At the sharp end – the true cost of rhino poaching

How bad is the rhino poaching in Africa right now and how big a toll is the deadly horn trade taking on those battling to save them day in, day out? Reserve manager Simon Naylor of Phinda  game reserve in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province has just had the job of dehorning their population of rhinos in a last ditch effort to keep them alive. Afterwards he gave Project African Rhino an exclusive interview revealing in full detail the huge impact the poaching is having on the reserve, its rhinos and himself and his team. (Tomorrow you can also read Simon’s personal account of a particularly harrowing poaching incident on the reserve, and his views on the legalisation of the rhino horn trade). 

AMHRB101 Black rhino

Black rhino at Phinda private game reserve

‘The dehorning took two weeks to complete. It was a big task and now we will have to monitor all these rhinos carefully to see how they’re getting on,’ he told us. In a year’s time we want to evaluate the success of the operation. We want to study the effects on the animals themselves to ensure that there is no negative response to their well-being and social behaviour. And just as importantly we want to gauge whether this drastic action has in fact deterred poachers from planning or entering the park. It is vital to measure the success of everything we do to enhance our knowledge and ability to protect these wonderful creatures,’ explains Simon.

‘The poaching situation is getting worse. I have seen no evidence demand for rhino horn is reducing and from the information we’re getting the price of horn per kilo on the black market is growing every day.’

‘The situation in the province of KwaZulu-Natal is particularly bad. It is the worst affected area after the Kruger National Park. KZN is the spiritual home of the rhino – where the southern race of the white rhino was saved from extinction. A carcass is found here every other day. As of May 22, 57 rhinos have been killed for their horns, about 20 more than the same time last year. Close to 100 rhinos have been shot and killed within a 50 km radius of Phinda in the last 12 months. This is a worsening crisis. For the first time in decades the population in the province of KZN is in decline, at a rate of 4.1 per cent per annum. The positive growth changed in 2012, the tipping point in KZN, and there are more deaths now due to poaching than births. Close to 15 populations of rhino on both private and state land have gone extinct due mainly to the pressures of poaching in KZN alone. Either the owners have sold their rhino or they have been shot out. This is a major loss of rhino habitat and puts major pressure on the remaining rhinos within the province.’

Strong criminal syndicates, light sentences

‘Criminal syndicates and organised crime behind the poaching are growing stronger, they’re becoming very wealthy and there’s growing suspicion they have some magistrates, public prosecutors, police and other authorities on their payroll, making it very hard to have successful investigations, arrests and convictions,’ he claims.

‘Sentences are generally light if cases do go to court. The threat of jail is not a deterrent. With large sums of money at their disposal the crime syndicates are offering money to staff and field rangers at rhino reserves for information and assistance. People employed to protect and conserve rhino are now involved in the crime and killings. I believe 90 per cent of poaching incidents involve inside information or assistance.’

White Rhino capture and notching operation

White Rhino capture operation, Phinda – image (c) Peter Chadwick

‘Dehorning changes the risk/reward ratio substantively against the poacher. It increases the time poachers will have to spend in the park looking for rhino with horn – increasing the opportunity for our field rangers to arrest them.’

‘We see dehorning as a temporary measure reducing the incentive to poach rhino at Phinda in the short to medium term. Of course the horn is the essence of a rhino, but all of us would rather see a live, hornless rhino than a dead and bloated hornless carcass,’ Simon explains. ‘It makes the poachers think twice about entering the park in the short term, but the horn does grow back so this will change in time,’ he adds.

‘We undertook a fair amount of consultation with our surrounding local communities and we had as many community members as was possible to participate in the process as we believe it essential that not only is there community buy-in to this intervention, but that the message is spread far and wide that there no longer is any horn on our rhino. Regardless of this, the horn does grow back, so in time the poachers may well be tempted back,’ he adds.

‘Dehorning will also not replace or allow for security reduction. To be effective it must be in conjunction with high levels of security. I did a lot of homework and consulted widely with experts and people that have dehorned recently and in the past in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe. It was a very informed decision. We could have easily just sold off or disposed of a large percentage of our population due to the threat and pressure. But our population is of massive conservation value to the province/country and world. We do not want to capitulate as so many have already.’

The financial cost of protecting rhinos…

For Simon the dehorning exercise was another in the increasingly long list of additional, regular jobs he and his team have to carry out in response to the poaching crisis. Securing the reserve’s rhinos and protecting them on a daily basis is a massive undertaking.

‘Rhino security takes up a huge proportion of our time, effort and budget. Total reserve security costs in 2015/16 financial year was about R8 million for the year. We forecast about R6 -7 million per annum in the years ahead. Our team checks the entire fence line daily, we monitor and control access into the park each day, deploy field rangers daily and conduct aerial patrols when the fixed wing or helicopters are available,’ he says. ‘The training of field staff and field rangers is constant and we are always on standby to react to incursions or suspicious activity inside or outside the park or to react to reports of gun shots. During full moons (when poaching activity tends to spike) we’re involved patrolling the boundaries and district roads and doing observations together with the field rangers.’

White Rhino capture and notching operation

Simon Naylor and rhino during capture operation – image (c) Peter Chadwick


‘Private rhino reserves have played a very important role in rhino conservation over the past few decades. In 2015, 33 per cent of the total white rhino population in South Africa was to be found within 2 million hectares of privately owned game reserves. Unfortunately more than 70 private reserves in South Africa have disinvested in their rhino populations since the start of this recent rhino poaching crisis, a sad statistic as prior to this the number of private rhino reserves introducing rhino was growing. Private rhino reserves are mostly self-funded in South Africa. The perception is that they are better resourced than state parks. They are however financially stretched. And that doesn’t even take into account general reserve expenses and running costs such as wildlife management and monitoring, repairs and maintenance to fences/roads/pumps/infrastructure and large community lease payments which Phinda is locked into.’

‘There are regular meetings and networking with three surrounding local communities and we’ve had to establish both community policing and neighbourhood security forums as well as set up standard operating procedures within the park and with our neighbours to co-ordinate proactive and reactive operations. Community development and relations is key to any successful conservation and security effort. A lot of time and money is spent working with our immediate neighbours,’ says Simon.

‘On top of this we have to prepare monthly security reports, there are daily, weekly, and monthly meetings with SAPS (South African Police) Rhino Task Teams and regular meetings with other stakeholders in the area and nationally. We also get involved in fund-raising and networking to raise funds for security initiatives within the park and on a regional level. We do fund and grant proposal writing for anti-poaching units and security work and prepare donor reports for the funds raised.’

‘If animals are poached we’re involved in the investigations and follow ups and crime scene investigations. We’re regularly in court giving evidence for the state against suspected rhino poachers that have been arrested within the park or nearby, where we’ve been involved, but we assist with this on other reserves as well,’ he says.

That’s not all. Simon also explained that the reserve carries out deception tests on all field staff every year. With over 200 staff members this can take weeks to complete and is also a costly exercise. They have also had to treat a number of gunshot wounds on rhinos that were lucky to survive poaching and currently have to contribute financially to the care of one rhino, orphaned in a poaching incident, at a nearby rhino orphanage.

If this weren’t enough, there’s the daily ecological monitoring and research on both white and black rhinos on the reserve. Simon and his team have also been involved in three separate translocations of rhino to Botswana in the last year or so as part of a joint conservation project called ‘Rhinos Without Borders‘, involving &Beyond, the luxury safari company that runs Phinda, and another safari company, Great Plains Conservation. The plan is to translocate 100 rhinos (both black and white) to Botswana over the next few years. Phinda has so far donated 14 white rhino to the project.

‘It’s estimated the cost of rhino security on private, state and some national reserves is close to R1.2 billion per annum,’ Simon told Project African Rhino.

To date Phinda has lost seven rhinos to poaching. The most recent was on New Year’s Eve 2015, which resulted in the orphaned five-month old white rhino calf mentioned earlier. ‘It’s a low number compared to the size of the population and surrounding area and it’s mainly due to the many proactive measures we’ve implemented, very good security and huge financial security costs.’

‘It’s becoming harder and more expensive to own and protect rhinos. Their live value is dropping and as a result they are becoming more of a liability to owners and state managers. Many private rhino owners are disinvesting in rhinos. Of the 5,000 plus rhinos killed in the last few years over 1,000 were on private land.

… and the human cost

‘Very little mention is also made of the human cost of this war. Many, many Africans are suffering mentally and physically. Death is all around, on both sides. Many Africans are dying at the hands of unscrupulous local and foreign organised criminal syndicate bosses. Too many people comment (and you see it all too commonly on social media) ‘they are poachers and deserve to die’. To others they are fathers, brothers and sons and their deaths are in vain and to serve the greed of those more powerful. We are also starting to see the effects of post-traumatic stress on our field rangers and conservation staff. Long hours, stress and the constant threat of violence and death is taking its toll. In a recent WWF opinion poll looking at field rangers across Africa more than 65 per cent had been attacked by poachers and more than 70 per cent threatened by poachers and communities. Less than 25 per cent get to see their families for more than 10 days a month. And most said they would not want their children to become field rangers.‘

Much of the R7 million security bill at Phinda is self-funded from sales of rhino and other wildlife as well as tourist operations on the reserve. ‘We do get great support from NGOs such as, International Rhino Foundation, Cycle is Life, Project Rhino KZN, WWF – Black Rhino Range Expansion Project – and private individuals. And there’s some government support from a number of employment programmes that assist us with the employment of field rangers from local communities. But all of these are not sustainable in the long run,’ he warns. ‘It is becoming too expensive for the majority of private and state runs parks to protect their rhinos effectively. I believe the greatest intervention required is a firm stand from both the policing and judicial fronts. Sadly, it appears that the political will that needs to be applied will not be forthcoming anytime soon. As a consequence I’m afraid to say that the future of rhino in South Africa looks bleak.’

How to Protect a Rhino – How the Phinda security bill adds up  

  • Reserve field rangers
  • Community field rangers
  • Annual deception testing
  • Aerial surveillance costs – fixed wing
  • Training & ammunition
  • Uniforms for field rangers
  • Equipment for field rangers
  • Guard towers

Tomorrow we’ll be publishing a report from a poaching incident on Phinda that had a huge impact on Simon. ‘This animal was alive when they started hacking at the horns. Its last breaths mixed with blood are evident as blood spray on the grass,’ he says. ‘Finger prints and DNA were lifted by the police and very good information about the suspects and their phone numbers were given to the police. The suspects have never been questioned or brought to book.

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2 Comments on “At the sharp end – the true cost of rhino poaching”

  1. Dap maritz June 3, 2016 at 8:12 pm #

    It’s one war we can’t afford to lose.
    The price will be to high.
    Not only because we lost the Rhino but there is some guys on ground leve ( rangers and wardens, policemen etc)l who will never be able to come to terms with that.
    I saw the toll it has have on some of our guys.
    Take careb

  2. Grant Surmon February 6, 2017 at 7:20 pm #

    We need much harsher sentances. 20 years for poaching Rhino & Life for the unscrupulous dealers/ masterminds behind the racket!

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