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Poaching: Is there an end in sight?

According to Colin Bell, the answer is yes.

I caught up with the wildlife activist on his return to South Africa from Singapore, where he'd been lecturing Asian delegates on the plight of the world's rhino.

Colin Bell, one of South Africa's foremost specialists in the wildlife industry explains why rhino will be extinct in 10 years if we don't act now.

In a new twist to the poaching saga that's had activists up in arms, Bell says South Africa must ban anything to do with hunting - especially of rhino - which would effectively turn the South African game farming industry on its head.

Asked what he thinks about government's stance, he says, "I think Edna Molewa is being given incorrect advice from people including vets, game farmers and businessmen who's thinking and suggestions are no longer valid in a consumer society."

It's an astounding statement, but Bell firmly believes South Africa is driving the ivory and rhino horn trade.

ADVICE FROM ASIA

One evening, after a lecture, Bell was taken aside by a prominent Asian official and given some illuminating advice.

The man said: "You are giving Asia mixed messages about South African wildlife. We are a consumer society and we love buying and living a consumer lifestyle. What you put on the market, Asia will consume - lots of it, fast."

Braam Malherbe, an expert in SA conservation says Chinese traditional medicine is not something that is easily changed.

"Even without proven medicinal benefit, the placebo effect cannot be understated. Anything from live Seahorses to scorpions to any animal is believed to work as a cure for a multitude of ailments. Proven benefit or not, they will still take it."

He says education, while a definite long term solution will not produce an immediate result.

Reuters reported China's economy grew 7.8% in the third quarter, its fastest pace this year as increased foreign and domestic demand pushed factory production and retail sales up.

Education for Nature - Vietnam (ENV) says growing Vietnamese demand has been fuelled by an increase in Vietnam's standard of living, giving citizens unprecedented purchasing power.

Asia, unlike the rest of the world during the recession, is doing comparatively well and, according to Bell, is thrilled about the prospect of rhino horn being legalised.

In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, putting a value on rhino and elephants worked to save the population - but, Bell says not so today. The opposite is true - we are close to losing it all.

However, many game farmers still firmly believe that "If it pays, it stays". On top of this, the lack of a centralized permitting office means permits can be issued per province, which means means hunters can kill up to nine rhino within a twelve month period without any record of having obtained a permit in another province.

With consumerism - which anti-trade lobbyists have only just woken up to - It's now no longer a case of if it pays it stays, but more like "If it stays, it pays".

SA GAME FARMING THRIVING

The SA game farming industry is thriving. So much so that one Johan Rupert and a consortium of other wealthy men spent R40 million on a single buffalo this year. Why would anyone spend R40 million on a buffalo?

Speaking on 567 CapeTalk/Talk Radio 702's The Money Show, Jacques Malan, an expert in stud game breeding and Wildlife Ranching tried to explain.

"I was privileged to be there, it was in Thabazimbi. It is a beautiful animal, a beautiful buffalo and hopefully South Africa will reap the benefits soon when it comes into production."

I wonder what he means by "hopefully South Africa will reap the benefits"? Is South Africa really reaping the benefits?

"What the commercial game farmers are trying to do is bring back the beautiful beasts that were shot out in South Africa. Buffalos with 16 inches were killed and you only read about them, you don't see them anymore."

"We try to isolate the best genes. Rare genetics are worth a lot of money. It is one of the best investments a farmer can make to invest in these rare species" adds Malan.

"Last year, I bred the record bull which was sold for R26 million. When the 53 inch bull came up, it smashed the record and sold for R46 million."

This "investment" in rare species for trophy hunting purposes is what the National Council of SPCAs (NSPCA) refers to as "unsustainable" and leads to animal cruelty.

When animals are bred for certain genetics, weaknesses and genetic defects are also bred into the population. Weaker animals are left to breed while the "stronger" ones with the desired characteristics are bred purely to be shot.

"It's also a loophole that poachers have used to obtain rhino horn," says NSPCA's senior veterinarian Ainsley Hay.

She also says there is a misconception that trophy hunting is somehow useful and a viable form of sustainable conservation. Trophy hunters claim to protect their game with the money made from trophy hunting. In reality, there is very little truth in this.

Hay added that trophy hunting is a huge draw for international tourists, and there are large profit margins for hunting operators, which can lead to inhumane and unethical practices like canned lion hunting, animals being hunted straight off of transport vehicles, and inhumane death of animals from inexperienced hunters and from hunting with the incorrect firearms or calibre bullets, and hunting with crossbows.

Asked if South Africans are breeding buffalo for a future canned buffalo industry, Malan said farmers were breeding for the "future standard of the industry and for eco-tourism," reiterating Hay's point about misconceptions.

Going back to Bell's statement: We are sending two messages to the world; "Leave our wildlife alone!" and "Please kill our animals and save South Africa!"

CALLS FOR HARSH PENALTIES

It was recently reported by the private Zimbabwe Standard Newspaper that the number was in reality more than 300, according to eyewitness accounts, and that authorities were simply covering it up and were possibly involved.

Big Game Park's Ted Riley credits the Swaziland Game Act, among other factors, for stemming the tide of Swazi rhino poaching. Since its enactment in 1991, the park has seen a grand total of three rhino poached. The difference is astounding considering Swaziland's Park is right next to the Kruger Park.

Not only do poachers get put away for good, Swazi rangers are notorious for shooting and often killing poachers on site. The Swaziland Times is full of reports documenting poachers shot and killed. Satsa spokesman David Frost says he believes poachers are simply too scared to set foot in a Swaziland Park.

In Section 27(3) of the act, the cause is addressed - it commits anyone frustrating a prosecution or in any way subverting the course of justice to a minimum of 12 months in jail without the option of a fine. No part of the penalty may be suspended by the court.

Riley says, "Where legislation fails it is usually the poor or wrongful application of the legislation that is the cause and not the legislation itself."

"Be Draconian about it. The 'put your hand in the fire and you will get burned' style of legislation is what is needed."

Both Bell and Riley agree that if something isn't done now, in 10 years' time it will be too late. Their comments here raise some serious concerns.

Is the game farming industry really doing anything for conservation? Is government blindly wondering down the wrong path? Are we sending mixed messages to Asia? Are our laws too relaxed and badly implemented?

Regardless, people out on the front line defending our rhino are saying it is a "war" they are losing against "well-organised crime syndicates", and nothing thus far has made any difference. It just gets worse and worse.

I think it's high time we get all hands on deck, stop selling anything to do with wildlife, and bring the trade in wildlife products in its entirety to a grinding halt.

This would send the message that our wildlife is not a product to be used for bogus medicinal purposes or to be mounted onto a wall, but instead say "You may look, but you may not touch. Touch and you will get burned."

Victoria Campbell-Gillies is the Eyewitness News weekend sub-editor.

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