Can Sustainable Utilisation Save Our Rhino?

Rhino Image

Sustainable utilisation (SU) is a very popular as well as controversial term among wildlife conservationists. Basically, the idea of SU encourages natural resources to be “harvested” from an animal in a safe manner that will not endanger the continued survival of the species in question.

John Hume believes that if we don’t make use of SU in South Africa, we will not only lose our Rhino, but we will lose a lot of our other precious wildlife species as well. He stated, “If you want an animal to thrive, give it a value.”

Sustainable Utilisation saved the vicuñas

Although SU has been shunned by many Animal Rightists, history has proved that SU can save endangered animals as well as maintain the state of all other wildlife species. A perfect example of this is the South American vicuña, a wild camelid species that produces a fine wool coat, which has an extremely high economic value. The Vicuña’s fibre is considered one of the 2 finest natural fibres in the world - the wool can be spun 8 times finer than human hair and is sought after by the fashion industry. A pure vicuña wool coat will cost you anything from about R100 000.

In the mid 1960s, Europeans discovered the valuable fibre and it was harvested; many vicuñas were killed. Only about 6 000 vicuñas remained. Realising that the species was in danger, in 1966, programs were launched to protect the animals. Unfortunately, these efforts were labour intensive, slow and not very effective.

1n 1975, the species was listed as a CITES appendix 1 species. All trade in their products was banned - a very similar sequence of events to the rhino.

In the 1980, Grupo Inca, textile manufacturers, initiated the “Shear a vicuña to save a vicuña” campaign as well as developed a business plan that included paying local communities to protect the species and gather wool sustainably. Group Inca, together with the CEO of Loro Piana, an Italian luxury-fashion company, pushed for the legalisation of trading vicuña’ wool.

CITES agreed to lift the ban on the trade. To save the vicuña from becoming extinct due to poachers killing them, the idea of allowing local communities to conserve the animals and extract the wool and commercialise it fell into place. In the 1990s and 2000s, the communities were introduced to harmlessly shearing the vicuñas and managing the population. The management programs in South America have served two purposes:

  • Preserving the species
  • Improving the social and economic state of the local communities

The programs have been successfully uplifting the local communities, allowing them to earn profit from the sale of the fibre.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the Vicuñas are listed as a species of Least Concern. The population of the species has risen to about 350 000.

Watch CITES and Vicuñas - a conservation journey.

How are the rhino any different from the vicuña?

The rhino, like the vicuña:

  • Have a similar history
  • Have an extremely valuable product that is in demand
  • Have a sustainable product (the horn from the rhino, like the hair from the vicuña, regrows)
  • Are surrounded by poverty stricken communities
  • Are threatened by poaches

“Sell the horn to save the rhino”

If we take a look at Kenya’s wildlife, we see that their nonconsumptive, no-trade policies have had a negative impact on their wildlife and local communities. Over the last five decades, wildlife in Kenya has declined by about 70% and poverty and poaching have become rife.

In the 1970s, about 20 000 Black Rhinos roamed kenya; today, there are only about 540 left. Most of kenya’s wildlife is found in unprotected areas and, over the last few years, wildlife in the country has been declining at a rate of 5% per year.

Sadly, if things in Kenya do not change, there will be no wildlife for tourists to visit, demonstrating that their flawed environmental management policies are threatening both their exquisite wildlife populations and habitats as well as their entire country’s economy and the livelihood of every single Kenyan citizen.

South Africa has been taking a different approach to wildlife. Our economic policies for wildlife, both consumptive and nonconsumptive, have led to a thriving wildlife industry. Over 25 million heads of game are privately owned and about a quarter of that is in national parks. This shows how South Africa’s wildlife is flourishing in the hands of private owners.

But if we take a look at the state of rhinos in South Africa, owning rhinos has become extremely expensive. John Hume is spending about R5 million rand every month on running costs, most of which is spent on the protection of the rhinos, including dehorning, surveillance, etc. His costs for owning rhinos has tripled over the last 10 years due to poaching. The only way he can continue his Captive Breeding Operation is to trade his rhino horn and use that money to cover his protection costs.

Why not apply the same tactics that saved the vicuña to save our rhino?

10 years ago, when trading rhino horns was legal, we did not have poaching like we do today. The demand was being met in the east and rhinos were safe; however, the Moratorium introduced by the Government and other actions stopped the supply of horns from Africa to the east abruptly - now poaching has continued to increase.

Our aim should be to increase the supply of horn to the market so that there is less reason for poachers to kill the animals illegally.

Hume believes that SU will save the rhino, like it has other species.

“I am persecuted by the government and the rest of the world for breeding rhino - and, they’ve made it difficult for me to sell my horn. If I do not sell my rhino horn, in 10 years, all my rhino will be dead.”

Why are rhino still threatened? Is it perhaps because the man that breeds the most rhino in the world is not seen as a conservationist?

Additional Information:

  • CITES species database: Vicugna Vicugna, (Accessed July 2017)
  • Grewell Grewell, J.B. 2000. Shear a Vicuna to Save a Vicuna. (Accessed July 2017)
  • Tanya Jacobsen. 2012. Rhino and Vicuña: A Parallel.
  • Geoffrey Irungu. 2014. Wildlife Population Dips by a Quarter in Five Years (Accessed July 2017)
  • Geoffrey Wahungu. (n.d). Saving Kenya’s Black Rhinos. (Accessed July 2017)
  • CITES. (2014, March 11). CITES and Vicuñas - a conservation journey. [Video file]. Retrieved from YouTube.
  • The Conservation Imperative. (2015, August 6). Rhino in Crisis: A Blueprint for Survival. [Video file]. Retrieved from Vimeo.
Share this Post: