I wrote the following article for News24 recently, about the ongoing battle to stem the tide of rhino poaching in Africa. Despite a slight decrease in poaching in Kruger National Park in 2016, poaching of these iconic creatures is increasing across Africa’s wild places.
The stench of death is something few people get used to. The sickly smell is insidious, and seems to follow you long after you’ve left the scene of decaying flesh.
It was July 2010, near the start of what became the current rhino poaching war in Southern Africa. We’d found a dead white rhino – a female – in Opathe Game Reserve, a government protected area in KwaZulu-Natal. The maggots were everywhere, a writhing mass of decomposition. The horn of the animal was gone, chopped off by a poacher.
I was accompanying Dr Dave Cooper, the wildlife vet for Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife, the provincial conservation agency. The cops had called him in to do a post-mortem.
Working with focused professionalism, Dr. Cooper and his assistant cut open the massive animal, removing the huge head to find the bullets that killed it. Despite his perfunctory attitude to the gruesome job at hand, Dr. Cooper was visibly upset.
“This is going to be the start of something very serious,” I remember he told me. “The next few years are going to be hell for rhinos and the rangers.”
How right he was. Fast forward to 2016, and in the ensuing six years, more than 4 800 rhinos have been killed in South Africa by poachers. In 2007, only 13 rhinos had been killed. Every year has seen an increase in the number of killings. But in 2015, for the first time, the number has dropped. Last year, according to government statistics, 1 175 rhinos were poached, down from 1 215 in 2014.
But overall, Africa’s rhinos are still in dire straits. More than 1 300 rhinos were killed across the continent in 2015, according to TRAFFIC, a wildlife monitoring group. Both Zimbabwe and Namibia has seen a rise in rhino poaching, which more than offsets the decrease in South Africa. Zimbabwe lost 50 rhinos (up from 20 in 2014, and more than were born in the whole country) and Namibia lost 80, compared to 24 in 2014.
“For Africa as a whole, this is the worst year in decades for rhino poaching,” said TRAFFIC’s Tom Milliken.
In truth, the number of dead rhinos on the veld of Africa today is paltry compared to the immense slaughter at the hands of colonial settlers two centuries ago. Already, way back in 1647, rhinos were being shot. A Dutch sailor noted how they shot a rhino “near the fort” of what was to become Cape Town. It was probably a black rhino. They were widespread over the Cape – and the rest of Africa.
But it didn’t take long for hunters to almost wipe them out. By 1900, “both the black and white rhino were almost extinct from the Cape to the Limpopo River,” according to conservationist Clive Walker.
Rhinos in the rest of Africa haven’t fared much better. Most countries lost all their rhinos to hunting and poachers. Between 1970 and 1993, almost all of West, Central and East Africa’s black rhinos were destroyed. The continent’s population collapsed from around 65 000 animals to just 2 300, mostly in Southern Africa.
Thanks to concerted conservation efforts in the 1960s, mostly in South Africa by the rangers of Imfolozi in KwaZulu-Natal, there are now around 20 000 southern white rhino in Africa. And there are now around 5 000 black rhino.
Despite the rebound in numbers, consider that in the early 1600s there were probably more than a million rhinos in Africa.
In many ways, despite the rebound in southern white and black rhino numbers, the continent’s rhinos still seem perilously close to extinction. These creatures have been roaming the Earth for 50 million years – way longer than human beings – yet their survival is in the balance.
The western black rhino – a subspecies of black rhino – was declared extinct in 2006. Once widespread across Sudan, Chad and Nigeria, it no longer exists, wiped out by poachers.
The northern white rhino – also a distinct subspecies – now only numbers three individuals, all of which live in Ol Pejeta conservancy in Kenya. The two remaining females are incapable of reproduction, and the last surviving male has too low a sperm count.
The demand for rhino horn in Asia as a status symbol and medicinal cure has driven prices above $65 000 per kilogram. Each horn – which is essentially keratin, the same stuff as human fingernails – can weigh up to 5kg, meaning a single horn has a market value of $300 000, even though there is no scientific evidence of rhino horn having any medicinal properties.
This has driven the poaching in South Africa, which has 19 000 of Africa’s rhinos, or about 80% of the continent’s. In Kruger National Park, where 9 000 rhinos live, rangers are fighting for the lives of the rhinos – and themselves.
“We are fighting a war. These rhinos in Kruger are the most valuable cache of environmental assets in the world. Rhino horn is more valuable than gold or platinum. Gram for gram, it’s the most expensive commodity on the planet,” said Major-General John Jooste, the head of anti-poaching for South African National Parks.
“A group of three poachers can earn more than R100 000 for one poaching excursion, or about R30 000 each for two or three days work.”
“If you’ve grown up in destitute poverty, that changes your life. And if you do it a few times, your life is changed forever. It’s the powerful social force we are dealing with.”
Increasingly, the battle for rhinos is in the hands of the South African government and CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), the international wildlife trade governance organization. In 1977, CITES banned international trade in rhino horn, in response to the massive poaching in Africa.
But in 1994, CITES down listed South Africa’s white rhinos from Appendix I, which prohibited any trade, to Appendix II, meaning that hunters could export trophy horns, as long as they weren’t sold. By 2003, Asian nationals had started exploiting this loophole, coming to South Africa to hunt rhinos, then exporting the horns as “trophies”, only to sell them at lucrative prices on the black market in Asia.
Now, South African rhino farmers want to legalise international trade in rhino horn, arguing that flooding the market with horn will lower the market price, giving less incentive to poachers.
Some of the farmers have more than 1 000 rhinos, and have been stockpiling horns for several years. The financial incentive for a lifting on the trade ban is considerable.
In 2009 South Africa banned domestic trade, but recently a high court overturned the government’s decision, based on a technicality. Recently the government has announced plans to propose a regulated international trade in rhino horn at the next CITES meeting, in Johannesburg in September this year.
If trade is allowed, and even if prices of rhino horn fall, some conservationists argue that it will simply fuel a black market for rhino horn in Asia, increasing demand and sending the message that it’s okay to buy rhino horn.
“If South Africa’s government attempts to overturn the international horn-trade ban at the next CITES meeting, it will likely fail, as this will require the votes of two-thirds of the parties present,” wrote Adam Welz from WildAid, an organization focused on reducing consumer demand for African wildlife products.
“Delegates will ask how South Africa could conceivably control trade if it clearly can’t control poaching. The world, including China, is moving away from supporting trade in threatened species.”
“South Africa should instead hit the smugglers where it hurts – in their pockets – by supporting efforts to reduce the demand for ill-gotten wildlife goods. The government should drop its talk of trade and lead the rest of the world in speaking with one clear voice against the consumption of rhino horn, which has little to do with tradition and cures no serious disease.”
Scott Ramsay of Love Wild Africa is a photojournalist documenting protected areas, national parks and nature reserves in Africa. Ramsay is an ambassador for Cape Union Mart, K-Way and Ford Ranger. Supported by Escape Gear, EeziAwn, National Luna, Safari Centre Cape Town, Goodyear, Outdoor Photo and Hetzner.