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Change the Game: The Economics of Saving the Rhino

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If there is such thing as a modern day dinosaur, the rhino comes close. It was like stepping back in time, as I watched these majestically ancient creatures move purposefully under the shade provided by the trees’ small branches. I found myself in awe of their presence. I tried not to breathe very loudly, as the rhino fixed his beady eye on me. If he wanted, the rhino could have plowed through the shade trees, easily uprooting them, before making his way to and through myself and my fellow travelers crouched low in the grass just a few yards away. However, the peaceful and friendly nature of these rhinos put me at ease, and I knew they were content to have me in their backyard, so long as I didn’t make too much noise! I fell in love with these easygoing creatures.

The issue is we are losing these animals.

One of the most magical but least expected highlights of my trip to Africa in December was the day I spent tracking the white rhinoceros near the Matopos with Ian Harmer of African Wanderer Safaris. I have always considered myself to have a respectable level of concern regarding animal and wildlife issues. However, spending a day with the rhinos of Zimbabwe made me passionate about the fight to save the rhino from extinction. I was stunned by what I learned—it is estimated two rhinos are killed each day, and poaching has grown considerably in the last 10 years. In 2007, 13 rhinos were poached in South Africa. In 2015, 1,215 rhinos were poached. At this rate, there will be no more rhinos left in the world within the next 10 years, in the wild or in captivity.

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Snack time!

 

Why are the rhinos dying?

Rhinos across southern Africa are the target of organized poaching schemes driven by the economic forces of the illegal horn trade across Asia. Some Asian cultures believe rhino horn holds special medical power (everything from boosting male virility to curing cancer). The rhino horn can be worth up to twice its weight in gold in these markets. Poachers have advanced systems involving helicopters and infrared technology to track and kill the rhinos, often in the most inhumane ways possible. Ian shared a heartbreaking story from several months back about finding a rhino he had “grown up with” left for dead on the side of the road after the poachers had cut his face off to take his horn. In an effort to protect the rhinos in the fight against the poachers, rangers at the Matobo National Park carry machine guns and are mandated to shoot and kill suspected poachers on the spot.

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With an armed guard in the park

Perhaps the biggest tragedy of all is that rhinos do not have to die or suffer to give up their horns. In fact, cutting a rhino horn is similar to clipping a human’s fingernails or toenails—if done correctly, the process is easy and pain-free. The staff at the Matobo National Park regularly cuts the horns of the rhinos in their park, in order to make them less of a target for poachers. This is unlike the elephant’s tusk, which is essentially a tooth instead of a fingernail. Elephants must be killed to extract the tusk.

How can we save the rhino?

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has been instrumental in working to protect the rhino and eliminate illegal horn trading. CITES meets every three years and has a standing committee specifically focused on the rhino. Recently, CITES has pushed for the government of Vietnam to conduct “consumer behavior research” in an effort to develop strategies to decrease demand for rhino horn, as well as to impose stiffer penalties for those participating in the illegal market.  CITES has also mandated Mozambique, South Africa, and Zimbabwe to continue their efforts to coordinate along their borders to stop poachers, as well as to implement penalties for poachers more consistently. For example, in 2013, Mozambique issued a higher number of poaching fines than ever before, yet only 3% were paid.

The challenge is finding a solution that will prevent the rhinoceros from becoming extinct. It is quite difficult to change mindsets and alter economic pressures over a given period of time, and even more so when the time is severely limited given the rate that rhinos are being poached. What if the trade of the rhino horn became legal? Until 2009, domestic trading of rhino horn was legal in South Africa. It was made illegal in 2009 as a response to the spike in poaching. What about international trade of rhino horn? CITES banned this in 1977, in an effort to protect already dwindling rhino numbers. Despite these bans, the poaching issue has become considerably worse over the last decade, and we are now facing the possible extinction of the rhino.

Since it is painless to cut the horns of rhinos (or “dehorn” them), rhinos could be farmed like cattle and dehorned regularly, thus better protecting them from poachers and generating a profit for the farmers and benefitting the local economy. Also, poachers will be de-incentivized, as a legalized trade would increase supply and lower prices. However, there is always the risk that legalizing the trade could have the opposite effect of increasing demand, in which case poachers would still have inducement to poach. Also, given the demand for rhino horn is primarily in Asia, a ban on domestic trade of rhino horn is a non-issue, as there is really no domestic market. It seems a lift on the international trade ban would be the key driver of this solution.

CITES will have their triennial meeting this September in Johannesburg, South Africa. Without doubt, there will be continued debate on what policies would be most effective for protecting the rhino. I hope the leaders at CITES realize the current strategies have been ineffective, and time is running out for the rhino unless we change the game.

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Johannesburg, South Africa: The Somber History of Apartheid

1404816_10206454516374224_4149021129424623718_oMy visit to South Africa last December included a visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. I went in with a general understanding of apartheid as a system of institutionalized racial segregation in South Africa in the late 20th century, mostly gleaned from brief overviews in a high school history class. However, I quickly realized how much more there was to learn from this painful chapter in history. The Apartheid Museum serves as a reminder that the struggle for equality still exists, in South Africa and around the world.

Below are a few facts I learned for the first time during the visit.

-Apartheid permeated every detail of a person’s existence. Each citizen was legally classified as white, black, Indian, or “coloured,” and was required to carry an identification card denoting this. This classification affected details as small as what alcohol you were allowed to drink (black people had to drink the lower quality “Bantu beer” as mandated by the government) and as big as where you could live (3.5 million black South Africans were removed from their homes and forced into segregated neighborhoods over the course of 2 decades).

-Mahatma Gandhi lived in South Africa early in his life, and was a victim of the discrimination that served as a precursor to the apartheid system. In 1893, Gandhi purchased a first-class ticket for a train traveling from Pretoria. A white passenger complained about sharing the car with Gandhi, and Gandhi was forcibly removed after refusing to move to third-class. Gandhi became active in fighting discrimination in South Africa, and called this incident among the most important in his political career. Gandhi continued his work in South Africa until 1914, when he returned to India as Mahatma, meaning “a great soul.”

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Gandhi as a young lawyer in Johannesburg, c. 1905

-The Soweto Uprising of 1976 saw schoolchildren, some as young as 13, come together to protest inequality in the education system. Essentially, the government led by the pro-apartheid National Party passed a law mandating all children be educated in the Afrikaans language. However, black South Africans spoke English. As Desmond Tutu said at the time, black South Africans viewed Afrikaans as “the language of the oppressor.” Can you imagine going to school and trying to learn math, history, and language in a language that was completely foreign to you, in your home country? This was exactly the problem faced by black South African students and teachers, who were now forced by law to communicate in Afrikaans only with English-speaking students. (It probably goes without mentioning, but the schools themselves were completely segregated along racial lines, and the black schools received much less funding.)

The students stood up for their right to an equal education. On June 16, 1976, 20,000 students and protesters marched in the streets and were met with violent backlash from the South African military, who used machine guns, dogs, and stoning to attack. It is estimated up to 700 protesters died during the uprising. June 16 is now Youth Day in South Africa, to honor the memory of these protesters.

As a former teacher of high school students, learning about the Soweto uprising shook me at my core. What are we doing in the US to fight for all students to have an excellent education? How are we empowering youth to stand up for their rights without fear of repercussion?

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Schoolchildren protest oppression in education, Soweto Youth Uprising, 1976

-The “toyi toyi” dance/military march was adopted as a symbol of protest and unity among black South Africans after the 1976 massacre. The museum had several very moving video clips of the toyi toyi used in protest. I’ve included one from You Tube below. Although this is fake footage from a movie, it can give you an idea how powerful it was to see actual video footage of this.

Toyi Toyi as protest to apartheid in South Africa

-Nelson Mandela was released as a political prisoner on February 11, 1990 after 27 years of confinement, much of it in solitary confinement. While this is a pretty widely known fact, it still blew my mind to be reminded that this happened during my lifetime (I was 8 months old and in diapers when he was released!).

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The South African flag was redesigned and adopted in 1994 to represent unity in a post-apartheid era.

-My tour included a visit to the Soweto neighborhood (a syllabic acronym for Southwest Township), where hundreds of thousands of black South Africans were forced to move after being forcibly removed from their original homes during apartheid. This is separate from the visit to the Apartheid Museum, but my hotel was able to arrange both tours and provide transportation. This neighborhood features the only street in the world with the addresses of two Nobel Peace Prize winners—Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

 

My visits to the Apartheid Museum and to the Soweto neighborhood were informative, inspiring, and humbling. I highly recommend the tours if you find yourself in Johannesburg.

 

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