Its Rhino Time!

For international conservationists, the turning of the year is marked not by changing seasons but by international travel opportunities – and this year September is a bumper month. It opens with the IUCN World Conservation Congress in the hyper-remote Hawai’i, and ends with the 17th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Johannesburg.

Looking at the website for the CITES COP, I was greatly struck by its logo. Hats off to the graphic designers, who have created the unmistakable outline of a white rhinoceros from the silhouettes of other species, pangolin, eagle, hammerhead shark, elephant and lion to name just a few. Moreover, it is all in savanna orange, with the African continent as its green heart, deep in the rhino’s chest. The choice of the rhino outline works at several levels – because the recovery of white rhinoceros is one of the great South African success stories of the twentieth century, and because the debate about trade in rhino horn is currently a key issue for CITES.


So, even by the high standards of conservation graphic design, the CITES logo is wonderfully striking, encapsulating what CITES is for, and speaking clearly to the conservation vision of its South African hosts. At CITES COPs, it is always rhino time.

But looking at the COP17 rhino more carefully, I began to see it a bit differently.   Rather than clocking the species, I began to notice the absences. Deconstructing the image stimulated two uncomfortable reflections on the way conservation sees itself.

First, where are the plants? The recognizable outlines within the rhino are animals – mostly in fact mammals – the usual beauty parade of charismatic species. There are plants, but they are few and stylized: three kinds of agave or palm-like ground plants, stuck in to fill spaces at various sizes and positions. At least as reflected in this image, CITES seems chiefly to be about animals. This is not the fault of the designer, who has in fact very precisely reflected conservation’s abiding obsession with vertebrates, and the selling power of images of persecuted furry animals.   There are, in fact, 301 species of plant on CITES Appendix 1, and no less than 29,592 species on Appendix 2 (for comparison, the figures for mammals are 300 and 501). Of course, plants are not so easily recognizable, certainly not as a silhouette, and the designer has carefully and cleverly chosen recognisable species.   At the same time the COP17 rhino is very revealing: conservationists love animals, especially big, instantly recognisable charismatic ones.

The second absence is more serious. Where are the people in the COP 17 rhino? Again, there are, in fact, some there, but only three of them.: a marginal presence, and highly romanticised. The people are drawn like cave paintings of hunter-gatherers – stylized, in traditional dress, and thin. The COP 17 rhino shows people in a way that accurately reflects African conservation’s paternalist colonial gaze: a savanna continent stuffed with game, with a few local people eking out traditional lives around the edges (a vision also dear to the BBC). Conservation is not like this, and nor is wildlife trade.

The COP 17 rhino should be full of people. Where are they all? Where are the farmers, pastoralists, fishers, slum dwellers, and industrial workers and their poverty, hunger and dreams? Where are the poaching gangs, the European ‘security advisers’ with their helicopters and night vision glasses, and the game guards with their guns? Where are the middlemen, the fat cat traders, the overworked customs officers, the corrupt officials, the distracted judges? Where are the consumers, in their nice houses with their lust for fertility enhancement or jewelry or fantasy cuisine, or garden furniture, or hardwood musical instruments? Where are we, with our cars and air conditioning and aeroplanes, our boarding cards, conference badges and subsistence expenses?

We are nowhere to be seen, because we are behind the scenes. Conservation likes to imagine (and to present) its work as an engagement with wildlife, not people. So the COP 17 rhino is not a faulty image at all. It is an all-too-accurate portrayal of the conservation world, where people fly round the globe to discuss lists of rare species and their plight. And where the heavy money is spent on just a few, the biggest, the most charismatic, the most loved.

CITES listing alone does not ‘save’ species. The Convention was an extraordinary advance when it was signed in 1975, and is still important. But regulating legal trade in wild species is just one element in a much larger conservation challenge. That challenge does not lie in fine-tuning lists of species that can and cannot be legally traded. It lies in addressing human demand for land, for commodities, for fripperies and pleasures and the markets (legal and illegal) that translate it into the loss of habitat and the depletion of wild populations.

It t is what people do that matters in conservation: all of us, each in our own way sucking in the world’s resources, playing our part in hollowing out nature. And for that reason it is people that should fill the rhino.

Rhinos are important, and trade in rhino horn one of many important and thorny issues for CITES. But it is time to move on: to go beyond rhino time. We need to recognise that in conservation it is always people time.


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