Why rhino conservation is an economic issue

22 Sep 2019

The wildlife economy has the power to solve the rhino poaching crisis, according to a panel of leading conservationists convened by Investec to mark World Rhino Day. 

In the last decade, 8,889 rhinos have been poached in Africa – and the figure is rising at a rate of 2.5 deaths per day. While the problem is part of a global decline in wildlife that the UN has described as ‘unprecedented’, the rhino crisis impacts South Africa most heavily because it’s where 80% of the world rhino population is found.
 
In a recent panel discussion ahead of World Rhino Day, Tanya dos Santos – head of group sustainability at Investec – described the issues around poaching in South Africa as ‘complex’ and re-affirmed that the business is committed to “meaningful” action on conservation.
 
“Species are at risk of extinction due to economics, misinformation and poverty,” she told the audience. Dos Santos was joined by environmentalist – and former GB hockey star – Crista Cullen MBE, and founder of Care for Wild Petronel Nieuwoudt, to discuss
solutions. 
 

Leading conservationists talk at Investec about how the wildlife economy has the power to solve the rhino poaching crisis.

Leading conservationists talk at Investec about how the wildlife economy has the power to solve the rhino poaching crisis.

The demand for ivory

Investec has supported organisations that rescue and rehabilitate rhino since 2012 – as part of its Rhino Lifeline initiative. Central to this work is the need to educate local communities who hunt the animals. “They don’t realise that their proximity [to wildlife] is a
privilege,” explained Crista.
 
In rural areas of South Africa, hunting is a tradition for community leaders who support around 25 people at any time. Rhinos are poached because their horns are made of ivory and the material can be sold for $60,000 per kilogram: the poachers are paid by traffickers who service demand from wealthy consumers in Vietnam and China.
Rhinos are poached because their horns are made of ivory and the material can be sold for $60,000 per kilogram
The economic logic of flooding the market with ivory to quell demand does not apply here. It is thought that a controlled de-horning of rhino would simply lead to demand for the material from less affluent sectors of international society. In addition, de-horned rhinos can become targets for human trackers who kill them to make locating animals with intact horns easier.
 
Instead, skill development and employment of local men and women could create a sustainable alternative livelihood for impoverished families, and protect rhinos in the process. 

Conservation through education and employment

Care for Wild is currently training approximately 330 individuals to become wildlife rangers in areas of South Africa. Individuals are recruited for a one-year programme and are educated about the ethics of work. “It has changed the perception of the local community,” said Dos Santos.
 
Trainees on the programme learn agricultural duties such as river-clearing and plant control and are taught to grow vegetables, macadamia nuts and avocados. “This is wildlife economics,” added Nieuwoudt. “Immediately, the tribe leaders see it as a way of developing the area… Then we will save the rhino.”
A portrait of Sudan, who was the last living male Northern white rhinoceros, at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia, Kenya
‘This is a wake-up call to humankind that our actions have irreversible consequences for the species we cherish.’

A WWF statement following the death of Sudan (pictured), the last remaining male Northern white rhino, in 2018

Conservation through rehabilitation

Caring for orphaned rhino is another task for the trainees and it highlights the brutality of poaching. The rhinos which are brought to the Care for Wild sanctuary are frequently bleeding from attacks by poachers who have killed their mothers. Rearing can involve around 15 days of constant care before rehabilitation into orphan herds, and the process is understandably emotional.
 
“When you see a rhino released back into the wild, it’s unbelievable,” said Nieuwoudt. “We must make the community realise that this is their heritage.” It can also be the future. “This could be tourism. This could be 400 jobs. Let’s have a healthy community and a healthy ecosystem for everyone.”