Poaching punishment: Two suspected rhino horn poachers are arrested in Limpopo. ISS researchers say recent prosecution trends suggest that only half the poachers brought to court for trial end up going to jail, usually for an average of 4.3 years. Picture: SOUTH AFRICAN POLICE SERVICE
Poaching punishment: Two suspected rhino horn poachers are arrested in Limpopo. ISS researchers say recent prosecution trends suggest that only half the poachers brought to court for trial end up going to jail, usually for an average of 4.3 years. Picture: SOUTH AFRICAN POLICE SERVICE

Security researchers say the emphasis on arresting poachers and beefing up protection for SA’s rhinos is unlikely to succeed without stronger, parallel efforts to research the demand for horn products in China and Vietnam.

Institute for Security Studies (ISS) researchers Ciara Aucoin and Sumien Deetlefs write in a new policy briefing on transnational organised crime that too little is being done to understand or reduce the demand for rhino horn in East Asia.

The researchers, who are based in Pretoria, advocate for a more thorough, market-based approach to tackling the organised transnational syndicates that coordinate the poaching and trafficking of rhino horns.

This market-based approach would place more emphasis on the forces of supply and demand. The current emphasis on curbing the domestic supply of rhino horns was doomed to become "an endless and costly endeavour in the face of growing demand", the researchers write in a policy briefing published by ENACT, a joint initiative by ISS, Interpol and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime.

Much more demand-side research is necessary on what works and why, and how successful campaigns can be scaled up, adapted to changing market forces and better supported,

Noting studies that suggest that wildlife crime is now regarded as the fourth-most lucrative form of organised crime globally, they suggest that rhino horn poaching has evolved from a conservation issue into a national security priority in several African nations.

In SA, more than 1,000 rhinos have been poached annually for the past five consecutive years.

"The supply-side emphasis translates into security measures that overwhelmingly fall on the departments responsible for maintaining national parks and reserves, which are rarely appropriately resourced for the task," they write.

Aucoin and Deetlefs add that the Department of Environmental Affairs received only 1% of the national budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year.

To address the demand side, the researchers support more concerted awareness and education campaigns in Vietnam and China.

They write that recent campaigns by conservation groups achieved some success in dispelling "misperceptions" about the supposed cancer-curing properties of rhino horn and raising awareness that the primary ingredient of rhino horn, keratin, is also found in human hair and nails.

"Much more demand-side research is necessary on what works and why, and how successful campaigns can be scaled up, adapted to changing market forces and better supported," the researchers say.

Aucoin and Deetlefs argue that unbanning the international trade in rhino horns could send a message that horn has medicinal properties and is a worthwhile investment.

"Legalising the trade could increase demand, as it reduces stigma and signals to the market that consumption is, once again, completely legitimate…. Without further evidence on the extent of the demand for the product, it is difficult to know if legalisation would in fact reduce demand as many pro-legalisation bodies argue," they write.

"Without more research into demand markets, myths or generalisations about the dominance of Chinese traditional medicine will continue to be overplayed. They will colour understanding of what actually shapes the demand market and thus what demand-side campaigns should target to be most effective," say the researchers.

John Hume, SA’s largest private rhino breeder, and other members of the Private Rhino Owners Association have argued that a legal trade in rhino horns would reduce poaching levels by meeting market demand, but Aucoin and Deetlefs note that private breeders face extremely high overhead costs, with nearly half the running costs going to securing their farms against poaching.

"Thus the incentive for them in legalising the trade is to keep the price point for rhino horn high. In other words, they have a direct incentive to not supply the product at levels that would drive the price down.

"Given this, many doubt whether meeting demand is really the intention of proponents of a legal trade, since the current market is ripe for profit."

Wildlife crime must be moved out of the conservation "niche policy space", they argue.

"Such a view also creates an opportunity for transnational criminal organisations and corrupt officials to continue to exploit African resources."

"Rhino poaching can only be fully addressed when governments prioritise wildlife crime and implement integrated and innovative policy responses that include community-led initiatives," they claim.

They also suggest that prison sentences for convicted rhino poachers are too weak.

Based on an analysis of 15 recent poaching prosecutions, Aucoin and Deetlefs say the sentences – on average just 4.3 years each – show a weakness in SA’s approach.

"Too few cases make it to court, and while those that do are most likely to result in convictions, the sentencing regime does not match the seriousness of the issue. Only half those convicted receive custodial sentences, with the others given fines or suspended sentences," they say.