Rhinos are currently being decimated in Africa, and also in other regions of the world where these magnificent animals are found. The scale of poaching has dramatically escalated over the last five years, fuelled by high demand for rhino horn in the Asian market, together with ridiculously high prices that rhino horn fetches on these illegal markets.
While traditional poachers were relatively easy to control with counter poaching operations, modern day rhino poachers, financed by large international syndicates, are equipped with high-end technology, including helicopters, to assist them locate and kill their victims without being detected. These syndicates also employ the services of skilled personnel and target corrupt officials to aid and abet their poaching operations.
Drivers of Rhino Poaching in Africa
The demand for rhino horn is high – much higher than the supply. It’s a simple matter of economics; when demand for a resource exceeds supply, the resource becomes more valuable, and consequently there is more of an incentive to harvest it.
The demand for rhino horn stems primarily from a few East- and South Eastern Asian countries, where it historically was in high demand for dagger handles; for its supposed aphrodisiac properties; and was used in traditional medicinal cures. More recently, it is falsely marketed as a cure for cancer and other non-traditional medical conditions.
South Africa has the highest number of rhinos in the world, as other countries have already had their rhino poached to the brink of extinction. Consequently, poachers are now targeting South African rhino to meet the demands of the Asian market.
In South Africa, the number of rhinos killed has dramatically increased every year since 2007 (when 13 rhinos were killed), with a staggering 668 rhinos poached in 2012 and 635 killed by September 2013 (of which 425 and 396 were killed in the Kruger National Park – a protected area – in 2012 and 2013 respectively).
Efforts to Combat Rhino Poaching
While the South African government and conservation authorities have recognized the seriousness of the situation and are doing their full-best to tackle rhino poaching – 267 rhino poachers were arrested in 2012, and to date there have been 165 arrests in 2013 – sadly, this appears to have little impact on the number of rhinos targeted and killed. Many believe that it is ineffective to merely nab the poachers on the ground, who come from impoverished communities, enticed by the financial incentives offered. The poachers who do the ‘wet work’ are completely indispensable, and if they are arrested, their bosses simply find other eager impoverished candidates to replace them. For anti-poaching efforts to be successful, more effort should go into catching the king-pins who control these operations, and who have the most to gain (and lose). More importantly, when they are caught and prosecuted they should face the full might of the law and receive the harshest sentences possible.
International efforts to combat rhino poaching have seen a collaborative partnership develop between local environmental organization, the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), and Asian environmental group, Education for Nature – Vietnam (ENV), to create awareness campaigns in Asian countries, such as Vietnam, where demand for rhino horn is high.
According to Rynette Coetzee of EWT, “We are extremely excited about our partnership with ENV. We are certain that our campaign, with this crucial buy in from a respected and well known Vietnamese NGO, will help us to turn the tide on the plight of the rhino. Our message: Say NO to rhino horn, is an invitation to all the people of Vietnam to join the people in South Africa to help conserve Africa’s rhinos for today’s and tomorrow’s generations. By saying NO to rhino horn, the demand for rhino horn will decrease, and in this way, the slaughter of these magnificent animals could come to an end.”
In order to get the message across to a broad audience, the rhino awareness campaign includes a variety of media in both Vietnamese and English, including hard-hitting posters, traditional media outlets, and new media, such as websites and social media sites. According to Nguyen Thi Thu Thuy of ENV’s Communication and Public Awareness Unit, “In Vietnam, the campaign elements will be distributed virally through websites, social media channels, forums and blogs, and displayed during ENV awareness activities such as public exhibitions and university programmes. The joint venture marks the first formal co- operation between ENV and a South African organization mutually committed to ending the killing of rhinos and we at ENV are absolutely committed to its success.”
Illicit trafficking in wildlife and wildlife products is thought to be the third largest global illegal industry, surpassed only by human trafficking and drug smuggling, and is typically funded and coordinated by international organised crime syndicates. Consequently, the EWT believes that a multi-prong approach needs to be taken to tackle these criminal elements and combat poaching operations both on the ground and further afield.
Suggested anti-poaching measures include:
- Deploying sniffer dogs at international airports to detect illegal wildlife contraband – four sniffer dogs have currently been placed by EWT at OR Tambo International airport in Johannesburg and they plan to expand this to other international airports across the country;
- Improve the ability of airport staff to detect wildlife contraband through training programs and capacity building initiatives;
- Expanding anti-poaching initiatives to include Zimbabwe, testing the effectiveness of anti-poaching dogs in this region;
- Placing a sniffer dog in Limpopo to detect rhino horn;
- Support for provincial government organizations by providing anti-poaching resources and equipment;
- Support for selected private game reserves;
- Standardizing anti-poaching training methods;
- Initiating the Rhino Orphan Response Project, with a focus on enhancing rescue and rehabilitation by improving emergency response and providing training;
- Reducing the responsibility and involvement of game reserve staff both directly and indirectly in poaching operations by developing a community based anti-poaching project;
- Provide awareness and support to those involved in prosecuting rhino poachers, and encouraging effective and consistent implementation of legislation to ensure poachers are prosecuted to the full extent.