Background to Rhino Poaching

Below is an edited version of an article first published in Wild Planet magazine, November 2013. Some of the statistics are already out of date, but as a primer in the issues around rhino poaching it is still relevant.

Behind the Headline: Last Rhinos in Mozambique killed by poachers

The last known rhinoceroses in Mozambique have been wiped out by poachers apparently working in cahoots with the game rangers responsible for protecting them, it has emerged.
– Daily Telegraph, April 30 2013

White rhinos, Ithala

After decades of successful global conservation, rhinos face being poached into oblivion. This year is already the worst on record. Photographers Steve and Ann Toon examine the scale of the threat, the reasons for this bloody trade and what is being done to save the five remaining species of rhino.

The bloody deaths of 15 white rhinos, killed by poachers earlier this year with the alleged connivance of Limpopo National Park rangers, was just the latest depressing news from the battlefront of a bloody war conservationists are losing. In truth, Mozambique, along with many other former African rhino range states, had almost certainly already lost its rhinos, and these latest victims had probably wandered across the border from the adjacent Kruger National Park in South Africa, itself a poaching hotspot. South Africa and Mozambique dropped much of their border fence back in 2002, as part of a well-intentioned initiative to create a much larger ‘trans-frontier park’. Now, South Africa is looking to rebuild the fence in a desperate effort to stem the tide of poachers flooding Kruger from Mozambique.

Kruger is bearing the brunt of a rhino poaching epidemic that threatens to reverse decades of successful conservation work. Since the pioneering Operation Rhino in the 1960s, when rhinos were the subject of intense conservation efforts and major translocations, South Africa has been at the forefront of rhino conservation. It is now home to around three quarters of Africa’s black and white rhinos, with around 18,800 white and 4,880 black rhinos roaming its vast parks and private reserves. However, poaching there has increased dramatically in the past five years: in 2007, just 13 animals were poached, but by 2012 this had escalated to at least 668 recorded deaths, and by late September this year 688 rhinos had already died, Poaching is also on the rise in other African range states and on the Indian subcontinent, where fewer than 3,500 of the greater one-horned rhino survive.

Reversing progress

ACPP42  Sign to deter poachersPoaching isn’t new. At the start of the 20th Century there were probably half a million rhinos across Africa and Asia; by 1970 there were 70,000, today there are fewer than 29,000. Between 1970 and 1992, the critically endangered black rhino suffered a calamitous 96 per cent collapse in numbers, while in South East Asia poaching and habitat loss has already reduced the Javan and Sumatran rhino species to a mere handful of individuals. Today, the Javan rhino is probably the rarest large mammal on earth.

In recent years populations of Africa’s rhinos had been recovering. Rhinos aren’t exactly fast breeders: a female reaches sexual maturity at age seven, and will produce a calf around every two years into her forties. Left to themselves, in suitable habitat (of which Africa has plenty), rhinos can do well: in recent decades white rhino population growth has been around 9 per cent per annum, black rhinos around 6 per cent – enough for the population to double every ten years. The latest poaching epidemic threatens to reverse this progress: by 2016 it is predicted that deaths by poaching will exceed births, and populations will once again start to decrease.
The primary reason for this surge in poaching is the ever-increasing demand for rhino horn in Asia, where it is considered to have various medicinal properties (though it is not, as often incorrectly reported, used as an aphrodisiac).

Prices have spiked and powdered horn now fetches more than gold or cocaine. This has attracted highly organised, well-funded and well-armed international criminal gangs, exploiting an endless supply of impoverished local people willing to risk their lives for quick profit.

Porous borders

The lure of easy money has tempted park rangers and some senior conservation officials to collude with poachers, and even wildlife vets have been implicated. The middlemen and ‘kingpins’ of the trade have proved very difficult to bring to justice. In the first few months of this year, 122 alleged poachers were arrested in South Africa, but only five people were arrested for receiving horn.

Kruger has been worst affected, largely because it has so many rhinos (an estimated 8,000 to 10,000) in an area that is difficult to defend. This vast national park is the size of Wales and has a very long and porous border with Mozambique, one of the world’s poorest countries. But smaller, private reserves have also been badly hit. The private sector accounts for 27 per cent of South Africa’s rhinos, but the spiraling cost of security is driving an increasing number of rhino owners to sell their animals, a further blow to efforts to increase the land available for rhinos.

The Business of Poaching

AMHRW12 White rhino with long hornRhino horn has been used for many different purposes, including the manufacture of traditional jambiya dagger handles in Yemen, libation cups in China, and a variety of medical uses in countries such as China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. But the present boom in demand is primarily due to the economic upturn in China and Vietnam, which has seen a rapid increase in the newly wealthy. In Vietnam in particular, conspicuous consumption of luxury goods is seen as a status symbol: rhino horn is no longer used just for traditional medical purposes, but as a ‘designer drug’ to relieve hangovers, or for detoxing.

There is some scientific evidence that rhino horn may have a small fever-reducing property (albeit less than aspirin), but none that it can cure cancer, a rumour probably circulated by traders keen to boost the market. Horn is also presented as a gift, often to seek favour with an employer, and there is suspicion that it is being stockpiled as an investment (which would become even more valuable were rhinos to become extinct). Trade is illegal, but enforcement of the law in these countries is all but non-existent.

AC42(D) Skulls of poached rhinosThe secretive nature of the black market in horn means information on price is vague, but street prices of up to £40,000 per kilo are credible. The poacher risking his life in the bush earns only a fraction of that, but by African standards the rewards are enormous. One report suggested a poacher can earn up to £3,000 per kilo, so a modest pair of horns weighing 6kg could net as much as £18,000 for a night’s work. Consider that a large proportion of South Africans survive on less than £5,000 a year, the minimum wage for unskilled workers is as low as 75p per hour, and unemployment nationally is above 25 per cent, and the temptation becomes clear. Even a Kruger ranger only earns around £250 per month. In neighbouring Mozambique, the economics are even more telling: South Africa’s gross national income is around £4,500 per person, Mozambique’s is just £300.

Crime & punishment

ACPP08 Anti-poaching unitThe problem has been aggravated in some countries by notoriously lenient punishments for rhino poaching: Kenya only this year increased its penalties from a paltry maximum fine of around £300 and jail time of two years (both rarely imposed) to a fine of nearly £80,000 and 15 years jail. In South Africa the judiciary has been harsher, and one Thai man was recently jailed for 40 years for organising poaching expeditions. But numbers of poachers arrested remain disproportionately low: only 267 last year, when at least 668 rhinos were killed.

The price paid by poachers can be much higher. Between the start of 2011 and June 2013 a total of 73 suspected poachers were shot dead by anti-poaching units. South Africa doesn’t have a shoot-to-kill policy, but talk to anti-poaching units and most admit they would rather shoot first and ask questions later. After all, poachers are often armed with AK47 assault rifles, or worse. It’s a deadly business, but there appears to be no shortage of people willing to take their chances.

Anti-poaching measures are putting considerable pressure on both state and rhino owners: in South Africa, one estimate put state spending on security at £20 million in 2010, now the figure will be considerably higher. The potential damage to South Africa’s multi-billion rand tourism industry is impossible to quantify: will tourists be less keen to go on safari if the ‘Big Five’ becomes the ‘Big Four’?

Rhino Horn: The Facts

  • Black, white and Sumatran rhinos have two horns; Indian and Javan rhinos have a single horn.
  • The combined weight of the horns of a fully grown white rhino is typically between 4 and 12kg. To replace natural wear, horn grows up to 7cm per year. Regular harvesting of horn from a captive rhino could yield 30 to 50kg in its lifetime.
  • Length and weight is variable, but a large white rhino horn can exceed one metre in length, sometimes reaching 1.5m.
  • Black market prices for rhino horn are variable, but £40,000 per kilo is not unlikely.
  • As one of the ‘Big Five’ must-see safari animals, rhinos are an important draw card for tourists. In South Africa, tourism accounts for one in 12 jobs and was worth £15 billion in 2009 (7.9 per cent of GDP).
  • Rhino horn is mostly made up of keratin, the same protein found in human fingernails and hair, but with a structure similar to that of horse hooves.

Rhinos without horns

ACPF58 Dehorned rhinos on rhino farmThe first line of defence against rhino poaching is boots on the ground, and both national parks and private reserves have invested heavily in more anti-poaching patrols. For example, at Kenya’s Lewa reserve, 120 rhinos are protected by 150 security staff. Reserves are investing huge sums in training and equipment: night vision goggles, sniffer dogs, helicopters equipped with thermal imaging, military grade radar, even surveillance drones. One reserve owner in Kenya told us that his plans to introduce rhinos would see his security costs jump from around £65,000 a year to over £300,000.

In South Africa’s private reserves the loss of a poached rhino represents a considerable financial blow to a reserve manager who may have spent between £10,000 and £30,000 to buy that animal at auction. Some are taking more extreme measures to discourage poachers, including dehorning their animals, or even injecting poison and dye into the horns, harmless to the animals, but potentially harmful to consumers. Dehorning isn’t 100 per cent effective, as it’s necessary to leave a stub of around 10cm (which contains live tissue), and horn grows back at up to 7cm per year. Even a short stub can be worth a lot of money to a poacher, who may in any case kill a dehorned rhino he has been tracking to avoid wasting time tracking it again. Dehorning merely drives poachers elsewhere. For a vast park like Kruger, with its dense bush and large rhino population, dehorning is not practical even if it were acceptable to conservationists there.

Legal trading

AMHRB18 Black rhino capture operationThere is a growing lobby in favour of legalising the horn trade, allowing governments and private rhino owners to sell their stockpiles of horn from natural mortality or the dehorning of live animals. Supporters of legal horn trading say it would drive down the cost of horn, users would be more likely to buy from legal sources, and the money raised could be ploughed back into rhino security and conservation. Opponents point out that when one-off sales of ivory were allowed, far from putting illegal traders out of business, they merely acted as a smokescreen for even greater black market sales. Nonetheless, South Africa’s government has signalled its intent to propose legalising the horn trade at the next CITES meeting in 2016.

As well as political efforts to force China, Vietnam and other consumer countries to enforce their wildlife trade laws, there are also initiatives aimed at re-educating Asian consumers. Celebrities such as film actor Jackie Chan and Chinese basketball player Yao Ming have leant their support to advertising campaigns. However, changing consumer attitudes is likely to be a long-term challenge, and rhinos may not have that long.

And then there were seven…

ACPN02 Northern white rhino with armed guardIt is mid-morning in Ol Pejeta conservancy and we’re up close and personal with two tonnes of armour-plated attitude by the name of Najin. We can smell the sweet manure scent of her dung, hear the grinding of her molars as she chews her breakfast, nonchalantly ignoring our attentions. We’re so close we could reach out and wipe away the trail of sticky dribble hanging from the corner of her massive mouth. It’s impossible not to marvel at this prehistoric behemoth.

All rhinos are special, but Najin particularly so. She’s one of only seven Northern white rhinos left on the planet. The last of this subspecies died out in the wild in 2007, leaving just a few surviving zoo animals. Najin and three others have been relocated from a Czech zoo to this reserve in northern Kenya, where they are kept under constant guard, in the hope that living in natural habitat will encourage them to breed.

Najin is a potent symbol of a shameful environmental disaster brought about entirely by the greed of mankind. But she is also a symbol of hope. Back in 1895 the Southern white rhino had been hunted almost to extinction. As few as 20 animals survived in South Africa’s iMfolozi reserve. The 20,000-plus Southern white rhinos living in Africa today are all descended from those animals. History tells us that given sufficient political will, conservation effort, and international support it is still possible to save the rhino.


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