Africa’s rhinos are in a fight for survival. Poaching is at an all time high as the price of rhino horn on the black market has soared to as much as US$65,000 a kilo (source: Avaaz). Worth more than gold, it is not surprising that the criminals selling the horn are highly organised. They maximise efficiency using new technology: mobile phones help to locate rhinos and to arrange pick-up points; the internet markets horn for sale. Poachers are provided with sophisticated equipment, from night vision goggles to helicopters. It’s an illegal international business on an unprecedented scale. And diplomats are sometimes implicated.
While the poaching increase in the 80s and 90s was linked to the demand for dagger handles in the Yemen, the 21st century’s poaching spike is directly linked to Asia. It is said that the Thai foreign minister cured cancer using rhino horn. Western medicinal research has found no direct link. Nevertheless, the demand in Asia for rhino horn for medicinal purposes is booming.
Africa has 25,000 rhinos – 2,000 black and the rest white. The majority, some 93%, are in South Africa.
South Africa hardest hit by poaching
The increase in poaching has been escalating over the past couple of years. In 2008, 33 rhinos were poached in South Africa. This more than doubled to 83 in 2009, jumping to 333 in 2010 and increasing by a massive 33% to 448 in 2011. No concern has been spared for a rhino’s welfare. White rhinos in particular are easy prey, being large and unmistakeable. They live in more open habitats, and, having extremely poor eyesight, are not difficult to approach. As the harrowing footage, Rhino Poaching: An African Tragedy shows, some rhinos have had their horns hacked off while still alive. Taken almost a year ago, it is only now that global awareness of the rhinos’ plight is starting to filter through.
Rhinos heading for extinction by 2025
It is in South Africa that the increase in poaching has soared: a rhino is being killed every 16 hours by poachers. If this continues, rhinos will become extinct in the wild by 2025. In turn, poaching is having a devastating effect on those who have rhinos on their properties. A tour operator told me, ‘prices have dropped by almost 50% for a live rhino.’ The temptation to make a quick buck has sadly breached conservation ethics in certain cases. One professional hunter, Dawie Groenewald is currently awaiting trial for allegedly buying rhinos at auction to shoot on his property and trading in rhino horn. In December last year, a Chinese national was arrested with 33 rhino horns in his hand luggage, having flown from Cape Town.
A polarised world – can conservationists defeat the poachers?
It is quite bizarre that on the one hand, conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts have been spending vast amounts of money to conserve rhinos. In parks and reserves, anti-poaching units keep up a 24hr surveillance to protect rhinos. Rhinos have been translocated for their protection and to increase their gene pool. In 2010 Northern White Rhinos were flown from a zoo in the Czech Republic to Kenya, in a last ditch attempt to ensure the survival of this sub-species.
At the other end of the spectrum, poachers are spending large amounts of money to lay their hands on rhino horn – and the more rare it becomes, the higher the price goes – according to some sources the black market price has already increased by US$5,000 in three months.
What is being done to stop rhino poaching?
Until now, conservation organisations and those working in the field have been at the forefront of the anti-poaching campaign.
- security is being increased where there are rhinos. But due to the scale of the problem, it is difficult to police large areas of wilderness
- in the past, dehorning has been tried as a deterrent to poaching, but this has not worked. Having tracked a rhino and finding it with a stump of horn, poachers have killed the rhino anyway – to save them wasting time tracking the animal again.
- Raising the international profile of the problem is seen as vital to helping stem the increase in poaching.
- Organisations like the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), TRAFFIC, the lobby group Avaaz and others are running awareness campaigns
Rhino Stakeholder Summit steps up the action
A Rhino Summit was hosted by AWF and Kenya Wildlife Service in Nairobi this week (2-3 April 2012). The seriousness and scale of the rhino poaching problem is at last starting to be addressed. Some 25 organisations from Africa, representing a wide area of expertise, were present. Taking a four-pronged, co-ordinated approach over the next nine months, they aim to:
- assist rhino surveillance and anti-poaching units on the ground
- strengthen law enforcement and its coordination at a local and national level
- curb the demand for rhino horn and its illegal trade in consumer and source states
- reach out to policy makers, financiers and government officials
African tourism – wildlife heritage is NOT for sale
The rhino is a flagship species for African tourism. It is one of the BIG FIVE (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino) Tourism is a major foreign exchange earner in African countries. An iconic symbol of Africa’s wildlife heritage, the demise of the rhino would be a tragedy. Demand for rhino horn must be destroyed. The challenge is on; as global citizens we all need to play an active part to help rhinos survive this crisis.