Why legalising rhino horn trading will save the threatened Big Five member

One of the contested items on the agenda of the CITES CoP17 world wildlife conference which starts in Johannesburg this weekend will be the trade in rhino horn. The figures cited by environmental journalist Yolandi Groenewald in City Press last Sunday are frightening – 6000 rhinos lost to poaching since 2007 and more than 700 this year alone. South Africa will host 183 countries at the two-week conference. An article by an Australian freelance journalist, Mic Smith was posted on the Daily Maverick website on 13 September in which he alleged that the late Dr Ian Player would have been opposed to commercialised rhino farming now being practised. This contention is challenged by a contemporary of Player, David Cook, in the article below. – Ed Herbst

By David Cook*

On 13 September an article by an Australian freelance journalist, Mic Smith was posted on the Daily Maverick website. Its headline was Greenwashing and the Farmed Five: The Privatisation of rhinos and its contents must not go unchallenged.

His assertions on legalising the trade in rhino horn, headlined by a wildly inaccurate claim that the late Dr. Ian Player “would turn in his grave “ at the very thought of commercialising white rhino held on private land for the purpose of harvesting horn for sale through a legal trade, reveals a very poor grasp of the facts. Or is this yet another naïve distortion of the truth?


Like so many anti trade, anti-sustainable use activists and preservationist zealots, Smith prunes facts and events to suit his case suitably reinforced – because it sounds so impressive – with Dr. Ian Players name and reputation.

Here are the facts:

  • Dr Player was an outspoken advocate of a legal trade in rhino horn and deplored, with growing frustration before his death, the failure of both the RSA authorities and international conservation bodies to come to terms with the realities of effective conservation management in South Africa – indeed Africa. He was at all times in his long career a highly pragmatic conservationist and an abiding author of flexible, rational solutions to conservation management problems – a pioneering champion of sustainable utilisation.
  • An example was his realisation in the 1960’s that the sale of wild surplus White Rhino into captivity in overseas zoos, often in close confinement and under the kind of stressful conditions that Mic Smith would undoubtedly abhor. But it was a means to an end, a worthwhile sacrifice to ensure survival of the species in the event of an unseen catastrophic event (such as anthrax) in its native habitat.
  • In 1971 Dr Player also championed the sale and deregulation of White Rhino in then Natal Province to allow private ownership of rhino for hunting purposes on private land. It would not be an extravagant assertion to claim that the principle reason why today there are over 6000 White Rhino on over 300 private holdings in South Africa stemmed from the initiative he brought to the fore at a time when the market for live rhino – both local and overseas – was reaching saturation. Increased biodiversity has been the main beneficiary of private ownership and commercial ranching.
  • Above all – and as incontrovertible proof of Dr Player’s support for legal trade in horn – was his patronage of The Conservation Imperative, an informal South African based NGO dedicated to promoting sustainable use of wildlife resources and focusing on advancing the cause for the urgent introduction of a legal trade in rhino horn. Initially, like all of us who worked closely with him on the project (reference film Rhino in Crisis; A Blueprint for Survival and Dr. Player’s impassioned plea in his interview which appears in that film, for trade to be introduced) Dr Player’s aim was to restrict a legal trade to horn derived from natural mortalities; but as the realisation that such a source would be insufficient to compete against the illegal market he was– his pragmatism to the fore – converted to the concept of using harvested horn to create a long term effective tool to combat the sale of poached horn; he endorsed the John Hume rhino farming project because he believed that while it is not the most ethical solution, it could nonetheless act as the crucial safeguard against the poaching of wild rhino in formally protected areas. That was Dr Player’s endgame scenario – not his choice but what he rationalised as a trade–off worthy of endorsement in achieving a greater goal – the survival of a species.
More magic available at www.jerm.co.za

There is growing evidence that many misinformed commentators ( and Smith is a classic example ) along with those passive constituencies representing public opinion – both nationally and worldwide – fail to understand the realities of a wildlife crisis that Dr Player understood so well and which Mic Smith is abysmally out of touch with. It remains a tragedy and a grave dishonour to the hard-won legacy of Dr. Player, that in a world held fast in the emotive, octopus- like grip of animal rightism, well intentioned people would seemingly prefer to uphold an outdated, puritanical code of wildlife management dogma rather than accept that an economic solution to sustaining the wellbeing of a species might well stem the tide. More puzzling still is that fact these same people continue to perpetrate subjective conclusions around legal trade when it has never been put to the test and in the face of a relentless continuation of poaching throughout the rhino range.

This in spite of increased law enforcement, translocations of rhino to so- called rhino strongholds, anti-poaching militarism, demand reduction programmes, symbolic burning of horn stockpiles, international MOA’s and public awareness propaganda. Coupled with the disingenuous announcement by Minister Molewa on 11 Sept that rhino poached in Kruger Park in the first eight months of 2016 decreased by 99 animals to 458 cannot conceal the grim reality of the other barely disguised statistic that incursions into the park increased by 27,96% to 2115! Message received! – we will get the horn no matter where the rhino might be, or what you do to protect them in the wild.

More magic available at www.jerm.co.za

Mic Smith and his ilk may well find themselves as unwitting spectators at what is emerging as a slow but inexorable extinction event. That, without a shadow of doubt, is what would cause Dr. Player to turn in his grave.

  • David Cook was a working colleague and close friend of Dr. Ian Player. He is a former Chief Conservator for Zululand, having succeeded Dr. Player in 1974 , and later rose to Deputy Director of the Natal Parks Board. His experience in the field of wildlife conservation management and administration covers 54 years and includes the early days of capture and translocation of rhino both regionally and overseas.