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White rhino in poacher's sights White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) in a South African game reserve - how long before it's in a poacher's sights?

Rhino Poaching Crisis in South Africa

The killing of rhinos for their horns has reached crisis levels in South Africa. Experts estimate that if rhino poaching continues at the current rate, a tipping point will be reached within two years. At that stage, the rhino population will start declining, with more rhinos killed than born, leading to a net loss in population.

A continuing annual decline in numbers will ultimately lead to extinction of the species in the wild, possibly within 20 years.

In February 2013, there were 5,055 Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) and 20,405 White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) in Africa. (IUCN press release Feb 2013)

Of this number, South Africa has the largest population of both black and white rhinos (approx 18,000 white and 1,900 black).

It is also the country hardest-hit by poaching. In 2008, 83 rhinos were killed for their horns. This number is rising at an alarming rate, as illustrated in the table below:

Year No. of Rhino Killed
2009 122
2010 133
2011 448
2012 668
2013 1,004
2014 1,215
2015 1,175

Why are rhinos killed for their horns?

According to an article in Nature magazine, rhino horns "have been prized for tens of centuries for their beautiful translucent color when carved, and their supposed healing properties".

Rhino horn is coveted in Yemen where it's used for traditional dagger handles. However, use in traditional Eastern medicine is far more widespread, where rhino horn is highly prized as a cure for a variety of ailments, including fever, rheumatism, gout, and other disorders (but not as an aphrodisiac as is widely believed).

In more recent times, consumer use of rhino horn has shifted from traditional Asian medicine practices to new uses, such as a supposed cure for cancer, and also to convey status, particularly in Vietnam and China.

What has caused the massive increase in poaching?

Although all trade in rhino horn is prohibited under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), rhinos have been killed for their horns for many years.

However, it's only in the past three or four years that poaching has escalated dramaticallty (as illustrated in the table above). There are a number of reasons for this.

In China and Vietnam, a growing middle class with increased disposable income means more people can afford rhino horn, pushing up demand. In Vietnam, possession of rhino horn is regarded as a status symbol among the elite.

The rapid increase in demand has caused a corresponding escalation in prices. According to a paper in Science journal, quoted in this BBC article, a kilogram of rhino horn sold for around $4,700 in 1993, while by 2012 it was selling for $65,000 per kg.

As Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes points out in his paper, The Rhino Poaching Crisis: A Market Analysis, "rhino horn is a commodity with increasing scarcity value". He continues: "growth in market demand threatens to outpace the potential rate of supply under a trade ban ..."

The dramatic price increase has attracted well-funded and highly-organised crime syndicates that now drive the rhino poaching in South Africa. These syndicates can afford the latest technology and buy the services of skilled people and influential officials. Law enforcement in South Africa has meanwhile lagged behind in countering this new level of sophistication in poaching.

On the ground, poor people from Mozambique (neighboring South Africa's Kruger National Park), are recruited to do the "dirty work" for the crime syndicates. As these foot soldiers are captured or killed by wildlife law enforcement groups, others take their place, willing to risk their lives for the rewards which, while a minuscule share of the total, are substantial for someone living in dire poverty.

What steps are being taken to curb rhino poaching?

In South Africa, there is widespread awareness of the rhino poaching crisis. In addition to existing conservation groups and NGOs, various private initiatives have recently been launched, all trying their best to raise funds and spread the word.

Owners of private game reserves that carry rhino have stepped up security, employing armed guards to patrol their properties.

On a national level, the Government has put in place a variety of measures to curb poaching in state game reserves, including air surveillance, training and deployment of additional anti-poaching personnel, and awareness programs among local communities.

The official opposition (Democratic Alliance) believes that Government is not doing enough, and recently called for rhino poaching to be declared a "national disaster".

"It is clear that the current approach by the South African government in response to the onslaught on our rhino has been left wanting, and that other avenues of protecting the species from extinction must be intensely explored", the party said in a statement.

Divergent viewpoints

A major hurdle hampering a co-ordinated national plan of action stems from two divergent viewpoints on the best way to counter rhino poaching.

On one side are those who believe the total ban on trade of rhino horn should be lifted, while the other side is vehemently opposed to this.

Those in favor of lifting the ban believe it will allow the trade in rhino horn to be controlled. Huge stockpiles of rhino horn held in both private and government hands could be channelled into the market, causing an immediate drop in prices while simultaneously providing funds for anti-poaching initiatives and the development of sustainable rhino populations.

They point out that rhino horn can be shaved from live rhinos without harming the animals, meaning horn can be harvested in a sustainable way to supply the demand. (For an in-depth argument if favor of legalising trade in rhino horn, see The Rhino Poaching Crisis: A Market Analysis, mentioned above).

Those opposed to lifting the ban also have strong arguments, pointing out that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to police countries like China and Vietnam to ensure "controlled" trade.

They also question whether the demand can ever be met. What happens once the stockpiles have been absorbed and "harvested" horn fails to meet demand? No one, they maintain, knows the size of the market and they fear that lowering the price will only make rhino horn accessible to more people, so fuelling increased demand.

A Proactive approach

While the opposing lobbies spend time and resources promoting their viewpoints, the Rhino Rescue Project is taking what it calls "proactive poaching prevention" by infusing the horns of live rhinos with a mix of non-lethal poison, indelible dye, and microchips.

It is the infusion of poison into the horns, in the form of ectoparasiticides, that is controversial. According to the project's website, ectoparasiticides, "although not lethal in small quantities, are extremely toxic, and symptoms of accidental ingestion may include, but are not limited to, severe nausea, vomiting, convulsions and/or nervous symptoms".

The website takes pains to point out that "the Rhino Rescue Project horn treatment programme is not out to poison the consumers".

"If it were simply a case of poisoning the consumers in an attempt to get them to stop buying rhino horn, we would not be creating as much publicity around it and trying so hard to explain every aspect of the programme. Instead, the aim of the programme is to prevent the rhinos being poached in the first place."

It's clear the program is gaining wider acceptance, certainly from private game reserves. Treatment in in progress on a large scale in the vast Sabi Sand Game Reserve adjacent to the Kruger National Park, where more than a hundred rhino have been treated. See their Facebook page for more.

Millions of people, not only in South Africa but across the world, are passionately opposed to the killing of rhinos for their horns. But, it can be argued, while this passion remains unfocused and dissipated because of strongly divergent opinions on how best to combat the killing of rhinos, the poaching syndicates will continue to have the advantage.

We can only hope that before long, there will be another success story, a repeat of this one: Rhino Capture and Relocation - a Conservation Success Story.

References and links:

African rhinos won't hold out for much longer, warning from IUCN
Rhino Horn Use: Fact vs. Fiction from Nature magazine
Legalising the horn trade from Save the Rhino
Media releases on Rhino poaching from the SA Dept of Environmental Affairs
Rhino Economics
Rhino Rescue Project
Project Rhino KZN
Stop Rhino Poaching
IUCN Red List: White Rhino
IUCN Red List: Black Rhino
White Rhino Information
Black Rhino Information

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