Man, Money & Rhinos – Unravelling the Tangled Knot of Poaching

“We walk around armed at all times. We’re all living 24 hours in a state of readiness. You would start at first light trying to check on all your animals on the reserve, to make sure they’re alive” – Pelham Jones, president of the Private Rhino Owners Association

In 2007, 13 rhino were poached in South Africa. In 2008, 83. Since 2008 poaching has risen by – can you get your head around this? – 8,900%.  And no, I haven’t made a mistake with the noughts. The strange thing is, until that time the white rhino population of the Republic of South Africa was actually increasing. It hardly seems possible. All we hear now is how to save from extinction the iconic African Big Five, one of which is of course, the rhino.

rhino-1077906__180Many in the RSA now believe it’s no coincidence the massive upsurge in poaching suddenly began at just about the time the government decided – amid fears that the domestic trade was delivering poached horns into the hands of international trafficking networks – to impose the moratorium. Back then though, it took rhino protectors by surprise. Pelham Jones again, “We were caught with our pants down. We didn’t think the bad guys would come knocking on our door. We’ve been hit by a tsunami of poaching, and the onslaught is relentless.”

A few facts and figures

  • There are 5 species of rhino
  • The most abundant species is the southern white rhino of which there are about 20,000, 75% of them in Kruger National Park
  • The black rhino is the only other African species, and they are right down to roughly 4,000 – heavily poached in the 70s and 80s and struggling to recover
  • There are 3 Asian species, also sadly killed for their horn
  • Last year nearly 1200 rhino were poached in RSA across private reserves and national parks
  • This tragically makes a poaching rate of 1 rhino every 8 hours
  • Rhino horn sells on the Asian black market for the eye-watering price of $65,000, that is £43,000 a kilo
  • China and Vietnam are the biggest buyers of rhino horn

Exactly why is rhino horn such a valuable commodity?

It is after all just keratin – like our fingernails and hair. There’s a little bit of calcium in it and a lot of water. It’s just an outgrowth of the skin, and nothing like elephants’ tusks or buffalo horn. Well, it seems the market is as complex as the rest of the knotty rhino problem. Some are used for artefacts like daggers and bracelets. China and Vietnam have used the horn in traditional medicine for thousands of years to ‘treat’ fever, boils, epilepsy and such. But more recently it is the unlucky subject of an urban myth. A rumour went around that rhino horn had cured a top Chinese official of cancer. Not hard to imagine how that bumped up demand. Then because it is so astronomically expensive it’s seen as a desirable status symbol. So you might, for example, want to impress your boss by presenting him with a piece of horn, an expensive gift.

rhinoceros-768714__180Does rhino horn work as a medicine? There’s slight evidence that it has marginal pain-killing properties – but then if you grind up water buffalo horn, it does just as well. So it’s more likely than not the placebo effect. And it’s not nearly as effective as paracetamol. As for the cancer cure, well …

At £43K a kilo of horn, poaching of the poor rhino continues to escalate. And at £43K a kilo, I suppose it’s not surprising to discover that there are already companies producing synthetic rhino horn which is of course, perfectly legal. Perhaps there’s money to be made with it, but debate continues as to whether synthetic horn  will do anything to keep the rhinos safe.

So what protection methods are being tried?

The rhino in private reserves like Pelham Jones’s are the lucky ones. The animals are much more vulnerable in national and provincial parks. It’s verging on impossible to protect the beasts in Kruger National Park for instance, which covers a vast area, has long open borders with Mozambique and Zimbabwe, and is surrounded by poverty-stricken communities. Corruption in the police, park rangers and government officials also threaten the rhino’s safety. Though their chances are better in the private reserves, the financial, physical and emotional cost to the owners of protecting their animals is bringing them to breaking point.

“We walk around armed at all times. We’re all living 24 hours in a state of readiness. You would start at first light trying to check on all your animals on the reserve, to make sure they’re alive, to check for tracks, to see if your fence hasn’t been cut. You’re working late into the night, you get a tip off or you see a set of vehicle tracks stopped along the fence. Or someone hears a fire crack or a gun shot going off. So your stress levels are skyrocketing all the time. You don’t relax, physically or mentally. 

There’s not a day goes by we’re not out from dusk to dawn through the night patrolling. And this was the hardest thing for me to face,  finding our rhinos and knowing that I’d failed them. That no matter how hard we tried, no matter how many patrols we do, the sleepless nights, the worry, they were still killed.” – Pelham Jones

For his 1000+ rhino, the largest privately-owned herd in the world, John Hume employs even more militaristic methods.

“I’m not giving you the size of my army, but I can tell you it’s far bigger than what I’d like, because it’s more expensive than I’d like. We have many vehicles patrolling all the time. We have a helicopter that flies all night. We are busy installing an early warning system on all of our perimeter fencing which will give an alarm in our ops room when anybody tampers with or climbs the fence.”  The cost of all this? 3 million rand a month just for security – that’s over 1.5m pounds sterling a year.

Apart from keeping a private army like John, how else can the rhino be protected?  

Lynn McTavish made the decision to dehorn her rhino. It’s painless and quite simple. You just hire a qualified vet, a helicopter pilot with helicopter and a capture crew. The rhino is darted, goes down, has its breathing monitored, and is kept cool with water. Removing the horn takes about 15 -20 minutes. The drug is reversed, the rhino wakes up and joins the rest of the herd. Simple. But expensive.

Another equally expensive method but more drastic, is to spoil the horn and make it unsaleable. This is what Linda Hearne  director of the Rhino Rescue Project decided to do.

“So we set about a research project in which we infused the horns of animals with animal-friendly toxins and indelible dyes, and we did that in the presence of local communities and our staff. Because what we found was that 90% of poaching incidents are made possible with inside information. So to have that local community go out spread the message for you that these horns are now off limits has been an extremely valuable tool in our anti-poaching toolbox, and the results we’ve had thus far have been great.”

The problem as always is money. Many of the smaller reserves are struggling to meet the costs of protection. Linda says, “That has been the main challenge, the lack of funding, the lack of government support. And a lot of conservation bodies have come out and said they weren’t willing to assist.”

south-africa-926930__180The same applies in the national parks. For Hendrik Asics, a park ranger in Pellensburg, resources are so limited he sometimes struggles even to feed his tracking dogs. Like so many others he risks his life every day to protect the rhino. “We’re fighting a losing battle at the moment, because we’re losing our rhinos at such a critical, alarming rate. When we walk in the bush and see a rhino that’s been poached, it puts tears in your eyes. It’s heartbreaking.”

So why do the rhino protectors keep doing it?

Because the animal has an appealing, gentle nature. Because of their vulnerability – “there not the smartest kid on the block and 3,4,5,6 animals can be shot easily in one incident.” Because they are an iconic species. Because the African plains will never be the same if they are lost.

Then what is the answer?

In the view of many private owners – the answer would be to lift the moratorium on domestic trade. There are already large stockpiles of legally obtained and confiscated horn which could be made available for sale. John Hume alone has stockpiles of 4,000 kilograms of rhino horn, his investment running into many millions of dollars. The owners want permission to sell, not out of greed, but because they believe it could check the poaching epidemic, and as a bonus, sales of horn would help fund those astronomical protection costs.

Why don’t they do it then?

Because their government has remained consistently opposed to the domestic trade ever since they introduced the ban 8 years ago. (And we’ve seen how well that worked out.)

Last year John Hume along with a colleague brought a case against the government. on the grounds it was their constitutional right as breeders to sell rhino horn. And they won. The judge found in their favour and the ban was overturned.

The government responded by lodging an appeal and re-imposing the moratorium on sales, pending the result. But in January this year, the High Court set the government’s appeal aside. Officially, domestic trade in horn is now legal though no-one has as yet applied for a licence to trade.

“By overturning the domestic ban, rhino owners might want to influence how nations vote at the CITES convention”  – writes Anton Crone for The Daily Maverick.

The CITES global ban on trading rhino horn has remained in place since the 1970s. The RSA’s recently published National Treasury Report for Environment Affairs revealed the government’s intention to table a proposal for the lifting of the ban. The proposal will be put before the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)  which meets in Johannesburg this coming September. It will require a two thirds majority to be passed.

If the international ban is lifted in September, will we be able to stop worrying about the rhino?

That is very much open to debate. The private owners lobby hard for the lifting. But many conservationists say that reviving the trade would send the wrong signal to consumers in China and Vietnam, where groups such as Traffic and WildAid are trying to reduce the demand. And how could anyone be certain the traded horn came from legal supplies and not from poaching? Animal welfare organisations such as IFAW, say a legal trade could encourage more poaching by criminal gangs seeking to launder “dirty” horns in clean markets. And if more horn comes on to the market and the price drops, won’t that in turn stimulate demand?

In spite of the questions raised, all interested parties believe a radical new approach is needed, because right now efforts both to reduce demand in the Far East and to tackle illegal killing are simply not working.

And the world cannot afford to keep losing 3 precious rhinos every single day every week every month every year. 

Sign and share Southern African Fight For Rhino petition to CITES

Good news just out on Earth Day :-  the WWF has obtained a grant from Google “to engineer a remarkable new thermal and infrared camera and software system that can identify poachers from afar and alert park rangers of their presence.” Trials are being piloted in Kenya, and if the system proves a success WWF plan to roll it out across Africa. Read more here

The Story Continues to Unfold

The latest news from Care 2 is that South Africa is expected to propose keeping the ban on rhino horn trading in place at the upcoming Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) at the convention to be held in Johannesburg this September. The recommendation comes from the Committee of Inquiry, which was tasked with advising the government on this issue.

It’s an interesting development since the internal trade in rhino horn has been declared legal by South Africa’s own courts. It looks like a case of ‘watch this space’.

Breaking news April 29th 2016: Swaziland Submits Rhino Horn Trade Proposal for COP17

Swaziland’s rhino horn trade proposal comes less than a year after its controversial sale of 18 of its elephants to three American zoos for $450,000 in order to help fund the country’s rhino conservation efforts ( Read more about this controversial new move in the unfolding story of the South African white rhinos.

May 18th 2016 One man’s plan to save rhinos by airlifting 80 to Australia Focusing on wildlife

May 24th 2016 S Africa”s Supreme Court of Appeal rejected government’s appeal to keep domestic sale ban in place. Sale of rhino horn within S Africa is now legal.

May 24th Meet Chloe – a Belgian Malinois dog receiving anti-poaching training to protect orphaned rhinos in s S African sanctuary. You can donate towards her training at this link.

May 25th 2016 Sudan, Najin and Fatu, the last three northern white rhinos, thought to be incapable of breeding, the species now extinct.  Focusing on Wildlife reports scientists’ attempts to save the species from extinction by harvesting the last eggs from the two remaining females and using advanced reproductive techniques to create embryos. If successful, it would be a world first, but a controversial one. People cannot be allowed to believe that science can always save the day, and right what humans have done wrong to animals and their habitats.

May 25th 2016 US State Department announced a five-year bilateral partnership with Vietnam to combat wildlife trafficking, Vietnam being, with China, the biggest market for rhino horn.

June 8th 2016 South Africa’s domestic rhino horn trade back on ice after Department of Environmental Affairs takes issue to top court – Business Insider

August 19th 2016 France bans all ivory & rhino horn trade – The Ecologist

Sep 11th 2016 SA’s Minister for Environmental Affairs says rhino poaching has decreased by 17.8% in Kruger National Park. The Minister said this in a statement on Sunday on progress in the implementation of the Integrated Strategic Management of Rhinoceros – South African Government News Agency

28th November 2016 Innovative Technology Creates Safe Haven for Rhinos – Focusing on Wildlife


18th August 2017 South Africa opposes online rhino horn auction – PhysOrg

21st August 2017 Petition to ask S Africa to stop rhino horn auction

8th January 2018 DNA evidence is putting rhino poachers behind bars, study shows

6th February 2018  World-Renowned Ivory and Rhino Horn Investigator Killed in Kenya

30th October 2018 The terrible news that China has reversed 25-year ban on using rhinoceros horns and tiger bones in medicine

13th November 2018 China postpones lifting the ban on rhino horn and tiger bones

24th November 2018 Sotheby’s latest auction house to end rhino horn sales

14th February 2019 South Africa’s rhino poaching sees ‘significant’ decline, minister says

16th February 2019 Hong Kong seizes $1m of rhino horn in record airport haul & Scientists fine-tune method to save rhinos

Fight for Rhinos

To find out more about the pros and cons of legalisation visit Save the Rhino

To find out about a novel idea to ensure the survival of the species Click here

My main source BBC Radio 4 The Horns of a Dilemma

Related posts

Nations of the World Step Up for Elephants and Rhinos

Saving Wildlife on the World Wide Web





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