The Ecological Economics Study Tour in South Africa – Student Reflections

The following is a blog post authored by some of the 2014-2015 cohort of students on the MSc in Ecological Economics at the University of Edinburgh and SRUC reflecting on part of the annual study tour to Africa.

Within just a few minutes of entering the Somkhanda Game Reserve - our first stop in South Africa - zebras, impalas, nyalas and even the some rhinos (all dehorned) were giving us a warm welcome.

Somkhanda is a community owned reserve, owned by the Gumbi community. It is managed by various private organisations involved in wildlife conservation: African Insights is in charge of training staff and managing tourism, while Wildlands Conservation Trust is responsible for the ecological conservation on site. While we were still based at Somkhanda, we also visited the Pongola Game Reserve, a private reserve that allows hunting in parts of the reserve and has a game abattoir. In the second half of the study tour, we moved further east and stayed at the Bhekula Game Reserve. This allowed us to spend time at the Tembe Elephant Park, a national park where hunting is disallowed, but where communities are allowed to harvest certain materials from within the park.

There was a clear theme that perpetuated during the whole trip: how can sustainable human welfare and wildlife conservation both be achieved? Even though South Africa is fortunate to have amazing biodiversity, there are large threats to it, such as rhino poaching. South Africa holds more than 80% of the world’s rhino population. Highly regarded in some parts of the world for human consumption, news outlets report that rhino horn can be sold at 80,000-100,000 US$/kg, making it more expensive than gold! This makes South Africa’s rhinos highly attractive for poachers.  

Far from disappearing, as an article in The Guardian in 2014 highlights, incidences of poaching appear to be increasing, with 2014 seeing record number of rhinos poached. Krüger National Park appears to be the epicentre of poaching activity (according to the linked article, 827 rhinos appear to have been killed there last year). This has sent a clear message to wildlife managers in South Africa and the world more broadly: if rhinos are not effectively protected, extinction may be rather imminent. With the international efforts that have been made and security measures that have been taken (e.g. police intervention and erection of fences), 386 poachers were arrested last year.

In spite of these efforts, poachers are still finding ways of successfully poaching rhino horn. The scenario is more than complicated. While those at the top become very wealthy, the people that carry out the poaching live in poverty. A large number of South African communities struggle every day with a subsistence way of life. Rhinos, which are not only seen as wildlife but as a resource, represent a huge potential income. However, this income cannot be legally earned, as rhino horn trade remains illegal in the international market.

During our stay in South Africa, we learned about and discussed a proposal to tackle poaching that contrasted with the preservationist approach: a market based solution involving the creation of a legal market for rhino horn. This proposal has arisen in response to the apparent ‘failure’ of preservationist approaches to actually protect rhino populations and in recognition of the international demand for rhino horn. Although arguably this demand is the root of the problem, the sentiment exists amongst some that would take too much time to address this demand, especially given the escalating rate of poaching for this to be successful. It is worth nothing, however, that there is at least some indication that rapid reduction in demand is possible in at least some situations.

Based on the argument that not a single farmed species has become extinct, those in favour of this approach maintain that legalising the trade to facilitate the captive rearing (e.g. farming) of rhinos would not only preserve their populations, but it would eventually eradicate incentives for poaching and a provide direct income to South African communities.

Of course the market-based solution seems unlikely to be a panacea and it raises many questions. Should we only rely on the economic value of rhinos to protect them? Should we really promote the rhino horn market? How is the rhino’s behaviour going to change in the long term? What about the role of rhinos in the South African ecosystems? What happens if the market fails? Is the money going to actually reach the communities or will corruption and intermediaries prevent this from happening? Is this actually the only feasible way to protect rhinos? These and more questions remain unanswered.

We left South Africa with more questions than answers, but that’s the challenge and beauty about wildlife conservation: there is no single, universal right answer. To effectively protect rhino populations, the South African Government, communities, scientists, and tourists will have to work together, because in the end they are all looking for the same thing: to balance human welfare and wildlife populations.

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