Minister’s wildlife plans a jumbo worry
Conservationists are alarmed by Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa's increasingly dangerous ‘conservation’ proposals
Many conservationists are becoming increasingly alarmed about a spate of controversial proposals by Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa they feel could jeopardise attempts to conserve the Big Five animals.
Over the past two months Molewa has published draft regulations which, if approved, would allow the export of 800 lion skeletons annually, reopen trade in rhino horn and reverse a moratorium on leopard hunting.
There is also widespread alarm over the government’s decision to shoot hundreds of buffalo in the Kruger National Park to provide meat for impoverished communities.
In January the government proposed an export quota of 800 captive-bred lion skeletons, despite the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recommending that SA shut down its lion-breeding industry, which experts say is unethical and has no value to lion conservation.
In February, less than a month after confirming it was extending its ban on leopard hunting for another year to aid the recovery of populations, the Department of Environmental Affairs released draft regulations which critics say promotes leopard hunting.
In the same month, Molewa published draft regulations to legalise the sale of rhino horn under certain conditions.
Environmentalists say the department is kowtowing to pressure from a handful of private rhino owners who claim that by allowing the controlled legal sale of horn, the market will be stimulated and the price will drop.
But with the same experiment in ivory sales leading to devastating results in the 1990s, many are unwilling to take the gamble.
SANParks and other conservationists have strong antipoaching measures in place, but the staggering decimation of elephant herds in Mozambique and Tanzania has left many concerned that elephant poaching in SA will increase.
From zero ivory poaching incidents three years ago, 80 poached elephants have been recorded over the last 18 months.
"Poaching is increasing, although it’s mainly in the north [of Kruger] at this stage," says head of SANParks special projects Johan Jooste.
"It is not yet out of hand and we have made it difficult with the measures we have in place, but the threat is real. One must expect it and one must be prepared for an onslaught."
Mozambique, which shares Kruger’s eastern border in the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, has the second-highest elephant carcass ratio in Africa, having lost nearly half of its population in five years, with its Niassa region losing 63% in the past three years.
Zimbabwe has lost up to 74% of elephants in some areas.
"We’re looking at a rapidly declining population. Poaching in Mozambique’s Parque Nacional de Limpopo is definitely out of control and elephants are now being killed right on the Kruger border. It will soon be happening in the park itself," says Elephants Alive senior scientist Michelle Henley.
"I saw no elephants when I flew over the northern sections of the Parque Nacional de Limpopo last year."
The most recent count shows that 30 % of Africa’s elephants have been wiped out in the past 10 years.
At the 2016 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) meeting in Johannesburg, SA defied many elephant conservationists when a unanimous decision to vote against split-listing elephants between Appendix l (threatened species not permitted for trade) and Appendix II (threatened species allowed to be traded with a Cites permit) was blocked by the EU and supported by SA, Zimbabwe and Namibia.
Molewa claimed that SA’s elephant population of about 25,000 was stable and the decision was "a victory for scientific, evidence-based decision-making".
Although nonbinding, a call for nations to shut down their domestic ivory markets was supported at the 2016 IUCN World Congress and endorsed by Cites weeks later.
But unlike the US and China, which are actively shutting down ivory retail, SA ignored the recommendation.
Speaking on behalf of southern African countries, Molewa said: "Cites should guard against just banning or closing domestic markets; it’s not the role of this body. They are responsible for international trade.
We’re looking at a rapidly declining population. Poaching in Mozambique’s Parque Nacional de Limpopo is definitely out of control and elephants are now being killed right on the Kruger border
"We know what to do as responsible governments and we will continue to do that. We are not in crisis."
But with 96 elephants being killed across the continent every day, conservationists remain gravely concerned.
"Drastic measures need to be employed [to combat poaching]. SA cannot wait until the crisis hits and adopt knee-jerk reactive responses," says the Africa executive director for the Humane Society International, Audrey Delsink.
SANParks has made another contentious decision about its buffalo population in the Kruger National Park with a programme to shoot up to 400 buffalo a year in order to feed school children.
At a meeting held in March 2017 to answer stakeholder questions about the programme, no answers were given for the decision.
Although SANParks initially motivated the project during the severe drought, rainfall has since improved.
A stakeholder said the meeting was told that issues of hunger were the responsibility of the Department of Social Development.