Africa is under siege. A war on a huge scale is being fought and although we understand and think poaching is cruel and horrible, can we understand the extent of what is happening? 553 rhinos have been poached this year alone. In 2012 the total was 668. This means by the end of 2013, 900 to 1000 rhinos will have been murdered, and for what? Their horn: i.e. keratin (the substance our hair and fingernails are made of) and for who? The Asian market, specifically China and Vietnam. This has been going on for a while though.
(Above: Sourced from the Stop Rhino Poaching Website)
Between 1960 and 1994, black rhino populations declined by 97.6% due to intensive poaching to fuel the high demand from Asia. Numbers reached an all time low of 2,410. To put this into perspective, the world’s population is roughly 7 billion, if our own population declined by 97.6%, the total remaining population would be around 168 million people, which is the current population of Nigeria or less than a half of the USA’s current total population. The situation did begin to change and in the 1980-90s Taiwan, South Korea, Japan banned the import of rhino horn under the Pelly Ammendment to the Fishermen’s Protection Act of 1967 from pressure from the USA (citing sanctions on countries that undermined international species conservation). Previously rhino horn had been readily sold over the counter. In 1980 Japan and South Korea ratified the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). However, there is another surge in demand and it began in 2008 and it is looking like it may be the end for these rhinos.
Why Rhino Horn?
Rhino horn is made up of keratin (the same as our fingernails) yet it fetches a higher price than gold per kilogram. In the 1970-90s rhinos were poached to support the demand for medicine and jambiya dagger handles in Yemen. The rhino horn has been classified as a ‘heat clearing’ drug that would be added to other medicinal drugs to treat many illnesses. It was even believed that rhino horn could act as chalices to detect poison. In Vietnam specifically, the trade of rhino horn is directly proportional with the economic development and with the rapid growth Vietnam has experienced in recent years, the horn has become a status symbol, an icon of wealth. The horn is ground into a powder, then mixed with water and drunk. To add to all this, a Vietnamese politician claimed that rhino horn cured his unnamed cancer and this has only fuelled the idea that the rhino horn has great medicinal power. It is widely believed that rhino horn is an aphrodisiac and is bought to improve men sexual prowess.
The war is under way and it may be more serious that we can fully understand. President Barack Obama announced in July of 2013 a new $10 million Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking. Unfortunately this seems like a drop in the ocean. No better place knows this than Kruger National Park of South Africa. This year alone 345 rhino have been poached in the park, more than double the number killed from January to October in 2012. Their first response in 2008 was to increase ranger patrols in the park, however this could not hold back the poachers coming in from Mozambique in droves, nicknamed ‘triggerman’ with heavy-caliber hunting rifles (Kruger NP shares a border with Mozambique which is partly unfenced). Typically one man will take the shot, one man will carry the horn and another two will guard the others with these guns. These men will be paid typically 100,000 South African Rand or £10,000 and the incentive is huge when a lot of the country is in poverty. Of course a fire fight began and there were fatalities. More poachers came in and a brutal cycle of ramping up arms on each side began.
Unfortunately many South Africans resent the rangers as they see them working for white farms and white people and see the actual poachers as the ‘robin hoods’ of Africa, taking from the poor and giving back to the poor. In 2011 the South African National Defence Force deployed 265 troops in the park to help the effort. Spotter planes, helicopters and military drones have been donated and bought to tackle the rhino poachers. Google funded WWF $5 million to help gain information about the location of poachers by using patrols, drones, electronic tags and better communications. Diceros is a company that uses U.S. and South African military style technology to better protect the rhinos, including microphones, radar and drones.
Since 2008, 23 poachers have been shot dead by rangers in Kruger NP, however the poachers are dispensable and like a drug dealer, will be replaced by another poacher the next day because of the huge demand. This is one of the reasons that poaching persists. What is not known so widely, is that the poaching is actually run by huge and clever criminal groups, sometimes terrorists such as al-Shabaab and the Lord’s Resistance Army. They are the ones running the show; the poachers are the puppets. Poaching has become so sophisticated that the use of helicopters, veterinary medication and high-powered weapons have made law enforcement incredibly difficult. Smuggling the horn out of the countries is actually the easiest part. Often they travel in suitcases and when controls were tightened at Johannesburg airport, the poachers looked towards the national airport of Togo which lacks any tight controls and due to the entire loss of Togo’s rhino population, the horn clearly comes from elsewhere, When poachers are actually caught, the sentences are incredibly light, even when it is a very high-profile case such as when the former U.S. defence attaché, David McNevin was caught in Narobi airport with illegal ivory. His fine was $350.
What can be done?
Apart from ramping up rangers with guns and sending them out every day to face the poachers in a battle of bullets and rhino horn, what can be done? Some private game reserves have increased security but have also resorted to poisoning the horns with a toxin that cannot harm the animal itself such as a plant-based toxin that is deadly for humans. Others have looked into dye as a purple or pink horn to an Asian consumer is not quite as appealing. However, unless this is made a public notice, the poachers will still take the rhino, unwittingly knowing that the rhino has a poisoned horn. An even more drastic solution is the removal of the rhino horn altogether. Namibia was the first to adopt this programme and in 1989 to the early 1990s dehorning occurred. Not a single dehorned rhino was poached. In the Zimbabwe Lowveld conservancies, the rhinos have a 29.1% better chance of survival than their horned companions and in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa, where nearly all reserves have been dehorning their rhinos, of the 33 killed from 2009-2011, only one was dehorned. The horn could also be farmed and therefore supply the market. The problem with dehorning rhinos is that the stub of the horn left is still of value and in some cases, it is thought that dehorned rhinos are killed to stop them being tracked again. In overgrown areas especially, often the rhino horn cannot be seen, as rhinos may be killed unnecessarily. It is extremely costly as well, at $620 in Kruger NP and for all to be dehorned in the park, it would total over $7 million. It has been suggested that better media campaigns including the use of celebrities will reduce the demand. This is well illustrated with the campaign for shark fin soup, where consumption dropped 70% after WildAid’s video featured celebrities asking Asians to stop eating it.
The global population of rhinos globally is fewer than 30,000. At the start of the century the population was 500,000. It’s not hard to work out the maths: rhinos will be extinct in the next decade. Two rhinos everyday are being slaughtered to feed the demand from Asia. Africa is no stranger to crisis and war, but this has to be one of the most unnecessary wars in the continent, and it is being lost. The stakes of these animals are ever-increasing and it is time to stop the massacre of the rhinos. They won’t make it without us.