You’ve probably heard of the ugly world of Rhino poaching in South Africa. It’s a massive problem and these animals are right on the brink of extinction, whereas a few years prior to this, numbers were growing through the whole nation pulling together to stop the cruel acts. What would an African safari be like without these amazing animals? It’s inconceivable, and incredibly sad.
The background to Rhino Poaching
Unbelievably, back in the early 1900s, South Africa’s rhino population was on the brink of extinction, in fact just as it is today. In some national parks there were only between 20 and 50 white rhinos. If there’s one thing South African’s are passionate about, its nature conservation, and it showed. The white rhino population started to grow and the parks increased the numbers to about 20,000 animals.
Great stuff, but this was certainly a short-lived victory. The demand for rhino horns as a medicinal cure has sky rocketed, and this alone has had a massive impact on the rhino population. Since 2008, when poaching started to become a serious problem, South Africa has lost about 2,600 rhinos, and even scarier is the fact that these figures are increasing at an alarming daily rate. South Africa is being hit in a hard way and it is a conservational nightmare on how to combat rhino poaching successfully.
But why is the rhino horn so precious? Well rhino horns in Asia are ground into a fine powder and turned into tablets and are apparently a cure-all for anything and everything! There have been tests done, but the medicinal properties of rhino horns couldn’t be found. Rhino horn is basically keratin. The stuff your nails are made of. There is a more technical explanation but you’ll probably have to study as a doctor to get the lingo. But think of it like your nails.
Unbelievably is this carries on the way it is right now, they will be extinct in about 2 to 3 years from today, between 2016 and 2018. That is incredibly sad for such a magnificent animal to perhaps disappear from the planet entirely. South Africa is home to 83% of Africa’s rhino’s and 73% of all rhinos worldwide. South Africa, as a country, is therefore crucial in the fight for rhino conservation. Our rhinos are butchered in the name of ‘medicine’ that has been proved to be useless.
Why are rhinos being poached on such a large scale? What is the incentive?
The incentive is money, of course, but why? Rhino horn and trade thereof is illegal. We all know that the most attractive thing is the one thing that we can’t have. To obtain something illegal, underhand methods are used, such as poaching. The rhino poaching industry is built on getting this rhino horn in their paws as quickly and effectively as possible.
Some cultures where they’re certainly not short on cash are prepared to dig deep into those pockets for just a few grams of rhino horn, with this belief that it’s a miracle cure. In some countries it is seen as a status symbol if you have that ever so precious rhino horn.
The money factor has attracted the underworld criminal elements that have the financial means and access to high tech equipment to hunt rhinos down and slaughter them for only their horns. Rhino poaching is now a supply and demand problem. The scarcer they become, so demand grows as does price, so now the problem is that there is more money to be made from rhino horn. In South Africa, rhinos are the way to earning some money and getting food on the table. Killing an animal, that has little or no value to them, doesn’t matter. What does matter is that they get some cash and this provides food for a hungry family. It’s like a catch 22 situation.
The poachers, which are like foot soldiers, get supplied with highly sophisticated equipment to track and kill rhinos. The most common method is a tranquiliser gun. What’s been happening more and more recently is that there is an aerial team in a helicopter working together with the ground crew. They’re certainly determined. This might be a bit gruesome, but it’s the truth of the matter; once the rhino is down, they use a chainsaw, axe or machete to hack the horn off. And once the rhino wakes up, it is left to die, in a slow and torturous manner. Loads of poachers have sophisticated guns too. They shoot first and some of the anti-poaching teams can land up as the target. It’s a harsh and dangerous life for the people who are putting life and limb on the line to save these amazing animals.
Rhino poaching is a costly business, but how does it get financed? Mostly huge international syndicates are doing the dirty work. At the head is the mastermind with the cash. In pretty much all cases, the guys on the ground doing the killing have no idea who is financing the operation. At the head or in the top structure is the mastermind with the finance. It’s a highly intricate network where commands are given through a communication chain with no-one knowing anyone else. The masterminds are often highly educated people with large incomes to match like pilots, police or security sector employees and even attorneys! You would think they would know better wouldn’t you.
Recently, on 20 September 2014, a Pretoria attorney, Joseph Wilkinson, was arrested on a charge of rhino poaching. He is believed to be involved in the top structure of one the largest rhino poaching syndicates operating in South Africa together with Hugo Ras the ringleader, a game farmer with a poaching history. The accused also faces charges of racketeering, conspiracy, intimidation, keeping of protected animals and the selling and receiving of rhino horns. Serious charges for an attorney to be accused of. It is comforting to know that bail was denied.
Over the last five years, this syndicate has apparently obtained over 84 horns worth nearly R22 million (the equivalent of about US$2 million). The 22 rhinos that were killed by this syndicate alone, foots a bill of around R5.5 million (about US$500,000). Some of the horns were obtained through poaching; others were stolen and they used many other illegal ways to get their hands on these horns. 41 Horns were taken from 24 rhinos that were poached, 14 horns were stolen from a government building in Giyani in Limpopo, South Africa and 29 horns were obtained through other means. Other parties involved include a Haws official and a pilot. These people are not killing rhinos because they need money to feed families. These people are killing for greed. They have realised that the rhino horn industry is a highly profitable and streamlined ‘business’ where a lot of money is to be made. That is the scary part in itself. It has spread way beyond the family trying to survive!
What is the solution?
There is no quick fix for the predicament of the struggling rhino population. A leading SA economist and head of the Efficient Group, Dawie Roodt’s proposal is to legalise the rhino horn trade. Not because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s the quickest way to obtain control of this out-of-hand situation. His reasoning is as follows; a live rhino costs about R300, 000 (US$3,000). The horn is sold in Vietnam at a going rate of R10 Million (US$100,000). Dawie said, “That is a massive incentive. Where else would you get a return like that?” By gradually supplying the market, South Africa will be stimulating local economic growth and create employment. All of a sudden it will be in peoples’ best interests to protect rhino. It all boils down to the idea of supply and demand. South Africa is infamous for its corruption, so legalising the rhino horn industry has a lot of groundwork to be done before anything can happen.
In the interim a ‘war’ is fought by anti-poaching teams and poachers. Poachers have expensive equipment and for anti-poaching soldiers to fight back effectively, they need protection and ammunition. This is expensive and can’t be done without your support and donations.
In the same breath, deep rooted corruption needs to be killed. National Park officials are from time to time involved – we all know how inside jobs work. This needs to be rooted out and is also a costly affair.
Reserves and game farmers are considering dehorning their rhinos. Whether this method will be a successful attempt to combat poaching remains to be seen. There are doubts as to the adverse effects on the behavioural ecology of rhinos.
There is a rumbling of game farmers and reserve owners thinking about injecting the horn with a form of poison, which is harmful and even lethal to anyone who uses the horn in powder form as traditional medicine, yet completely safe to the rhino. One can understand the reasoning for this thought, which is born out of sheer desperation. Yes, poaching and slaughtering of rhinos for their horns is illegal. Yes, China and Vietnam are signatories to the CITES agreement and rhino horn trade is therefore banned. Injecting the horns of your rhinos with a lethal poison comes down to murdering people using the powder of a poison injected horn. And honestly is it the best way to turn to murder to stop it? Absolutely not. But people are desperate to stop the extinction of rhinos, and who knows what will be implemented in the future, by even private game reserves to take care of this endangered animal.
What can you do?
Poachers move around game parks, especially Kruger National Park in broad daylight. If you’re on holiday there, report any suspicious behaviour. You could also make donations to WWF and organisations like Save the Rhino or Traffic, the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network. These organisations are aimed at redistributing your donations to areas and equipment where it is most needed. It gives you an opportunity to make a contribution to this ongoing battle in a small, but effective way. By all means take photos of rhinos in game parks and reserves, but be careful about telling people where the rhino was spotted, as people are planted in rest stops or other places to find out exactly where they are.