The attack marks a shocking new development in a crisis that sees more than three rhinos killed every day in their southern African homelands. Trade in rhino horn is completely illegal but demand from Vietnam and China fuels poaching and smuggling, putting the rhinos at risk of extinction.
Rhino horn is made of keratin – the same material as human fingernails – but an urban myth about a senior Vietnamese figure being cured of cancer pushed up demand in recent years and as its price rose, it has become a status symbol and hangover tonic. Longer-standing uses such as a supposed fever treatment in traditional Chinese medicine and as ornamental carvings have also driven up prices.
With the prices high and, until recently, the penalties very low, international organised crime networks mobilised to supply the illegal trade – wildlife trafficking is a multi-billion dollar enterprise only surpassed by the smuggling of drugs, arms and people.
The zoo raid, and thefts from museums across Europe in recent years, reveal how the criminals have been keeping ahead of authorities. “The criminal networks involved have shown themselves to be far more innovative and utterly ruthless,” said Julian Rademeyer, an expert on rhino horn at Traffic, the leading wildlife trade monitoring organisation. “They are often outthinking law enforcement and government regulations, finding new loopholes to exploit.”
The criminals have even shown a brazen marketing flair: the idea that powdered rhino horn is an aphrodisiac began as a western myth, said Rademeyer, but the syndicates latched on to it and now sell wine laced with rhino horn as aphrodisiacs in Vietnam.
Rademeyer and all the key wildlife trade groups decline to detail the current price of rhino horn, for fear of encouraging more crime. But it is public knowledge that the horn peaked in price at about $65,000 a kilogram in 2012. It is thought to have fallen significantly since then, though it remains many times more valuable than elephant ivory.
There has been a crackdown on poaching in South Africa, home to about 70% of all rhinos, but killings have spiked in Namibia and Zimbabwe as poachers seek easier targets.
“There have been warnings for the last four to five years that zoos need to tighten up security,” Rademeyer said. Police are visiting every zoo and wildlife park in the UK that houses rhinos – 111 in total – to provide security advice.
Rademeyer said there have been hundreds of rhino horn thefts across Europe in recent years. In 2016, seven men received lengthy jail sentences in the UK over a series of museum raids which targeted horns and jade artefacts estimated to be worth over £50m.
However, the epicentre of the rhino crisis remains in southern Africa, where poor young men are willing to risk their lives by poaching. They receive just a tiny fraction of the horns’ ultimate value, but even a few hundred dollars is a huge sum in their communities.
Hundreds of poachers have been killed in the last seven years and a much smaller but significant number of rangers, soldiers and policemen have also died. “People have limited sympathy for poachers but I think [their poverty] is a reality that has to be grappled with,” said Rademeyer.
“Shooting and jailing the poachers is not a long term solution,” he said. “They are very easy [for the crime syndicates] to find and very easy to exploit. Whether they get killed or arrested means very little to the syndicates, and the same applies to the couriers. The kingpins who are making the big money are getting away with it.”
Rademeyer said police cooperation is crucial to tackling the global rhino horn trade: “You are dealing with very sophisticated transnational organised crime syndicates in many cases and yet your law enforcement is hampered by international borders. Police tend to police their own backyard.” He says campaigns in Asia to stigmatise rhino horn use are important too, and have helped cut the shark fin trade.
The Paris poaching also raises the controversial question of whether a legalised trade in rhino horn, harvested sustainably from wild or farmed animals, could destroy the black market. Many nations and organisations strongly oppose the idea, saying it would simply allow illegal horns to be laundered with fake permits, but South Africa backs the idea.
Duan Biggs, a researcher at Griffith University in Australia, said: “The issue is complex, but a well managed and enforced legal trade that is structured to fund rhino protection and deliver community benefits is likely to work better than the status quo.” He accepts some people might find it unethical, but said: “I think that poaching a rhino in a zoo or in the wild is even more morally repugnant than a well regulated legal trade.”
However, a legalised rhino horn trade is unlikely any time soon. Swaziland made such a proposal at an international wildlife trade summit in Johannesburg in September and it was soundly defeated.
Rademeyer remains cautiously optimistic that the perilous decline of the world’s rhino can be reversed, pointing to their comeback from the brink of extinction in the 1950s. “We have beaten this before,” he said.
There is growing evidence that China is now encouraging its companies as they invest in Africa and elsewhere to follow better environmental practices.
In 2013, China’s ministries of commerce and environmental protection issued voluntary guidelines for the first time that encourage companies investing overseas to follow local environmental laws, assess the environmental risks of their projects, minimize the impact on local heritage, manage waste, comply with international standards, and draft plans for handling emergencies. But if companies choose to ignore the guidelines, there is no penalty.
Chinese companies most reluctant to improve their environmental practices are small private ones and medium-sized ones affiliated with Chinese provincial and municipal administrations.
Chinese enterprises appear to be 15 to 20 years behind their Western counterparts when it comes to the adoption of modern social and environmental approaches to their outward foreign direct investment.
The environmental issue for which China has attracted the most criticism is the importation of products taken from African endangered species, especially elephant ivory and rhino horn. Most of this activity falls, however, in the category of illegal trade and not foreign direct investment.
There is a new concern that China will address its domestic industrial pollution by relocating some of its highest polluting facilities such as steel, cement, and tanneries to places like Africa.
In 2014, Hebei Iron and Steel announced that it is building a plant in South Africa capable of making 5 million tons annually. This is good for South African jobs, but potentially bad for the environment.
China has become a major investor in the leather industry in Ethiopia and owns numerous tanneries, which are well known for their pollution potential. Some of their practices have been criticized. Of course, Western companies also increasingly export high pollution manufacturing activities.
African environmental law and practice, to the extent you can generalize about 54 different countries, leave much to be desired. In most African countries, the environmental laws and standards are much lower than accepted international norms.
When evaluating the impact of Chinese foreign direct investment on the environment in Africa, it is important to put it in the context of global FDI entering Africa.
China provides a relatively modest amount of the global FDI that has gone to Africa so far. According to Chinese official figures, the cumulative FDI figure at the end of 2012 was just over $21 billion. The actual amount may be twice that figure. By comparison, however, at the end of 2012, American companies had cumulative FDI in Africa of more than $61 billion.
Like most global FDI in Africa, Chinese FDI is concentrated in sectors of the economy that are especially vulnerable to environmental concerns such as energy, mining, fishing, and forestry. Chinese companies have invested in mines that are sometimes located in ecologically fragile areas where there is a higher risk of environmental degradation. They also often generate greenhouse gases, solid and liquid waste, including hazardous products such as cyanide and mercury.
Chinese fishing vessels have been criticized for worsening food insecurity among Africans because they catch small species that are the main source of food and income for small-scale African fishermen.
China is the largest importer of Africa’s tropical wood. While much of this activity constitutes only trade, some of it involves FDI by Chinese logging and timber trading companies. Chinese companies have a tendency to violate local forestry laws together with African counterparts. The illegal practices include abuse of permits and concession licenses, bribery, operating without management plans, under-reporting export volume, smuggling raw logs, and harvesting and transporting undesignated species.
The government of China is sensitive to criticism of its companies in the forestry sector. In 2009, the State Forestry Administration and Ministry of Commerce issued voluntary guidelines which encourage Chinese companies to manage, utilize, and protect overseas forests in order to play a positive role in sustainable development of global forest resources.
Source: AFK Insider
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