Top of the conference agenda: The last chance to save the rhino

With illegal trade in rhinos and elephants soaring, East Asian countries are under pressure to cut demand
  • @mjpmccarthy

The poaching crisis now engulfing Africa’s rhinos and elephants will be top of the agenda at one of the world’s major conservation conferences next week – with a global appeal to Vietnam and China.

At the meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in Bangkok, leading states including Britain will be putting pressure on the two Asian countries to curb their domestic demand for illegal rhino horn and ivory, which is driving the illegal killing of Africa’s biggest “big beasts” to unprecedented new levels.

Last year a record 668 rhinos were poached in South Africa alone – nearly 50 per cent up from the 448 animals lost to poachers in 2011, and the mere 13 in 2007 – while global seizures of illegal ivory, at 34 tonnes, were 50 per cent higher than the previous record of 23 tonnes set in 2011.

At roughly one tonne of tusks to 10 elephants, this is well over 300 animals wiped out, but the true figure across Africa, especially in Central Africa where forest elephant populations are now being threatened with extinction, is thought to be very much higher.

The elephant slaughter is being driven by demand for carved ivory products from the burgeoning Chinese middle class, and the rhino killings by an explosive appetite for rhino horn by practitioners of traditional Asian medicine in Vietnam.

The latter is based on an urban myth of a Vietnamese politician (whom no one can name) alleged to have had his cancer cured by ingesting powdered rhino horn. Although the story is baseless, it has driven the black market price of rhino horn to $65,000 per kilo (£43,000), which is greater than the price of gold, and sparked the poaching frenzy.

At the Bangkok conference, which begins on Monday, Vietnam will be offered a comprehensive demand-reduction strategy for illegal rhino horn, which has been drawn up by a group from the Cites Standing Committee, chaired by Britain, and which focuses on public awareness. Similar suggestions will be offered to China about reducing the size of the massive illegal ivory market (made more complicated by the fact that there is also a legal ivory market in the country).

This week Britain’s Wildlife minister, Richard Benyon, spoke unambiguously about the need for Vietnam and China to take action at home. Asked how the current poaching crisis could be addressed, he said: “It can be reduced by tackling illegality in the supply chain, and on the front line of poaching, but ultimately for it to succeed, it requires in-country activities by these two countries.”

He went on: “Where there is a culture of giving gifts, such as the ivory stamps which are part of old Chinese culture, they need to understand the impact this is having thousands of miles away. And in Vietnam, it requires changing a culture where people are giving each other small amounts of rhino horn as a present. It is seen as being a miracle cure for certain serious illnesses but we know it has no more healing properties than our fingernails – it is the same material, keratin.”

Britain wanted to see a package of measures agreed at Bangkok which would include the adoption of demand-reduction strategies by the key countries, he said.

“We want these countries to toughen their domestic legislation and the control of internal markets, and there has to be a mechanism within the international community to act, if countries fail to do that.”

A crucial aspect of Cites is that it is a trade agreement – and if nations fall foul of it or fail to meet their obligations, trade sanctions could be imposed.

This means Vietnam or China might be forbidden from exporting or importing items covered by the convention, and in the case of some rare and extremely valuable tropical timbers, for example,  this might run into hundreds of millions of pounds.

The scale of rhino deaths

In South Africa alone, 633 rhinos were killed in 2012. This compares with an average poaching rate of 12 animals per year across the country between 2000 and 2007. Since then the average annual figures have shot up at an astonishing rate, going from 13 in 2007 to 83 in 2008, 122 in 2009, 333 in 2010 and 448 in 2011. South Africa has about 20,000 rhinos, or 80 per cent of all the rhinos in Africa.