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We need to have an honest debate about farming rhino to save them – Jonathan Oppenheimer

South Africa holds the majority of the world’s rhino and it is the country hardest hit by poaching, with more than 200 rhinos killed each year between 2013 and 2017. That is according to Save the Rhino. In 2021, 451 rhinos were killed in South Africa. Rhino population in key strongholds like the Kruger National Park have fallen dramatically with a drop of 59% since 2013. Save the Rhino believes that a mix of tools, including: trained and well-equipped rangers, education in areas where rhinos live and in Asia where consumer demand for rhino horn is highest, making sure that communities living near rhino habitats feel the benefit of conversation and captive breeding, are the solutions to prevent the species dying out. There are however private game farmers like South African John Hume who are pushing for legal trade in live rhinos and horns. Businessman and conservationist, Jonathan Oppenheimer has weighed in on this debate and in an interview with BizNews, said he would like to have an honest debate on whether rhinos would not be better protected “if farmers can create value out of rhinos.” – Linda van Tilburg

Excerpts from the full audio discussion with Jonathan Oppenheimer

The best way to preserve and grow wilderness is to make it economically sustainable

I think the commercial interest is actually integral to ensuring ecological sustainability. I think that the naive idea that wilderness left alone can preserve itself fails in this analogue of humanity being the erosive sea washing against that wilderness.  The best way to preserve and grow our wilderness is by making it economically sustainable, both for the owners of the land and also for the communities that are around that land. I’ll give you an interesting statistic and I must get the exact numbers but in the 1970s, there were 400,000 head of antelope in South Africa. Today there are 6 million. It’s one of the great unsung success stories of conservation.

The single most powerful determinant of that was a change in South African law, which allowed the ownership of wildlife. Before that they belonged to the state but were usable by anyone on whose land they were. So, if a zebra wandered on to your farm, you could use it in any way you wanted. You shot it and you sold the skin. After whatever date it was in the 1970s, that zebra if it was on your land belonged to you. It was like like livestock, you could put a tag in its ear; you could go and fetch it from your neighbour’s farm if it went there. It belonged to you. As soon as you owned that wildlife it actually benefited you to preserve that wildlife, to create value from that wildlife. What’s really interesting today is there is more wildlife habitat in private hands in South Africa today than in national parks. That is not totally unique, but we’re in a very, very small minority of countries worldwide where that’s the case and it’s all because you can make money from wildlife.

Rhino poaching grew from a very small problem to a major issue when hunting was restricted

In many respects, the story about rhino is a reversal of that.  In the early 2000s, rhino poaching in South Africa was a very, very small problem. Under pressure from the international community, the South African regulator changed the law to insist that hunting of a rhino required the licence-holder to be present at the hunt. Overnight, there was an inversion of the number of rhino hunted in South Africa for the number of rhinos poached in South Africa. When it was the number of rhino hunted in South Africa, it was regulated. Tthe value of that rhino to a private owner was significant because they could sell it. They paid taxes to the South African government, but equally they were very conscious of how they sold that rhino because you didn’t want to sell a pregnant female, for example. That would be stupid. It was irrational. So, we had a very rational market where big horns, which made trophies were sold after they were sexually no longer active. So, there was a very market driven, thoughtful way of preserving genetic diversity and a lot of people, private owners were very happy to have rhino on their land because it was a very valuable resource.

Private rhino ownership has collapsed in South Africa as it is a liability

Today, rhinos have zero value for a private landowner other than maybe if they can get tourists to come and look at it: it’s actually a liability. You now have to protect your rhino. It attracts criminal elements who are armed to your land. So, what’s happened is there has been a complete and utter collapse of private rhino ownership in South Africa pushing the rhino back into the national parks which means that the national parks now need to defend those rhinos, which means the state, using taxpayers’ money, has to pay to defend those rhinos. And instead of now spending hundreds of millions of rand defending those rhinos where instead they could use that money to support communities around our national parks who are some of the most impoverished in the country, providing them with education, sanitary solutions, potable water, electricity, social grants. It’s a difficult balance to say, I’m going to protect rhino on the one hand and spend hundreds of millions of rand or I’m actually going to support the community around the periphery who are starving. I know which side I would fall down on if I was the government and it’s not protecting the rhino. Yet no private owner who previously was very happy having rhino is happy having rhino right now because it’s a liability.

Let’s have an honest debate about the commercial farming of rhino

So, there’s a guy called John Hume in South Africa who is betting on exactly that and I have a huge amount of sympathy. I don’t know the answer in its entirety, but I would love to have an honest debate about this. Right now, the South African rhino population has collapsed 80% in the last 20 years. The reason why we’re having fewer rhino poached today is not because we’ve been successful at preventing rhino poaching. There are so few rhinos. If you look at the number of rhinos poached as a percentage of the total population; it’s going up every year. We are on a road to rhino extinction. So currently, the current framework, while very noble, is not working. So can we imagine a different framework.  If you’ve got a framework which doesn’t work? What’s the expression? I use it so often… Einstein said, ‘Same data, same analysis. Expectation of a different outcome. Definition of insanity.’

We should have an open and honest conversation about it instead of one where if you suggest that creating value out of rhino and giving real value to rhino in the hands of the owner is not possible. Then actually this behaviour that we’re seeing is entirely predictable. And I’m not saying it’s achieved necessarily through hunting. It could be achieved in a thousand different ways. But if you want people to preserve rhino, rhino have to be valuable to those people who are trying to preserve it. If you want to leave rhino alone in in national parks and restricted exclusively to national parks, then we need to have a robust government that can find the scope and space in its budget to support the protection of those rhino in national parks.

Is the ‘billionaire’s club’ doing enough for nature conservation?

I can’t comment on anyone else but for me; we will be able to create a sufficiently large. movement around preserving the biodiversity of the world we live in if we can make preserving that biodiversity sustainable. And to make that sustainable, it needs to make a meaningful and real contribution to people that they can feel in the way they look at their lives. Right now, it goes back to the islands of wilderness in the sea of humanity; the short term exploitation of that wilderness by elements of humanity that really are struggling to survive outweighs any long term benefit of preserving the ecological system. Until we can create a system that recognises that long term benefit and that those benefits get approximate to the short term exploits at full value, mankind will continue to exploit and destroy the environment.