Casualties of war: Kruger vet’s view

It’s not a record to brag about: the number of rhinos poached in South Africa so far this year has now overtaken last year’s figure of 448. Official government stats, released on October 16, show 455 rhinos poached. That figure is already believed to have risen to 467 as we write, and some believe that unreported incidents may mean the actual figure is even higher. In 2010 the figure was 333, in 2007 just 13.

Kruger National Park, which has the world’s biggest population of rhinos, continues to be hardest hit, losing 281 rhinos already this year. At his office in the heart of Kruger we spoke to Dr Markus Hofmeyr, about the impact poaching was having on his work as general manager of veterinary services for South Africa National Parks, and whether the park could sustain such high losses.

At the current poaching rate we should still have a positive growth,’ he says. ‘It’s difficult to get an accurate population figure, but we suspect we have about 8,000 to 10,000 animals. Only 350 rhinos were put in between the ’60s and the ’80s, but they’ve grown at between 7 and 10 per cent ever since, which is really a steep growth rate for rhino, so they’ve done very well. But we need to get to a point where we can reverse the poaching trend. Otherwise we’re going to end up with a situation where we can probably keep them going to the point where there’ll always be rhino, but it’s not going to be a healthy situation where you have natural systems in place with positive growth and opportunities to re-establish rhinos in other areas.’

He’s also worried about the prospects for rhinos on private reserves, and has some sympathy for the argument that trade in horn should be legalised, so private rhino owners could recoup some of the costs of conservation by selling harvested horn, in addition to trading in animals: ‘My personal view, is that if we can make the rhino worth more alive than dead then we’ll win this war,’ he says.

‘If we restrict the ability to move rhinos because we want to over-regulate the way they’re handled, if we restrict where we can sell them, with the increased amount of money that people have to invest to protect them just basic economics will tell you that it’s not economical to keep them any more. That would be a very sad day for rhino conservation. We would be able to preserve them in our national parks and wildlife reserves, and I think we should always see that as the sacred cow – we mustn’t intervene there, we mustn’t dehorn them, we mustn’t try to artificially increase their breeding rates. But we need a buffer to be able to do that and that’s where the private guys play a major role. And if they have added value that every five years they can earn income from a product of that animal [rhino horn] I don’t see why that should be a negative situation. We’re living in a very changing world and if we don’t understand what’s driving demand, and we’re not stopping it, we need to think of alternative ways of dealing with it. I would say if we can keep rhinos alive then we’re winning the game.’

‘Obviously it’s not as straightforward as tomorrow we start trading,’ he adds. ‘There’s all sorts of issues that need to be taken into consideration, and first and foremost is how you’re going to regulate it, and how you’re going to make sure that the horn you’re selling comes from the rhino you say it comes from and not from another poached animal. But fighting rhino poaching at the level that they’re getting killed with the current value of the horn is never going to be successful, because the incentive to kill the rhino is just too big for the poacher, it’s worth taking a risk with his life because if he gets away with it he’s instantly wealthy.’

South Africa’s government declined to propose that legalisation of rhino horn trade be considered at next year’s CITES meeting, but advocates are expected to continue pressing for the move.

Even without the option to legally sell horn, some private owners are dehorning their animals to discourage poachers, but Markus Hofmeyr says this would never be a realistic option in Kruger: ‘Just look at the simple economics of it. Suppose we’ve got 8,000 rhino. If you want to be successful you need to dehorn all of them, and even if you did there’s no guarantee of success because that little stump still has value. Then you’ve got spite killing – ‘If I shoot the one without the horn then the next one will have a horn’. You’re looking very conservatively at 2,000 Rand (about £144) to dehorn a rhino. That’s millions of rand to do them all. Every time you immobilise an animal there’s a risk. You want to do that to every animal in the park? Plus you’ve got new births, animals regrowing horns. Logistically and financially that amount of money can be spent much more effectively elsewhere. From a Kruger point of view it’s just not a logical approach at all. Anybody that thinks it’s an option doesn’t understand the economics of conservation.’

So how has the poaching affected his work as a vet? ‘We were inundated when they were finding a lot of fresh carcasses, we were going out all the time to do post mortems.’ he says. ‘But for some reason we’re not finding as many fresh carcasses now, the poachers have become more sly, they tend to be more efficient at hiding the carcasses, or knowing where they’re going to be in an area with no patrols.’

One effect of poaching that has received little attention is its impact on rhino reintroductions and managed population dispersal. ‘We used to move a lot of rhinos for wildlife sales and for re-establishing populations,’ explains Dr Hofmeyr. ‘Because the poaching has gone up so much we’ve reduced that significantly. We were moving up to 250 rhinos every year, this year we’re only looking at 50. Which is really a much more serious issue, because it means we’re not putting rhinos elsewhere, we’re not earning the income we used to earn which goes to conservation projects. You’re still losing the rhino and it’s only the poacher that benefits. It’s a completely negative spiral for us, no win for anybody except the criminals.’

When it comes to poaching incidents, Kruger’s vets’ main role is largely to provide post-mortem reports. ‘If there’s an animal that’s wounded, we don’t have many treatment options, because putting an injured animal in a captive situation is often enough to push them over the edge. So we will often treat them where they are, or we’ll make a call to say this animal’s prognosis is very poor, and we’d rather euthanase it than let it suffer any longer,’ Dr Hofmeyr explains. ‘Unfortunately we’ve had to make quite a few of those calls, where an animal’s horns were chopped off while it was still alive, or its leg was completely shattered by a bullet, those things don’t really recover.’

He says there has been a lot of discussion about how much vets should intervene with wounded rhinos. ‘If it’s just a flesh wound usually they’ve a very good prognosis of recovery, because they seem to be quite hardy and have big, bulky muscles. But any fracture of their limbs usually has a poor prognosis, particularly if it’s their front legs because they just can’t walk; they have to use their chin to walk. Unless you can get them to eat in captivity, which wild rhinos tend not to do if they are really compromised, then they’re just going to go into a negative healing state and die anyway. If it’s a tame rhino in a boma, that’s a different story. If we’ve had them in the boma and we’ve translocated them and they’ve been on artificial food, you can put those back. But the success rate in relation to the amount of effort is quite small.’

‘Then we’ve got abdominal or thoracic lesions. That depends on how much damage has been done. Generally if the bullet goes into the abdomen and penetrates the gut, they get peritonitis and they tend to die from the infection. Lung shots, they also don’t really recover from, unless it’s a very small wound and only punctured one lung, in which case they could potentially recover.’

He says it’s impossible to say what proportion of poached rhinos is left alive and wounded, because many are probably never spotted by rangers. And he adds, chillingly: ‘The guys that are poaching here are usually quite efficient, unfortunately.’


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments on “Casualties of war: Kruger vet’s view”

  1. onemoregeneration October 24, 2012 at 4:13 pm #

    This is so sad. That is exactly why OMG founders Carter and olivia have started their Rhino Letter Writing Campaign:

    Please consider helping them be emailing or sending them your letter today.

    Thanks in advance for caring from all of us at OMG 😉


  1. Casualties of war: Kruger vet’s view | Pachyderm Magazine | - October 24, 2012

    […] It’s not a record to brag about: the number of rhinos poached in South Africa so far this year has now overtaken last year’s figure of 448. Official government stats, released on Octobe…  […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: