The rhino poaching crisis
With Southern Africa’s rhino population in serious peril, the time for helpless indecision has long past
Words by Marcus Janssen
Of all of Africa’s Big Five – so named not because of their size, but, ironically, because they were deemed by European explorers and big game hunters to pose the greatest threat to humans – the most vulnerable must surely be the rhino. This thought first occurred to me at the most unlikely of moments, when, aged 19, I found myself clinging to the bough of a red ivory tree while an irate black rhino searched for me in a clearing below.
I was working in Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa’s North West Province where I managed a tented camp for a private safari company. Part of my weekly routine was to gather enough firewood to keep the two fires beneath our hot water tanks in camp burning permanently. It was a thankless and never-ending task. And despite the presence of elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion and leopard in the area, I invariably became complacent as I set out from camp in my Land Cruiser, once again, a depressingly empty trailer in tow.
On this particular occasion, I had left my rifle in camp and was dragging a large acacia branch – discarded by an elephant some weeks before – through the bush and back towards my vehicle when something in the corner of my eye caught my attention.
Looking up, my gaze was met by that of a male black rhino standing no more than 20 metres away, his enormous horn held aloft, nostrils flaring as he tried to find my scent on the hot, dry breeze. It was one of those surreal moments when a thousand thoughts suddenly converge at once, leaving one’s mind in a fog of helpless indecision. I knew that I needed to act fast, but I couldn’t – I was glued to the spot, my fingers still wrapped tightly around that acacia branch.
After a few very long seconds, the rhino located my scent and took a few purposeful steps in my direction. With an electric surge of adrenaline, every fibre in my body pulsed and, entirely involuntarily, I started to run as fast as I could towards my vehicle as the rhino gave charge.
I have no recollection of clawing my way up that tree, but I do vividly remember the blissful moment when I realised that I was still in one piece. Clinging to that branch some three metres above the ground, my face pressed hard against my knuckles, the sharp scent of red ivory sap filling my nostrils, I remember feeling sorry for that majestic animal.
I was in his territory, he was clearly distressed by my presence and, for the life of him, he couldn’t locate me. There was something pathetic about that. I desperately wanted to leave him in peace, but I couldn’t. I wanted to explain that I meant no harm, but for the next few minutes, all I could do was look on as he just stood there.
Over the past 20 years, I have had a number of encounters with rhinos – thankfully, mainly with the larger and far more docile white variety – and on each occasion, I have always been left with the overwhelming sense that, despite their imposing size and formidable armoury, they need our help. And right now, nothing could be truer, for Southern Africa is once again in the midst of a rhino poaching epidemic. And this time, it’s different.
Sadly, for two of Africa’s rhino subspecies, our best conservation efforts have failed. For the western black rhinoceros and the northern white rhinoceros, it is already too late.
The western black rhinoceros was already on the verge of extinction in the 1930s, and although the French colonial authorities had some success in bolstering the population in the decades that followed (by the early 1980s there were in the region of 100), by 1997, only 10 to 18 remained in northern Cameroon, their last remaining stronghold. By 2001, there were only a handful left. Catastrophically, complacency or incompetence on the Cameroonian government’s part resulted in the last few western black rhinoceroses falling to poachers in 2003.
Although the northern white rhinoceros is, technically, not yet extinct, its days are numbered. Its demise, too, is yet another pitiful tale of woeful inaction on our part. Sixty years ago, the northern white rhino actually outnumbered its southern cousins – there were still 2250 of them distributed across five countries in 1960. Today, however, following the recent death of the last male Sudan, there are only two left, both of which are in captivity in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.
The plight of Africa’s other two rhino species is, thankfully, a slightly less woeful tale. Although both the southern white rhinoceros and black rhinoceros have at different times been ominously close to extinction, thanks to considerable conservation efforts – largely on South Africa and Namibia’s part – populations of both species are now considered to be sustainable. The recovery of the southern white rhino is in fact one of the greatest conservation success stories of all time.
In 1948, there were only 550 southern white rhinos left on Earth. Today, there are an estimated 21,500, almost all of which are in South Africa. But the way in which the species was brought back from brink of extinction has polarised conservationists and environmentalists ever since.
In 1961, South Africa was home to a few hundred white rhinos, all of which were confined to two neighbouring game reserves in KwaZulu Natal – Mfulozi and Hluhluwe. Spearheaded by the late, great Dr. Ian Player, then head game warden at Mfulozi, South Africa embarked on a ground-breaking plan, dubbed ‘Operation Rhino’. The overarching aim was to establish new satellite populations of white rhinos in other parts of the country, including Kruger National Park and, somewhat controversially, for the first time ever, on privately-owned land.
But keeping rhinos on private property is a risky and expensive proposition, and in order to provide land-owners with an incentive to buy, keep and protect their rhinos, the decision was made in 1968 to grant a limited number of trophy hunting permits for the species.
As contentious as it was, it worked, and within 10 years, the live auction value of a southern white rhino had rocketed from R200 to R250,000 per animal. “The trophy hunting market drove this increase in the price of live rhinos, making the breeding of rhinos an attractive option,” says Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, a wildlife resource economist who has studied economics of rhino ownership for more than two decades. “And not only to private landowners, but also to the national and regional parks who have also generated revenue by selling rhinos to the private sector.”
Dr. Ian Player himself acknowledged the crucial role that legal, regulated trophy hunting played in the success of Operation Rhino: “Hunting led to the increase from a few hundred rhinos in 1953 to in excess of 18,000 in 2010. For the loss of a few animals (for the purposes of trophy hunting), their overall numbers increased. Regrettably, this is a form of logic that is lost on most people.”
And it wasn’t just rhino that benefitted from South Africa’s new pro-utilisation policy: underpinned by a thriving trophy hunting industry and associated wildlife breeding programmes, overall game numbers flourished, increasing from approximately 1.5 million head of game in the 1970s to in excess of 20 million head by the turn of the century.
Indeed, during the first few years of the new century, things were looking relatively rosy for Southern Africa’s rhino; the demand for rhino horn on the black market seemed to have fallen to sustainable levels, and overall, their numbers were on the rise. Therefore, no one could have foreseen it, but this was the lull before the storm; we were on the cusp of the most dramatic rise in rhino poaching ever seen in Southern Africa.
A new breed of wildlife criminal
Between 1990 and 2007, there were relatively few rhino poaching incidents in South Africa – five in 1991, six in 1996 and 1997, and nine in 2001. But by 2014, South Africa would be losing as many as 1200 rhinos per year to poachers.
South Africa’s liberal, relatively unregulated wildlife utilisation policy may have resulted in a dramatic rise in its wildlife numbers through the 1980s and 90s, but it also gave birth to a new breed of wildlife criminal – ruthless renegades from the wildlife industry whose expertise, contacts and legitimacy have allowed them to exploit South Africa’s wildlife with apparent impunity. They include landowners, wildlife veterinarians, professional hunters, safari operators, game capture experts and even senior national park staff. And rumours are rife that South African government officials are involved, too.
As a result, the poaching of rhinos has become far more organised; poachers are better equipped and trained – not only have they become more efficient at killing rhinos, but they are harder to detect and capture – and anti-poaching initiatives are undermined at every level.
By 2014, South Africa would be losing as many as 1200 rhinos per year to poachers.
The horns from kills are passed through tightly-woven networks of traffickers or ‘runners’ who co-ordinate with the poachers on the ground using GPS devices and mobile phones. These runners then transfer the horns to businessmen who sell them on to criminal syndicates who, in turn, arrange for the transportation of the horn in large shipments to end markets in Asia, often via convoluted routes. Within as little as 24 hours of an animal being killed in Kruger National Park, the horn can be available on the black market in China, Yemen or Vietnam.
This new, sophisticated and multi-faceted poaching model has been made possible by the astronomical prices that end-users are willing to pay for rhino horn, which now has a higher street value per gram than cocaine or gold.
In Vietnam, per capita income has more than quadrupled in the past two decades, and with this increased wealth has come a burgeoning and affluent middle-class eager to get their hands on the latest in luxury goods. And “one of the best ways for a Vietnamese to flaunt wealth and success,” writes Ronald Orenstein in his book, Ivory, horn and blood – Behind the elephant and rhinoceros poaching crisis, “is ‘face consumption’: consuming, preferably where others of wealth and status can see you do so, something rare and expensive.”
For the young, rich and status-conscious in Vietnam, rhinoceros horn has become the party drug of choice, an ingredient in “the alcoholic drink of millionaires”, according to a Vietnamese website.
In addition, rhino horn is seen as the ultimate gift to curry favour with business partners or political figures. And, oddly and ironically enough, now that the traditional Western misconception that the main use for rhino horn in Asia is as an aphrodisiac has been debunked, some Vietnamese men have started using it as a sexual stimulant and a cure for impotence. Meanwhile, for others in Vietnam, rhino horn is believed to hold the ultimate power – the ability to rid one of cancer.
Whatever the reasons, Vietnam is now the biggest end market in the world for rhino horn and there is little sign of this being curbed by the authorities, despite Vietnam being a party to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), an international agreement between governments which aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
So, what can be done?
The illicit trade in ivory and rhinoceros horn is kept alive by poachers who will risk everything, criminal syndicates that, apparently, have the impunity to do what they like, and customers who will pay exorbitant amounts of money for what they want. In the end, it all comes down to price.
As long as end consumers are prepared to pay enormous sums for rhino horn, criminal syndicates will continue to control the trade routes, and gangs and militias in impoverished African countries will continue to control the poaching. Disarming and eliminating the gangs or breaking-up the criminal syndicates is almost certainly beyond the competence or political will of most governments. And in poverty-stricken African countries where corruption is rife and wildlife conservation is a long way down the priority list, achieving such a solution is nothing more than an idealistic Western pipe dream.
“If, however, the prices come down substantially – below the level at which it would be profitable for the syndicates to operate – the scale of operations of the criminal enterprises dealing in rhino horn will be forced to diminish,” writes Orenstein.
So how do we lower prices? There are many who vehemently believe that the answer lies in legalising – and therefore legitimising and controlling – the trade in rhino horn. But this would undoubtedly be fraught with problems as it assumes that those who would control the supply of rhino horn – in return for a profit, of course – can be trusted not to milk the system and, in the end, exacerbate the problem.
In short, there is no obvious quick fix. Rather, a long-term, multi-pronged approach is required, one that seeks to address the problem at source – eliminating, or at the very least substantially reducing, the demand for rhino horn – while simultaneously defending our rhinos on the ground with everything we have got.
Anti-poaching initiatives and operations with support at local, national and international level can be highly effective. In 2016, a total of 680 poachers and traffickers were arrested for rhino-related poaching offences in South Africa, up from 317 in 2015. In conjunction, the number of rhinos lost to poachers dropped from 1,175 in 2015 to 1,054 in 2016, representing a decline of 10.3 per cent. More specifically, in Kruger National Park, where a total of 417 arrests were made in 2016, the number of rhino poaching incidents dropped from 826 in 2015 to 662 last year. This represents a reduction of almost 20 per cent year on year. And this is despite a continued increase in the number of illegal incursions into the park.
“We are fighting a war that can’t be won here in South Africa.”
“We are fighting a war that can’t be won here in South Africa,” says a tired and disheartened Thabo Mkhize, a South African wildlife ranger. “Until the problem is addressed at source, they (the poachers) will keep coming, and we will keep losing rhinos, despite our best efforts. We are their last line of defence, but we can’t keep it up for ever. In the end, we will lose this war and our rhino will go the way of their northern cousins.”
Of course, Thabo is right – the only way to truly turn the tide is to eliminate the demand, and that can only be achieved by educating the end consumer, by dispelling myths and appealing to the one thing that all humans have in common – our humanity. “People are greedy,” adds Thabo. “But if those who buy rhino horn in bars in Vietnam saw the sickening things that I see every day, they might think twice. At least I like to believe they would.”
I often think back to that moment when I encountered that magnificent black rhino in Pilanesberg National Park in 2000, eight years before this rhino poaching pandemic caught South Africa off-guard. I wonder if that bull is still alive, or if, like so many of his kind, he has been senselessly killed for his horn?
One thing I do know is that the time for helpless indecision has long past; Africa’s last remaining rhinos are once again staring down the barrel of a gun – it is up to us to make sure that the trigger isn’t pulled.