Great expectations

(A version of this article was originally published in The Horn, spring 2009. Author: Raoul du Toit, Director, Lowveld Rhino Trust)

At times, and particularly now, in Zimbabwe, it feels as if we are continually fire-fighting, barely able to wipe our faces after one poaching incident before we tackle the next emergency. If we are to have any real chance of long-lasting success for our rhino conservation programme however, we need to be able to look over the immediate obstacles towards a vision of how things might be in the future.

While the socio-economic pressures are particularly acute in Zimbabwe at present, they also exist in neighbouring countries since these pressures arise primarily from poverty and competition for land and other rural resources, and will be exacerbated by global climate change since this will cause increasing aridity in the Lowveld region.

The most promising approach to take in promoting wildlife-based land reform in the Lowveld, and reducing the short-term exploitation of the region’s biodiversity, is to: identify and quantify the wildlife assets; develop businesslike and equitable measures by which these assets are related to shareholdings; and to use rights, dividends and co-management obligations for the relevant stakeholders, including community groups.

For rhinos to be the long-term focus of this approach, fundraising and other promotional activities should be aligned with the local socio-economic realities that will ultimately determine the fate of rhinos in Africa. To fit rhinos into the land-use equation, some questions have to be addressed:

  •  Whose assets are the rhinos?
  •  What value do rhinos have in Africa?
  •  Why should they be conserved?
  • If it is the economic relevance of rhinos to communities rather than crude law-enforcement or international conservation appeals that will keep them alive in wild populations, then how can this economic linkage be developed?

Apart from ecotourism value (currently deflated in Zimbabwe) and safari hunting value (not realised in Zimbabwe at present because rhinos are not legally hunted), the major economic value that can be developed for rhinos is the global asset value of the species. To express this in tangible terms, a link must be made between the wealthier, western communities who perceive the existence value of rhinos and can afford to contribute to that, and the stakeholder groups within the Lowveld who are making the land-use changes that impact on the opportunities for rhino populations to expand. This link can be reinforced by the willingness of the western communities to facilitate Africa’s rural development.

A rhino cow and calf in the Lowveld Conservancies, Zimbabwe. The calf's ear tag with unique ID can be seen clearlyCredit: Lowveld Rhino Trust

Incentives-based rhino conservation in the Lowveld requires the creation of a trust fund for providing tangible returns to a defined community group with a shareholding in a conservancy, for each rhino calf that is born within that conservancy. This production incentive could be relatively low in financial terms yet still have a significant impact in impoverished rural areas, if appropriately allocated, for instance in the form of support for local schools or similar development inputs at a community level . The incentives (which would need to be made very businesslike, with deductions for poaching losses) would require the definition of the producer groups (i.e. private-community partnerships for defined rhino populations).

By meeting the habitat and management needs of rhinos, a broad range of biodiversity can be concurrently conserved and a high national and international profile can be maintained for these wildlife-based projects. Thus rhinos are appropriate “flagships” for a Lowveld initiative that is underway (the “Lowveld Conservation Forum”) to coordinate stakeholders from the irrigation sector, the wildlife sector and the community sector to undertake harmonized planning of land-use and associated veterinary zonation and fencing (for foot-and-mouth disease control), linkages to the Trans-Frontier Conservation Areas, and so on.

The most appropriate institutional framework for coordinated rhino conservation in the Lowveld is the new Lowveld Rhino Trust, created on 1 January 2009, in which the various stakeholder groups will be represented and can therefore formulate joint plans, with a clear understanding of the resources, roles and responsibilities that apply to these plans.

Now we just need some time away from the flames…