Fate of Africa's rhino, elephants to dominate wildlife meet
September 23, 2016, 2:00 am TWN
JOHANNESBURG -- Global conservationists and policymakers meet in South Africa from Saturday to chart a way forward in the fight against escalating wildlife trafficking that could drive some species to extinction.
The plight of Africa's rhino and elephants, targeted for their horns and tusks, is expected to dominate 12 days of talks in Johannesburg on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Illegal wildlife trade is valued at around $20 billion a year, according to CITES, and is ranked the fourth largest illicit business in the world after arms, counterfeit goods and human trafficking.
The gathering is expected to assess whether to toughen or loosen trade restrictions on some 500 species of animals and plants.
"Much of the international attention will focus on the ivory of the African elephant and the horn of the Southern White Rhinoceros, and on combating their illegal trade," said CITES secretary general John Scanlon ahead of the event.
CITES banned the trade in rhino horn 40 years ago, but prohibition has not reduced illicit hunting, which has recently boomed in South Africa.
Around 5,000 white rhino -- a quarter of the population -- have been slaughtered over the past eight years, with the majority killed in South Africa, home to 80 percent of the world's rhino.
Rhino poaching is driven by insatiable demand in Vietnam and China for the horn, which is mistakenly believed to have medicinal powers curing everything from hangovers to cancer.
Swaziland has put forward a divisive proposal asking for the total ban on international trade in rhino horn to be eased so that it can sell its stockpile of legally and non-lethally harvested horns.
The plan is backed by some private rhino owners who say the black market can be ended by supplying legal horn sawn off anaesthetised live animals and the funds used to fund conservation.
"It's costing an absolute fortune. Just every cent we have goes into protecting the rhino, it's not sustainable for the long term," South African private rhino owner Lynne MacTavish, told AFP at Pilanesburg game reserve where an anti-poaching helicopter was unveiled this week by non-profit organisation Rhino911.
But Swaziland's proposal stands little chance of success in the face of a fierce campaign by conservation groups who fear legalised trade would only boost the appetite for horn.
The Humane Society International has urged Swaziland to withdraw its proposal, citing the strictly controlled legal ivory trade that has opened up opportunities for the laundering of illicitly acquired tusks.