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How to stop the trade that's driving rhinos to extinction

A black rhino charges at Phinda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. Photo/Pamela Wade

Without dramatic action, the rhinoceros in the wild will be extinct within 10 years. The campaign against the bloody, lucrative trade in rhino horn has to combat powerful economic incentives for poachers.

Sarah Jones is no baby. She’s the zookeeper who, in 2015, was given an award for bravery by police after coolly distracting a Sumatran tiger with its favourite toy, drawing it away from her fatally mauled colleague at Hamilton Zoo. But when talking about the recent attack on a rhino orphanage in South Africa, she’s in tears. “This is a tragedy,” she says, her voice breaking.

Early on the morning of February 20, five armed men broke into the grounds of the Fundimvelo Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage, deep in KwaZulu-Natal province. They overpowered the armed guard, holding him hostage for two hours as they waited for the volunteers caring for the baby rhinos to arrive at the orphanage. Having destroyed the CCTV cameras, the intruders beat and tied up the staff, before sexually assaulting one of them. They then shot the orphanage’s two bigger rhinos, Gugu and Impi, both 18 months old, killing one and fatally wounding the other, before hacking off their small horns and fleeing.

Subsequent security assessments concluded that Thula Thula could not guarantee the safety of its orphans or staff, and on May 2 the decision was made to permanently close the orphanage. Poachers now view orphanages as soft targets after defence was at last ramped up in the poachers’ traditional hunting grounds, Kruger National Park, further north on the border with Mozambique.

Photo/Environmental Investigation Agency

This immense game reserve of nearly two million hectares has borne the brunt of a worldwide poaching epidemic targeting many species, from elephants to pangolins. In 2005, just 10 rhinoceroses were killed in Kruger: in 2015, 826. This escalation is mirrored throughout South Africa’s reserves, as well as among the other species of rhino endemic in Java, Sumatra and India, which are regularly preyed upon by poachers.

South Africa is home to 80% of the world’s white rhino and 50% of the black, but they are being killed at the rate of three a day: one every eight hours. Of the 65,000 black rhino in the wild in Africa in 1970, only about 5000 remain; white rhino number fewer than 20,000. Although the annual deaths by poaching have declined slightly since the 2014 record of 1215 (the 2016 total was recently announced as 1054), rhinos in the wild are still on track for extinction within 10 years. The western black rhino subspecies is already extinct; the northern white and the Javan rhinos are teetering on the brink.

No rhino is safe, anywhere. In early March, in the first attack of its kind in Europe, poachers broke into Thoiry Zoo, near Paris, shooting the resident rhino, Vince, and cutting off his horns. The Thoiry killing caused concern as far away as in Auckland Zoo, where security procedures are always under review.

Last month, a rare one-horned rhino was shot in a national park in Nepal and its horn taken, despite anti-poaching measures. Even dead rhinos are targets: in 2013, the horns were stolen from four stuffed rhino heads at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, even though they had been removed from public display after similar incidents elsewhere.

At the end of the sales chain, rhino horn is worth about US$65,000/kg – more than gold or cocaine. The main customers are in China, where the horn – made of keratin, like hair and fingernails, and of unproven and unlikely medical benefit – is an ingredient of traditional medicine for ailments such as fever, rheumatism and gout. In Vietnam, it is believed to cure anything from hangovers to cancer. In neither country, incidentally, is horn considered an aphrodisiac.

Gugu and Impi before they were killed. Photo/Sarah Jones

Insatiable demand

Growing affluence in both countries has brought about an insatiable demand, despite horn becoming scarcer and consequently more expensive after strenuous efforts to protect the rhino. This has increased both its value and desirability as a status symbol. In Ho Chi Minh City, nothing is more impressive than being able to supply your guests with an anti-hangover shot of ground rhino horn dissolved in water before a night on the town. An inch of horn is considered a generous wedding gift.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) has banned international trade in rhino horn since 1977, so the main beneficiaries of the black market are terrorist groups including Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram and the Lord’s Resistance Army. Poaching is the world’s most lucrative crime after drug, arms and human trafficking, and the horns, as well as ivory and other animal body parts, are smuggled using the same networks. The profits are used for weapons, equipment, training, travel, bribes and all the other expenses of terrorism.

The poachers get a more modest return for the risks they take. They enter the parks by night, often by the light of the full moon, usually carrying hunting rifles but sometimes AK-47s and night-vision goggles. However, they know that equally well-armed rangers, with dogs and helicopters, are watching for them. It’s a life-and-death scenario for both sides, but the poachers, driven by poverty, are desperate.

Around the borders of Kruger National Park alone, two million people live at subsistence level in shelters with no electricity, running water or government help. The estimated unemployment rate is 75%. This situation is common throughout South Africa, and the temptations posed by rhinos, peacefully grazing on the other side of a fence in public and private game reserves, are obvious.

A further threat for Kruger is its porous border with Mozambique, a nation even more poverty-stricken, where the rhino has already been poached to extinction.

Sarah Jones with a baby rhino. Photo/Sarah Jones

No simple answer

There is no simple answer to the problem. The idea of a legalised trade, using harvested horn from farmed rhinos, has its supporters at high levels. Despite vigorous protest, last month the South African Constitutional Court dismissed the moratorium on the domestic trade of rhino horn, a move that will inevitably increase international supply.

Even some rhino-protection agencies see legal trade as a valuable source of funds, but the counterargument runs that acquiescing to demand will simply increase it, as well as sustaining the black market. “When the buying stops, the killing can too” is their catchcry.

That’s the belief of Auckland businessman Peter Eastwood, a staunch protector of the rhino. He has founded a New Zealand-registered charity, called imakeadifference, which comes at the crisis from two angles: prevention and reaction.

Most African wildlife is now within fenced reserves, so more tourists than local children have actually seen a rhino. To make a connection with the iconic wildlife, Eastwood’s charity supports the Rhino Art project, which funds educators to visit poor rural schools. They talk to the students about rhinos, giving them pens to colour a picture and encouraging them to write anti-poaching slogans. So far, more than 250,000 children have received the message about conservation. Even The Lion King is used, the movie dubbed into Zulu so young South Africans can take on board the concept of environmental interdependence.

“This is an attack on the world’s treasures, not just South Africa’s,” Eastwood told a group of young wildlife ambassadors on one of his regular visits. “It’s really important that everyone in the world takes responsibility for the wildlife. We want to make sure that the rhino is there for the next generation.”

Staunch rhino protector Peter Eastwood. Photo/Pamela Wade

Paying informers

Funds from Eastwood’s charity support, among other projects, regular aerial and tracker dog patrols in Zululand. Some of the money is spent on informers who can alert rangers to poachers in their area; it’s dirty work, but poaching is a dirty business.

Imakeadifference is one of the benefactors of Thula Thula where, later on the day of the February 20 attack, the traumatised staff were back on duty, keeping to the normal routines in the hope of minimising the shock and distress for the remaining animals. All their baby rhinos had already seen violence when their mothers were shot or tranquillised and left for dead, their horns hacked off by axe or machete.

“Impi was two months old when he was rescued from beside his mother’s six-day-old carcass,” says Jones. “He had survived by eating mud from the water hole next to her body. He arrived, having witnessed her death, splattered with her blood and extremely traumatised.”

Jones got to know this rhino – and Gugu – well during three weeks she spent at the orphanage as part of a fact-finding tour of South Africa’s rhino conservation projects, before returning to her role as primary keeper of Hamilton Zoo’s six rhinos.

“I would sit back and watch from a distance as they grazed, wallowed and slept in the hot African breeze under the shade of a tree. I had tears in my eyes of sadness, but also utmost happiness that they were survivors and one day they would be wild again.”

Impi and Gugu were due to have been released – together – into a private reserve the week after they were killed. They did not get their happy ending. But with education, regulation and financial support, it is still possible that the rhino, as a species, will not follow them into the void.


This article was first published in the May 13, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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