SUNDAY TIMES - No, Julius - saving rhinos is not just a 'white thing'
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Sunday Times Opinion & Analysis By Edna Molewa, 2016-02-07

No, Julius - saving rhinos is not just a 'white thing'

Kruger National Park veterinary staff capture a white rhino to move it to a protected zone to keep it safe from poachers
Image: JAMES OATWAY

Replying to Malema, Edna Molewa argues that conservation is for the benefit of all communities

In September, South Africa will host the 17th conference of the parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. That we have been given an opportunity to host this important event is testimony to South Africa's role at the forefront of conservation of species.

South Africa is the third-most mega-biodiverse country in the world, after Brazil and Indonesia, and contains 7.5% of the planet's plant species as well as 5.8% of its mammals and 8% of its birds.

We are particularly proud of our rhino conservation record, being home to more than 80% of the world's remaining white and black rhinos. It is this very successful conservation record that makes us a target for transnational organised crime syndicates involved in the illicit trade in wildlife.

Last month, the government, through the interministerial committee responsible for rhino poaching, announced that for the first time in a decade, rhino poaching figures had fallen.

This is largely a result of the integrated strategic management of rhinoceros approach adopted in 2014, as well as successful partnerships between various stakeholders including government departments, business, civil society and communities.

Although the figures give cause for optimism, we shall continue to scale up efforts to ensure more rhinos are not lost to poaching. Key to our efforts is involving all South Africans, for we cannot eradicate this problem unless communities see the value of conservation to their lives and livelihoods.

Regretfully, an incorrect perception exists in some quarters that rhino conservation is the preserve of the select few, who are in the main moneyed and with access to vast resources.

This unfortunate narrative gained currency in your correspondent Julius Malema's article, "Why do white people despise blacks?" (January 10). According to this narrative, the fight against rhino poaching should not be a national priority because it prioritises the security and life of an animal over those of human beings.

A white rhino calf at Aquila private game reserve, sticks close to mom as it explores its new fynbos world Image: ESA ALEXANDER

In seeking to draw an analogy of the ways in which public empathy is selectively extended to certain "causes", your correspondent cites rhino conservation to boldly claim that, in South Africa, "black people are worth less than rhinos".

In support of this flawed analysis, he cites the resources and campaigns organised by civil society to save the rhino, which, in his view, would be better spent on people - as though one is being forced to choose which one should be "saved".

That conservation, and rhino conservation in particular, are somehow a "white thing" is a false dichotomy that should be strongly challenged. Foremost because it assumes that black South Africans do not care about conservation.

This is not only baseless, but plays into age-old racist stereotypes harking back to colonial times. It is also a polarising attitude, and could negatively impact the positive work we are doing with communities around conservation.

The interministerial committee responsible for rhino poaching continues to work with communities as our partners in conservation not only in the wildlife space, but across our areas of work.

During his visit to Kruger National Park late last year, President Jacob Zuma acknowledged the role played by communities in conservation, especially in areas affected by poaching.

At a meeting then, traditional leaders pledged to play a more active role in stamping out rhino poaching in their communities, and the department will be engaging with them in driving programmes that will enable communities to play a greater role in wildlife management and conservation.

Through a number of successful programmes, such as People and Parks, we as the government are actively facilitating opportunities for communities to bring them into the mainstream of conservation.

Our environmental protection and infrastructure programme is another programme through which we are creating real, sustainable opportunities for our people in this sector, and at the same time enabling them to carry out socially self-supporting activities.

In October last year we launched our biodiversity economy strategy at the Biodiversity Indaba in Durban. This seeks to contribute to the transformation of the biodiversity economy through the creation of inclusive economic opportunities in the sector, among other things.

Our ultimate goal is to reinvigorate local economies through the sustainable use of natural and other assets, while addressing livelihood security.

Recently, we donated four dehorned rhinos to two communities near Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal, to enable them to expand their wildlife ownership.

Similar donations are in process for other communities, in line with our strategy to promote community ownership of wildlife. This is of particular significance if one considers that a large number of rhinos in South Africa are on private and communal land.

Taking all this into account, it is clear the important issue of rhino conservation cuts across race and class. Rhino poaching has been declared a national priority crime and the success of any strategy rests on bringing all South Africans on board.

That resources continue to be devoted to this fight should not be taken to mean that other national priorities are somehow being neglected, as Malema insinuates.

Fighting rhino poaching is about this country's national security. It is about security in our communities. It is about the brazen infiltration of our borders and the violation of our sovereignty.

It is about disrupting transnational organised criminals involved not just in poaching, but gunrunning, money laundering and smuggling, to name a few.

It is about our obligation as a government to bring about socioeconomic transformation across all sectors of our society, such as the wildlife sector. It is about our constitutional responsibility to care for our natural environment for the sake of future generations.

All states face the dilemma of competing national priorities on the fiscus, and that our government, working with all South Africans, continues to invest heavily in environmental protection is to be lauded, not derided.

Molewa is environmental affairs minister. Follow her at @BEMolewa