The Rhino Wars
My team and I are just back from the heart of where rhinos are being slaughtered on the boarder between Mozambique and Kruger Park. We interviewed farmers, officials, hunters, weapons dealers, police, army units, trackers and guides in the field, and walked miles in the parks and along the Mozambique boarder. People across the world are calling the most recent rhino slaughter the Rhino War. Here I will outline the reasons why the rhinos are currently losing this war and why there is no hope in sight.
Incentive for Poaching
Rhino horn now sells for $95,000 a kilogram on the Asian retail market. This is up from $65,000 in November of 2014. Wild rhino average about two kilograms per horn. Rhino horn is now worth double the price of gold. There are an estimated 22,000 white rhinos, and 5,000 black rhinos left in Africa. 80% of those are in South Africa. Those numbers are declining at a rapid rate.
Rhino Mortality Rates
Note: does not factor in pregnant rhinos.
2016- 870 so far
The demand for rhino horn is due to the new Asian spending power. Horns are used in many forms of ‘medication’ across Asia ranging from hangover remedies to cancer cures. There is no scientific evidence proving a medicinal value of rhino horns. They are made of keratin which is the same as you finger nails.
Asian and African crime syndicates are scrambling to get into the horn trade. One investigator I talked to noted crime declines in other parts of Africa due to this. There used to be huge crime sprees in Johannesburg, South Africa with everyday bank and armored car heists. These have slacked off dramatically as the criminals have found that the rhino horn trade is an easier way to make their money. Far less risk with a lot more profit. The arrest rate for these offenders is quite impressive but it is the old revolving door. Four Vietnamese were arrested leaving South Africa with seven rhino horn. With a $4,000 bail and one call to their boss, they were on the next plane back to Vietnam. They may even be back in South Africa now with new passports.
It seems corruption has infected every aspect of this illegal horn trade. Many people in South Africa with information on poaching rings are scared and weary of passing any details along to the authorities. Profits from horn sales fund political parties, governments, luxury lifestyles, and huge poaching rings. There are also many scam rhino funds that rake in millions of dollar in the name of rhino conservation.
Prominent South African veterinarians, pilots, and lawyers are involved. Some veterinarians sell M99 to poaching rings that use it to dart and drug the rhinos. This involves no gunshot that could be tracked via new audio recording systems. The poachers are fed GPS coordinates from corrupted park rangers. They then fly in a helicopter to the location with a chainsaw in hand and the horns are cut all the way down to the skull. Some rhinos will die from the M99 overdose but some wake up with horrific wounds and die from sepsis. I met a veterinarian who is trying to develop a method of sealing off the wound and while some rhinos now make it, their horn will no longer grow back. With the amount of money pouring into rhino conservation we should at least see some light for the species but we do not. We are losing them faster and faster as the price of the horns skyrockets. It is currently estimated that we lose three rhinos a day.
Massingir district in southwestern Mozambique is a lake area stones throw from the South African boarder of Kruger Park. The king pin poaching syndicates have set up shop in this area. This small town in Mozambique is booming but there is barely any industry with a few local fishermen and one tourist camp. This is because the entire economy is funded by rhino horn. Many locals are living on luxury estates and driving luxury cars stolen in South Africa.
My fear right now is that the terrorist groups working in North Africa are going to see the dollar signs painted on the sides of rhino, which would guide them south. I made this clear when I visited the US Embassy in Moputa, Moizambique. I was told we have to work through diplomatic channels. The channels are so corrupted that this is going to be a tough job.
Threat to Trophy Hunting
Rhino trophy hunting is in danger. We all know how trophy hunting of rhino saved them from extinction. The population of white rhino was down to 1,200 and are now back to the numbers of today because of Ian Player and farmers who got rid of cattle to breed rhino for the trophy hunter. Well this may end now. We saw that hunting of rhino may be drastically reduced as farmers and breeders for the hunting industry are becoming stressed by the now huge expense involved in protecting their rhino stock. Farmers are being killed in South Africa and rhinos have become like catnip to the poachers. The rhino poachers are out gunning all with their new weapons and are being attracted to the farms that have rhino. I spoke to a few farmers who said they have had enough. Many farmers no longer live on their farms, as it is too dangerous. Many live in the local towns and drive out to their farms each day. According to the tracking team in Kruger, only two AK47s were confiscated in 2014. They are seeing good quality rifles now. Rangers and farmers are being out gunned.
Rules of Contact
There is no doubt that the anti-poaching teams and rangers are out there in the bush putting their life on the line each day, have their hands tied. Botswana and Swaziland have a shoot to kill policy, which does not exist in South Africa. A ranger can only shoot if his life is in danger and the poacher must be pointing his gun in the ranger’s direction. They cannot shoot if the poacher is running away. Rangers are sometimes charged with murder for doing their job and their pay is held back until the court case is resolved. This temps some rangers to simply let the poachers get away.
We can move rhinos to safer countries with good security and a shoot to kill policy. The president of Botswana, Ian Khama is working with Dereck Joubert on a project to do this.
Funds have been raised, and about ten rhinos have been moved out of Kruger already. They have funding for about 90 more. I do not know if this is the best plan but, at the moment, we have to do something drastic. Botswana lost all their rhino to poaching before, but under Ian Khama and his team, it may well save the day.
Some conservation groups have gone to China to try and educate people with the help of various celebrities. This is a tough job as the ancient beliefs in the ‘magical’ and ‘medicinal’ power of rhino horn are very strong. They just may get the Chinese to start chewing on their fingernails instead of our rhino.
Legalize Rhino Horn
This is one of the very hot topics amongst South African conservation groups. Of course, all the rhino breeders think this is the only way to save the rhinos. Rhino horn grows about one inch per year. So lets farm it and get the price of horn to crash? There are also about 5,000 legal rhino horns is stock in the parks and private hands. CITES banned rhino horn in 1977 and it is very unlikely that they will down-list rhino horn any time soon. Even if they did, the bureaucratic processes in Africa would fall into place long after the last rhino is standing. Corruption would play a big part here as well. Corrupt officials are making too much money from the high price of rhino. Who wants to see a rhino with his horn cut off? Not me. The animals need them for defense, and when a poacher tracks a rhino down after a long trek, he shoots it anyway because he is mad and also because he does not want to make the mistake of tracking the same rhino again. In addition, the very powerful Asian syndicates with their own horn stockpiles, want to see all rhino dead because their investment would be worth infinitely more. Even if horn is legalized, there are not enough rhino to feed the huge growing demand.
Locals who live close to rhinos should be given ownership and see more money directed their way from rhino conservation donations, hunting, and tourism etc. They may chase the poachers away and protect the rhinos. The locals currently do not see any reason to protect the animals they live so close to. They see all these white hunters and tourists paying huge money operating close by while they get nothing. So much money is now involved in trophy hunting of lion, elephant, etc. that most all of it goes into the officials pockets. Yes they may get some meat from the hunters but this also has corrupted. One chief was selling the meat out the backdoor and his people got nothing.
Maybe Asia would take notice if Africans advertised Panda hunts. See how they like that. If we do not stop the Asian demand for rhino horn, elephant ivory, and lion bone, the big game in Africa is doomed. Everyone involved in the fight to save the rhino agree on one thing: the situation is not good for our rhinos.