Conservation of the African rhino has been an ongoing effort over a long period, with certain levels of success. However, the challenges bedevilling this sector have recently become more complex, as evidenced by a sudden increase in poaching. Poaching of the rhino for its horn on the African continent has continued unabated to the ‘verge of the extinction’ of the magnificent species. This CAI paper discusses the struggle to reduce the loss of the rhino, one of Africa’s ‘Big Five’.(2) It further provides background to the current appalling situation facing rhinos, and explores the reasons behind the sudden increase in rhino poaching in recent years. The discussion also offers a description of the various means that have been implemented to curtail the illegal activity.
The appalling rhino situation
Both the black and white rhino populations have shown positive growth due to massive conservation efforts. However, there are some subspecies, such as the southern white rhino and the northern white rhino (with only four surviving animals in the Democratic Republic of Congo),(3) that are still under threat and listed as critically endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.(4) According to the Red List, there are no more wild black rhinos in west Africa, and the subspecies of white rhino in central Africa is no longer existent.(5) Meanwhile, the northern white rhino, which is a subspecies in central Africa, is on the brink of extinction.(6) There has been a surge in rhino poaching over recent years, and it is this trend that has been worrying stakeholders in the wildlife sector on the continent and the world.
The majority of rhinos are concentrated in southern Africa, with South Africa having more than 80% of Africa’s rhino population.(7) From 2006 to 2009, there were 210 rhinos that were illegally slaughtered in South Africa, while in Zimbabwe, 235 rhinos were killed illegally.(8) According to Tom Milliken, a researcher from the global wildlife trade monitoring network, Traffic, “These two nations collectively form the epicentre of an unrelenting poaching crisis in southern Africa.”(9) In South Africa, about 122 rhinos were killed in 2009, 333 were killed in 2010,(10) 448 in 2011,(11) and at least 588 were killed in 2012.(12) This increase in rhino poaching in South Africa is happening despite efforts to curb the scourge.(13) “The rhino faces extinction within 10 years if we do not reverse this trend,” warns Joseph Okori, Word Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) African Rhino Programme leader.(14)
Why the increase in rhino poaching?
The international trade in rhino horn was banned in 1977 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), but demand has remained high, particularly during the last five years, and this in turn has driven poaching.(15) A couple of explanations have been given to understand the soaring demand for rhino horn that has primarily originated in Asia;(16) mainly Vietnam, China (17) and Thailand,(18) where rhino horn currently fetches about US$ 65,000 per kilogram on the Asian black market.(19)
The demand for rhino horn in Asia has been characterised by its use for medicinal purposes. Used medically, rhino horn is first ground into a fine powder and used to treat an array of illnesses such as nosebleeds, strokes, convulsions, fevers, cancers, headaches, or even to cure hangovers. Despite these supposed medicinal uses and properties, there is no scientifically proven medical value for rhino horn.(20)
The decline in law enforcement in some countries has also been a major factor in the surge in poaching.(21) One example of this is Zimbabwe during the period since 2000, when the so-called ‘fast track’ land reform programme was being implemented. The situation in Zimbabwe has been described as ‘most serious’ as the rhino population plummets, which is hardly surprising considering the 3% conviction rate of poachers.(22)
In addition, there has been a trend towards the sophistication of rhino poaching over the last few years. There exist highly organised syndicates with well established international links using advanced technology, such as silenced weapons, assault rifles, night vision goggles, bullet-proof vests, darting equipment and helicopters to carry out rhino poaching.(23) This sophistication and coordination enables poachers to carry out their activities with military precision, for instance, reducing the time spent on a poaching incident to a quick 15 minutes.(24) Connivance between poachers and wildlife authorities has exacerbated the situation. There is evidence, for example, in South Africa, that some of the rhinos that were poached were killed by weapons usually used by wildlife authorities.(25)
Rooting out rhino poaching
To root out poaching, African nations with rhino populations have attempted to implement a number of deterrents and preventive measures (some of these strategies have worked, while others need to be actioned properly):
Best practice has shown that one of the most effective ways to root out poaching is to prevent poachers from carrying out their activities. This requires lawmakers and law-enforcement agencies to do visible and active patrols of the rhino habitats to keep poachers at bay.(26) Efforts to prevent activities need to be followed by arrests, prosecution, and stiff sentencing of poachers.(27) South Africa has stepped up its anti-poaching efforts by deploying reconnaissance aircraft equipped with surveillance equipment to aid in detecting poachers.(28) This has been carried out in the Kruger National Park, where the highest level of rhino poaching has been recorded and which also borders Mozambique.(29)
In response to the sophistication of the rhino trafficking gangsters overwhelming local authorities and terrorising villagers, wildlife trafficking was discussed as a security threat, beyond just being an environmental crime.(30) In this regard, the United States of America has ordered its intelligence community to assist African governments in tracking poachers; and the country has established an anti-trafficking alliance with Interpol and customs authorities.(31) On a smaller scale, in the North West Province, South Africa has started to fit live rhinos with Global Positioning System (GPS) devices as part of a monitoring scheme.(32) In as much as increased armed protection can be offered, there is a limit to its impact due to the high costs thereof.(33)
Ban in trophy and sport hunting
Wildlife-rich Kenya is one of the African countries that banned trophy and sport hunting several years ago.(34) In 2012, Botswana also proposed to ban sport hunting as from 2014.(35) These efforts represent a paradigm shift to promote more ecotourism.(37)
Protecting habitats and reducing human-rhino conflict
Authorities, together with international non-governmental organisations, such as the WWF, have been working with communities to create buffer zones between rhino habitats in protected areas and human settlements, to reduce rhino-human conflict.(38) This will lead to improved protection of rhino habitats and contribute towards reducing the encroachment by human activities, which in turn could lead to poaching.
Local and international cooperation
One recommendation to effectively implement local and international cooperation strategies would be to generate good rapport between the authorities, conservation organisations, and the local communities. For example, in Namibia, local populations alert the authorities to poachers and there is a good working relationship between the two, culminating in the lowest poaching incidents in Africa.(39) This best practice is being spread to neighbouring Botswana, South Africa, and Zambia.
The WWF has worked in rhino conservation and management in Africa by helping communities to benefit from their conservation efforts for almost 50 years.(40) At the inception of the African rhino programme, there were 8,466 white rhinos and 2,599 black rhinos that were critically endangered. These numbers have grown considerably, and currently stand at approximately 20,000 white rhinos and 5,000 black rhinos.(41) Ongoing work to save the African rhino involves the improvement of local and international law enforcement to curb the flow of the rhino horn from Africa to other world regions,(42) particularly Asia where demand is very high. In this regard, South Africa and Vietnam, for instance, have signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate in areas of biodiversity, conservation and law enforcement.(43) Talks related to this memorandum were convened with the assistance of Interpol and environmental, customs, and prosecution authorities of the respective countries. All these efforts are meant to put in place a tight certification process for legal hunting, and to close loopholes in South African rhino trophy exports and subsequent Vietnamese imports.(44)
Reducing consumer demand for rhino horns
Community outreach programmes have been carried out jointly by partner organisations such as Traffic, IUCN, WWF and governments to reduce the demand for rhino horn.(45) These outreach programmes have assisted in creating awareness around the need to conserve and protect the rhino; and has also assisted to debunk the myths of rhino horn being a panacea for human ailments.
Could legalising horn trade save rhinos?
This is the ‘million dollar question’ at the base of efforts to root out rhino poaching in Africa. There is a school of thought suggesting that legalising rhino horn trade would transfer much power from the hands of poachers into those of the authorities who are indeed very responsible for the care and upkeep of rhinos.(46) The South African Department for Environmental Affairs is currently assessing the feasibility of implementing this idea.(47) Campfire Association Zimbabwe supports this idea by arguing that this is the opportune time to explore such an alternative against the backdrop of measures that have not worked well in the past.(48) There are huge rhino horn stocks in affected countries (49) and offloading them into legalised market would reduce demand, and eventually prices, that fuel the current black market.
However, not all stakeholders are convinced of this. For example, Morné du Plessis of WWF in South Africa states that:
We understand the need to come up with new ways of combating the rhino horn trade but we are against the notion that legalising it is the answer. How can we control legal rhino horn trade when we can't even control illegal trade? There are too many unknowns for us to even start thinking in that direction...(50)
Further suggestions put across include, among others: educating the end-user markets; all rhinos to have DNA samples kept in a database; a moratorium on rhino hunting; deploying the army in strategic rhino areas; and electric fencing of all protected areas.(51) South Africa has already started the deployment of soldiers along its border with Mozambique to curtail poaching.(52)
The bottom line to any discussion relating to rhino poaching is that there is no magic wand that can wish away the problem. The necessary regulations on paper to protect the rhino seem to be adequate in all African countries, but it is evident that there are crippling impediments to their implementation. A major drawback has been the connivance between poachers and insiders within the relevant authorities. This has been a tricky situation, particularly for the intelligence systems in each affected country, and thus the problem continues unabated. Perhaps scaling up rhino poaching from being a mere environmental crime to a security threat will instigate more stringent treatment of the issue to warrant improved and increased governmental attention than the current situation. Nevertheless there are more questions than answers to problems bedevilling the rhino situation in Africa.
(1) Contact Tariro Kamuti through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Enviro Africa Unit (
). This CAI discussion paper was developed with the assistance of Angela Kariuki and was edited by Liezl Stretton.
(2) The ‘Big Five’ are a group of African game animals comprising the lion, buffalo, rhino, elephant, and leopard.
(3) ‘Among the most endangered species’, World Wildlife Fund, http://wwf.panda.org.
(4) ‘African rhino poaching crisis’, World Wildlife Fund, http://wwf.panda.org.
(5) Boettcher, D., ‘Western black rhino declared extinct’, 10 November 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(7) ‘African rhino poaching crisis’, World Wildlife Fund, http://wwf.panda.org.
(8) ‘Global surge’ in rhino poaching’, British Broadcasting Corporation, 1 December 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk; ‘Rhino poaching surges in Asia, Africa’, World Wildlife Fund, 1 December 2009, http://wwf.panda.org.
(9) ‘Global surge in rhino poaching’, British Broadcasting Corporation, 1 December 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk.
(10) ‘African rhino poaching crisis’, World Wildlife Fund, http://wwf.panda.org.
(11) ‘South Africa rhino poaching: More killed than ever’, British Broadcasting Corporation, 16 October 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(12) ‘Only 10 years left to save rhino’, World Wildlife Fund, 28 November 2012, http://wwf.panda.org.
(13) ‘Global surge in rhino poaching’, British Broadcasting Corporation, 1 December 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk; Fortin, J., ‘The poachers' push: Are South African rhinos on the path to extinction?’, International Business Times, 16 October 2012, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk.
(14) Fortin, J., ‘The poachers' push: Are South African rhinos on the path to extinction?’, International Business Times, 16 October 2012, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk.
(15) ‘Among the most endangered species’, World Wildlife Fund, http://wwf.panda.org.
(16) Mfula, C., ‘Zambia bans hunting of endangered lions, leopards’, Reuters, 10 January 2013, http://www.reuters.com.
(17) ‘South Africa rhino poaching: More killed than ever ’, British Broadcasting Corporation, 16 October 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(18) Bauer, N., ‘SA, Vietnam team up to thwart poachers’, Mail and Guardian, 28 September 2011, http://mg.co.za.
(19) MacGrath, M., ‘Rhino poaching in South Africa reaches record levels’, British Broadcasting Corporation, 10 January 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(20) ‘African rhino poaching crisis’, World Wildlife Fund, http://wwf.panda.org; Fortin, J., ‘The poachers' push: Are South African rhinos on the path to extinction?’, International Business Times, 16 October 2012, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk.
(21) ‘Global surge in rhino poaching’, British Broadcasting Corporation, 1 December 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk.
(23) ‘African rhinos face poaching crisis’, British Broadcasting Corporation, 25 March 2012, http://news.bbc.co.uk; ‘African rhino poaching crisis’, World Wildlife Fund, http://wwf.panda.org.
(24) Baffoe, K., ‘Poaching – the never-ending war’, Destiny Man, May-June 2011.
(25) Hosken, G., ‘Corrupt insiders big in rhino poaching’, Times Live, 21 August 2012, http://www.timeslive.co.za.
(26) ‘WWF’s work to save rhinos’, World Wildlife Fund, http://wwf.panda.org.
(28) ‘South Africa to use aircraft against rhino poachers’, British Broadcasting Corporation, 4 December 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(30) Goldenberg, S., ‘US intelligence teams to track wildlife poachers in Africa and Asia’, The Guardian, 8 November 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(32) Gill, V., ‘Rhino horn GPS used to deter poachers’, British Broadcasting Corporation, 21 October 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk.
(33) ‘Only 10 years left to save rhino’, World Wildlife Fund, 28 November 2012, http://wwf.panda.org.
(34) Mfula, C., ‘Zambia bans hunting of endangered lions, leopards’, Reuters, 10 January 2013, http://www.reuters.com.
(36) ‘WWF African rhino programme’, World Wildlife Fund, http://wwf.panda.org.
(37) ‘WWF’s work to save rhinos’, World Wildlife Fund, http://wwf.panda.org.
(38) ‘Only 10 years left to save rhino’, World Wildlife Fund, 28 November 2012, http://wwf.panda.org.
(39) ‘WWF African rhino programme’, World Wildlife Fund, http://wwf.panda.org.
(42) Bauer, N., ‘SA, Vietnam team up to thwart poachers’, Mail and Guardian, 28 September 2011, http://mg.co.za.
(44) ‘WWF’s work to save rhinos’, World Wildlife Fund, http://wwf.panda.org.
(45) Fihlani, P., ‘Could legalising horn trade save rhinos?’, British Broadcasting Corporation, 30 October 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(48) ‘African and Asian Rhinoceroses – status, conservation and trade’, A report from the IUCN Species Survival Commission (IUCN/SSC) African and Asian Rhino Specialist Groups and TRAFFIC to the CITES Secretariat pursuant to Resolution Conf. 9.14 (Rev. CoP14) and Decision 14.89, 20 November 2009, http://iucn.org.
(49) Fihlani, P., ‘Could legalising horn trade save rhinos?’, British Broadcasting Corporation, 30 October 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(50) Fynn, C., ‘16 proposed solutions to stop rhino poaching in South Africa’, 8 February 2012, http://blog.getaway.co.za.
(51) ‘South Africa rhino poaching: More killed than ever’, British Broadcasting Corporation, 16 October 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk.