Bloodiest Week for Rhinos Ever?
Seven rhinos, their heads bloodied and their horns cut off, were found dead in the last week of May in five wildlife sanctuaries and national parks in different regions of Kenya. The rhinos had all been shot, one on a private ranch, Oserian Wildlife Sanctuary, where poachers were actually seen cutting off the animal’s horns.
The killing of the seven rhinos, and in sanctuaries specifically established to protect them, brings the number of rhinos killed so far this year in Kenya to 24. The attacks, writes Paula Kahumbu in the Guardian, seem to have been coordinated. No arrests have yet been made even though the poachers in the Oserian Wildlife Sanctuary were sighted.
30 rhinos were killed in 2012. It is not an exaggeration to say that, if this rate of killing continues in Kenya, the country’s remaining population of about 1,000 rhinos will be fast depleted, even by 2030 — in less than 20 years.
The Kenyan government has sought to assure the public that it has undertaken a wide-scale effort to pursue poachers. Just before the killings of the seven rhinos, Kenyan legislators had passed a motion to increase penalties for poaching. These are currently in the equivalent of $500; the new emergency legislation increases penalties to up to 15 years in jail and fines amounting to millions of shillings (a million Kenya shillings is equal to about $11,747.00).
The latest killings could, says Kahumbu, be seen as the poachers “collectively giving Kenyan lawmakers the proverbial finger.” Despite the government’s efforts, Kenya’s population of 43 million has been feeling that the poachers are, in effect, running the show.
The numbers of endangered animals killed in the past two years makes this too clear. According to the Kenya Wildlife Service, Kenya lost 384 elephants and 30 rhinos to criminals in 2012. By the end of May of this year, besides so many rhinos, Kenya has also lost 117 elephants, though experts think these estimates are low. Rhino deaths are even higher in South Africa, where 350 rhinos have been killed so far this year.
Nepal’s Success at Protecting Rhino
The fight against poachers is certainly a tremendous challenge, but it is not impossible. In Nepal, only one rhino was killed last year and one the year before.
While Nepal’s government faces numerous challenges (the country is one of the world’s poorest), its Prime Minister, Khilraj Regmi, has taken a “personal interest in the crisis” and created three new organizations to address wildlife crime. Law enforcement is now focusing on fighting traders. Communities, who receive 50 percent of the proceeds from parks, have gained from supporting and protecting the parks via voluntary patrols. The army’s presence in national parks has also been vastly increased from 7 posts to 51 posts in Chitwan National Park, where 503 of the country’s 534 rhinos live.
Demand for Rhino Horn Traced to Vietnam
The ever-growing economic might of Asia and its expanding middle class play a huge role in the demand for rhino horns. The reason is traditional Asian medicine (according to which rhino horns have healing and aphrodisiac properties) and, even more, the growing wealth of members of the middle class. In the case of rhino horns, the “nouveau riche” in Vietnam have been especially eager for traditional luxuries such as ornamental rhino horns. Rhino horn can fetch a price of up to $1,400 an ounce — almost the price of gold — in Vietnam.
As Richard Leakey, the former Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service says to the Guardian, “I am not surprised at this attack and when it comes time to do an accounting of our rhinos, I would be surprised if there were more than 500 individuals left in Kenya.”
Preserving Kenya’s wildlife is crucial for the country’s economy and reputation as a tourist destination. It is possible to crack down and get serious on creating and enforcing laws to protect rhinos. Can Kenya do so before its rhino count has dwindled into the three figures?
Photo from Thinkstock