Make reality your friend

“Make Reality your Friend.” Dr Ian Player

Reflections from Francois du Toit: CEO: African Conservation Trust and Citizen of Africa: Custodian of our Wildlife Heritage

So here we are. 1 February 2012. It’s another hot day in Africa for those of us living here, 35°Celsius outside and not much better inside. As I write this, somewhere in South Africa a fence is breached, a rhino is killed, a poacher runs with a bloody horn in a bag through the dusty thorn tree thickets to the waiting buyer. A payment is made: 2 years’ worth of income (at normal daily wages) in a community where unemployment is around 70 – 80%, HIV/AIDS has ravaged the working age population and flies swarm around the mouths of potbellied children. It’s not just in Ethiopia!

A whole month has flown past already. 31 days of 2012 gone, and so too, another 30 odd rhino slaughtered in South African game reserves.

Increasing sentiment and emotion surround “the issue”. Flocks of people waxing lyrical on facebook, tweeting, pinging, zip, zap, whatever… (I’m over 40 so most of this goes over my head). What I do know though is that the electronic media is powerful platform for all its members and well qualified perspectives rub shoulders with hysterical outbursts of ill-informed rage. And as the discourse builds, the battle lines are drawn.

Dr Ian Player has challenged me and the staff of ACT to think carefully about two issues: the first is: making reality our friend. The other is being clear about the difference between emotion and sentiment. I’ll deal with the first challenge here….

What are the realities (plural) of the rhino poaching crisis? And how do we make friends with them?

From an African Conservation Trust perspective, we are at the coalface. As a founder member of Project Rhino KZN, we are not directly in the line of fire but interface daily with those that are, and we are acutely aware of the reality on the ground. Some realities which we have to embrace in order to find real solutions are:

  • Anti-Poaching Unit members are receiving death threats, particularly those who do their work too well. They risk their lives daily, working long hours in the hot sun, under-resourced, covering vast areas, often only able to react once an incident has occurred.
  • Demand from the East is not going to abate any time soon. With an increasingly affluent middle class, a 3,000-year old civilisation and cultural belief system is not going to change quickly, no matter how much we beg, plead, shake our fists or conduct “educational programmes”.

o ‘Seek first to understand and then be understood…’

  • The majority of South Africa’s game reserves are surrounded by communities made up of thousands of people. Some of them were forcibly removed, most are impoverished, and the issue of human-wildlife conflict and uneven distribution of resources is a reality that is plain to see over the electrified, patrolled fences.
  • Like it or not, Rhino horn is a trading commodity. At present it has been driven underground by CITES regulations, but like every other sought-after commodity (think oil, diamonds), reducing supply simply increases demand – and price.

So how do we make friends with reality? Responsible trade in Rhino horn is a logical answer (note the emphasis on the word ‘responsible’). It’s not the only answer, but give this some thought: anecdotal evidence says that South Africa has a stockpile of 40 tons of rhino horn that has been collected from animals that have died of natural causes. If this was responsibly released into the market over a 10 year period, it could nett the conservation authorities and others working to protect all wild species (not just Rhino) a staggering $2,4 billion at current market prices of $60,000 per kilogram. It would also stop rhino poaching in its tracks, not just here in SA, but also in other African countries where rhino are quickly being driven to the point of extermination.

However, corruption exists at all levels of society and that is another reality that we have to accept. Will it get better or worse, if we legalise limited trade, under strict controls and conditions?

Another reality we need to face head-on is the issue of hunting and its role in conservation. I’m not a hunter: pointing a gun at a wild animal and then having it stare glassy-eyed from my lounge wall does not appeal to me. But hunting is a valuable source of income to both conservationists and communities.

The global hunting fraternity is lucrative and vast and the reality is that they have ploughed more money into conservation than animal activists have. It may seem a contradiction but the funds gained from hunting have directly contributed to the growth and expansion of SA’s protected areas and played a big role in saving the White rhino from extinction back in the 1960’s.

There is a big difference between controlled hunting for conservation’s benefit – and indiscriminate hunting for sport, which is another issue entirely. Hunting for sport enjoyment only, is where no controls exist and animals are killed without thought to the wider biodiversity needs of a specific reserve. This type of hunting we do not condone and will speak out very strongly against it at every opportunity.

Whether you like it or not, hunting for the benefit of conservation is a reality that exists and works, particularly when it involves community-owned reserves, like the Makhasa Community reserve, which hit the headlines recently for all the wrong reasons.

People have to benefit from conservation if it is to continue to exist and this is especially true for poor communities who have been persuaded to turn their lands over to wildlife instead of crops and cattle. That is a reality that we must befriend. Ploughing money back into communities through managed hunting and stock control is a necessity, as human populations continue to grow and pressurise our natural resources.

It also means working with these communities to add value, teaching conservation agriculture skills, developing natural resource bases, creating access to water and understand their real needs. This is what ACT and others in our field do, providing another level of anti-poaching support to the reserves.

The issue at hand is the sustainable use of wildlife and wildlife products: this is a reality that we have to make friends with.

So what is the answer? I’m not sure I or ACT has all the answers, no-one ever does. But we need to take off our rose-tinted glasses and see reality for what it is. Only then will we be able to consider real alternatives that have a chance of working. Only then, can we look forward to a future where the rhino and other animals continue to roam Africa’s wild places.

Make reality your friend – then do something. It will all help – every bit does count. Thousands of individuals built the pyramids, and countless others helped to preserve our natural heritage – and continue to do so. If you can do nothing else, then give a dollar. We’re going to raise ZAR 10 million this year for solutions that are grounded in reality. Sounds a lot? Not really, if 100,000 individuals give ZAR10, or US$1 each.

Chat soon. Francois

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