpopo; in Kruger. Poachers were using Limpopo as a launching point for excursions into Kruger, where stocks of rhinos were plentiful, and as a refuge for once they had possession of a horn.
Limpopo is a new park, new enough that it still contains villages. As we passed over its rough dirt roads small outposts of huts sprang up. Inhabitants numbering in the dozens, perhaps up to 50. Those villages, according to park officials, are where the poachers live.
But Limpopo lacks animals. In two days there we saw one Cape buffalo. In Kruger we saw whole herds. We saw zero lions, zero elephants, zero hippopotamus. Compared to Kruger Limpopo was desolate, empty of the game that make African parks famous. A hunting concession in its former life, Limpopo was barren. So while the 20th century offered Kruger’s animal populations protection, Limpopo’s fauna faced getting shot. Today anything within its borders is protected, but in reality there isn’t much left to protect.
And according to park officials, the villagers in Limpopo include teams of poachers who sneak across the border to shoot rhinos, hack off the horns with axes and then return home.
As we drove through the villages an official pointed to one of the huts. A pickup truck sat parked out front. “That’s a poacher,” he said. They don’t hide it. They don’t have to.
On the Kruger side, however, they do. In the field it’s often the sound of the ax that gives them away. The chopping—you can hear it for miles. But still, it’s hard to catch them in the act. Often times patrols find the bloody carcass with a snout in tatters.
It would be tempting to just move the villagers, to declare Limpopo a park and demand they find somewhere else to live, but this isn’t 1898. Native people have rights, and like the rhino, they also are in need of protection. Limpopo officials would love to pick up the villages and relocate the inhabitants outside the park, instantly cutting the poachers’ easy access to the rhinos, but in the modern era relocating native people is no simple task. What is the government to do, put them on “reservations” somewhere nearby? The world has a long history of such maneuvers, of taking people pulled from their native soil and forcibly settled on some new plot of land. Few of these tales have happy outcomes.
So in Limpopo the rights of villagers to clash with those of the rhinoceros. Protect the rights of one or the other, but not both. Who should officials prioritize? In hindsight either choice will likely wind up seeming crass and misguided.
But perhaps that is modern conservation: the easy problems have been solved. What’s left are difficult, intractable ones. It might be that way everywhere, not just in Limpopo.
And now South Africa has cracked the door to the rhino horn market. The problem doesn’t grow any simpler.