Why the fight for Africa’s rhinos is a fight for Africa’s heritage

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Dr Deon Nel – Head of WWF South Africa’s Biodiversity Unit


A thousand years ago, the kingdom of Mapungupwe in Southern Africa was a thriving economy. All the attributes of a healthy modern economy seemed to abound – farming, mining, artisanship and trade. And, woven into this successful society was a strong connection between the people and their environment.

This was most clearly epitomised by the famous golden sculpture of a rhinoceros found in a royal grave. However, as often happens, success breads behaviours that lead to eventual decline. In the case of the kingdom of Mapungupwe it appears that the royal elite became progressively detached from both commoner society and their environment. This was most patently symbolised by the act of the royal elite moving away from the commoners to live on the previously unoccupied and sacred “rain-control” hills. Diminishing political legitimacy of this leadership, in combination with a sudden decrease in rainfall (ironically!) appear to be the main reasons for the demise of this economy.

Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis); ZimbabweBlack rhinoceros, Zimbabwe ©Martin Harvey / WWF-Canon

Moelesti Mbeki, writing in his book The Architects of Poverty, describes the realisation he came to whilst gazing down at the foreign oil rigs working off the coast of Africa. A few days earlier he had visited a slave museum in Senegal and was initially perplexed when he learned that the slave traders had given guns to Africans in exchange for slaves. Surely it made little sense to provide the very people you were capturing as slaves with guns?

And yet, he soon came to realise that it was in fact Africans who captured slaves on behalf of white traders, and thus needed to protect themselves against their brothers and sisters. This was a game of greed and self-enrichment at the expense of others. Mbeki realised that this game was playing out again in the oil fields below; the few African and foreign ‘elites’ enriching themselves off resources that should benefit so many more.

This all too familiar tragedy has played itself out with many of Africa’s natural resources, from fisheries to mineral resources; and now that iconic species, the African Rhino.

Rhinos have been an object of value in African culture for centuries, as demonstrated by the Mapungubwe golden sculpture. After being threatened severely in the earlier part of the 20th century, African conservationists have worked tirelessly over the past decades to nurture faltering populations back to growing numbers. Current populations of African Rhinos are estimated to be almost three times more than they were two decades ago and continue to grow despite the scourge of poaching. South Africa has been particularly successful in these efforts and now holds more than 80% of all African Rhinos.

Vitshumbi fishing village on Lake Edward, Virunga National Park © Brent Stirton / WWF InternationalVitshumbi fishing village on Lake Edward, Virunga National Park © Brent Stirton / WWF International

Conservationists, through their exceptional successes have managed to create a natural resource of considerable environmental, economic, social and cultural value. Unfortunately this value has attracted the very same type of resource parasites that have been the demise of so many of Africa’s other natural resources. These self-enriching few both in Africa and abroad are seeking to illegally mine the value of an African heritage at the expense of all other Africans.

Africa’s comparative advantage lies in a rich natural resource base that is important to the entire world economy and can provide a foundation for improving the wellbeing of all Africans. Africa holds much of the arable land and water resources needed to feed growing global populations; much of the renewable energy resources needed to wean ourselves from our carbon intensive economies; and much of the mineral resources needed to maintain global industries. Africa is also the home to much of our global biodiversity – a treasure trove of immeasurable value. The question is: will Africa again fall foul to the elitist approaches that benefit the few at the expense of its people and the resource base itself?

White rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum)White rhinoceros with calf ©Martin Harvey / WWF-Canon

In my view, the fight for the future of Africa’s rhinos is a symbolic fight for the future of Africa’s heritage. Perhaps if we see this fight in that context; we will garner the necessary resolve to not only win this fight, but also help set Africa on a new and sustainable developmental trajectory.

WWF, with its partners, will seek to secure this African heritage for the people of Africa. We will work in a comprehensive manner that stretches from the habitats and rural communities that are home to Africa’s rhinos; to the forensic and judicial processes that can lead to effective punishment of those who seek to exploit our heritage; and through to strengthening bilateral co-operation with countries where rhino horn is consumed, in an effort to eliminate illegal trade.

The rise and fall of the kingdom of Mapungupwe can provide important lessons to our contemporary society. Sustained economic and societal well-being can only be created by inclusive economic systems that are founded on a deep understanding and respect for our life-giving natural heritage.

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