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Rhino Poaching and Assassination Highlight Need for Private Wildlife Conservancies to Move Beyond Tourism

  • Catherine E. Semcer
  • © Franco Pecchio

    South Africa has experienced an increase in rhino poaching following a lull during the Covid-19 lockdown. Earlier this month, the country’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries, and the Environment reported that 259 rhinos had been poached during the first half of 2022. This is a four percent increase in the number of animals killed during the same period last year. 

    Rhino poaching incidents appear to be moving away from South Africa’s national parks and into private wildlife conservancies where roughly 40 percent of the country’s rhinos are found. The poaching increase also correlates with the recent assassination of the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve’s lead ranger, Anton Mzimba. His murder is the first assassination of a ranger in South Africa believed to have been carried out by a rhino poaching cartel. 

    These foreboding escalations demonstrate the ongoing challenges facing South Africa’s private wildlife conservancies as a result of Covid-19. The global tourism shutdown brought on by the pandemic resulted in significant revenue declines for many conservancies, while the costs of operations, particularly anti-poaching programs, remain high. Many conservancy owners were forced to make across-the-board cutbacks, including anti-poaching units and related security efforts. 

    While tourism is beginning to return to South Africa, there are still persistent gaps in conservancy operations, contributing to the recent growth in rhino poaching and related violence. This highlights the need for private wildlife conservancies with rhinos to move beyond tourism as a primary source of revenue. An industry-wide push to diversify revenue streams could increase its resiliency to pandemic-like shocks while providing sustainable capital needed to ensure the security of its members and its wildlife assets.

    This reality is not lost on South Africa’s private rhino owners, who for years have been lobbying to relax global restrictions on the trade of rhino horn. They argue that the current trade ban creates the black market for rhino horn that fuels poaching. They also argue that allowing rhino owners to supply consumer demand in China and elsewhere would generate profits. These profits could be used to cover the costs of anti-poaching and other rhino conservation measures.

    Whether or not a legal trade would work as envisioned remains a subject of debate. What is clear, though, is that this option is not viable in the near term due to strong political opposition from the international community and the need to resolve issues like supply-chain sustainability and transparency.

    A more viable near-term option for South Africa’s rhino owners may be leveraging their animals to tap into growing carbon markets. Research indicates that grazing by rhinos can create carbon sinks by transforming grasslands and reducing wildfire risk. This creates possible opportunities for rhino owners to not only sell carbon credits on their land but also to pull additional value from the rhinos themselves.

    Recent analysis published by the National Academy of Sciences linked tens of billions of dollars in value to the conservation of elephants in Central Africa and the carbon services those animals provide. A similar analysis for South Africa’s rhinos, as well as the creation of a potential market, should be a research and development priority. 

    Indeed, a  “rhino carbon” system would not only benefit wildlife-conservancy owners. It would also potentially give companies operating in South Africa a domestic option to reduce their carbon tax burden in ways that amplify the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) credentials of doing so. A “rhino carbon” system might also be a future pathway for U.S. investors as the Biden administration seeks to strengthen economic ties with Africa while supporting conservation and climate-smart development at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit slated for December. 

    The recent increase in rhino poaching and related violence on South Africa’s private wildlife conservancies is deeply concerning. Ensuring it is not the start of a trend requires that rhino owners have increased resources to provide security and resiliency for their people, animals, and operations. Moving beyond tourism as a primary source of revenue is essential to achieving this end. Carbon markets are a potentially promising avenue the industry should seek to take advantage of and develop.

    Written By
    • Catherine E. Semcer
      Catherine E. Semcer

      Catherine E. Semcer is a research fellow with the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Montana and the African Wildlife Economy Institute at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. She also serves as a member of the Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

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