In the middle of February, as the coronavirus crisis was gathering force, a Canadian gold-mining company made an unusual announcement. B2Gold said it was donating 1,000 ounces of gold to help save what it called a “critically endangered global treasure”: the black rhinoceros in the southern African country of Namibia.
It was an eye-catching move in the world of philanthropy. It would also prove a canny investment for those who backed it. The gold was worth close to US$1.5m at the time of B2Gold’s announcement and it was turned into 1,000 bars of varying sizes, each embossed with a black rhino mother and calf. The idea was to sell each bar for the prevailing market price, plus a 15 per cent “conservation premium”. Proceeds would be reinvested in long-term, sustainable conservation funding, as well as community-backed efforts to protect the black rhino from the relentless threat of poachers, who slaughter it for its horns – a commodity worth more than its weight in gold in some Asian countries, where it is mistakenly touted as a treatment for hangovers and even cancer.
There were more than 100,000 black rhinos in Africa as recently as the 1960s, experts estimate, and though their numbers have risen from a low point in the 1990s, it is thought that fewer than 5,700 are now left in the wild. In north-west Namibia, the creatures roam across a vast stretch of remote land with few roads that is hard for rangers to patrol.
The gold bars came from B2Gold’s Namibia mine, and the campaign to sell them took off with a bang. Ten half-kilo bars were sold within days at two launch events, one in Namibia’s capital of Windhoek and another at a big mining conference in Cape Town, South Africa.
“It was massive,” said Ginger Mauney, the US-born, Windhoek-based wildlife filmmaker and conservationist who came up with the gold-bar idea. Mauney is on the board of the Save the Rhino Trust Namibia, which B2Gold had been supporting with cash grants for several years. When the company invited her to visit its Vancouver headquarters in late 2018, she began to think of ways to extend that backing “in a way that made sense to them as a company too”.
Over lunch with B2Gold CEO Clive Johnson, Mauney says she suddenly had an idea. “I just looked at Clive and said, ‘You’ve got gold, so why don’t we sell gold bars in a way that creates long-term sustainable funding to protect rhinos?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Well, yes, I think we can explore that.’” The project came to life just over a year later, when gold was trading at around US$1,500 an ounce. That made the first gold-bar sales a good investment. But as the coronavirus crisis deepened, investors rushed to the safety of gold. The price soared to $2,000 an ounce for the first time in August. Even with the 15 per cent conservation premium, any buyer who sold would have made a tidy profit.
But the early sales were also timely. They came as the pandemic was beginning to devastate wildlife tourism, a vital source of income in Namibia and an important factor in rhino conservation. The physical presence of tourists makes it harder for poachers to operate. Tourism revenues also help to fund rangers and other wildlife protection measures. At the same time, conservation groups in Namibia had their budgets slashed by up to 30 per cent as international donors passed on their own funding cuts.
As the gold-bar money began to flow, it was used to help plug the gaps. Ranger salaries were paid to keep people in the field. A vehicle was purchased to help track poachers. Within four months of the launch, 3.5m Namibian dollars, or more than US$200,000, had been disbursed.
This shows the importance of finding fresh ways to finance wildlife protection, says Richard Diggle, business adviser for community conservation at WWF in Namibia. “Covid-19 has highlighted that financing conservation needs to be rethought,” he says. “We cannot depend constantly on conventional donor cycles and tourism. We need to be more innovative and here’s a fantastic example.”
B2Gold sold 600 gold bars in Africa and has now extended its campaign to North America, where B2Gold’s Clive Johnson said he was confident the remaining 400 bars would sell well, despite the higher price of gold. People are prepared to pay a premium to help save an animal that’s been roaming the planet for 50m years, he said. “And we’re using some gold that was deposited 6bn years ago by an exploding star that ended up in Namibia.
“I like the historical context of using something as natural and ancient as gold to help save an ancient animal.”
Pilita Clark is an FT columnist
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