For years the war between poachers and animal protection officers has waged, unabated, on the African continent. It has been a constantly escalating conflict, with each side attempting to trump the other in a battle of money and skills. However, when it comes to resources to combat this ever-growing problem, Africa has begun to hemorrhage.
The problem stems from the poachers’ almost inexhaustible supply of money. Because rhino horn fetches $30,000 per pound on the black market and makes up a global market of $9.5 billion per year, smugglers and tradesman have very little problem funding these poachers.
As this funding grows, so does the technology that poachers employ. Where once poachers were relegated to surviving the bush and setting snares, these days they have a whole new arsenal on their side. Helicopters, GPS, night-vision goggles and semi-automatic machine guns have all made their way into the poacher’s toolbox.
Countries around the continent have responded to these poaching advances with a call to arms. South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Gabon and Cameroon have all deployed their military into national parks for guard duty.
In many countries, under the tutelage of military personnel, park rangers have begun courses in advanced weaponry, stealth and self defense. A tactic that has become useful as in recent years, as park rangers are coming under increasing attacks by poachers. Yet, it’s not hard to understand why, for many rangers, they did not envision of a life of armed conflict when they first took their posts.
“I wanted to be a veterinarian, but I didn’t have the money for schooling,” relates one UWA ranger located in Kidepo Valley National Park, which straddles the border with Uganda and South Sudan. “But I loved animals so I decided instead I would apply and take exams to become a park ranger.”
However, these days, rather than taking counts of animal packs and managing upkeep in the park, it is his duty to ward off poachers that make their way through war-torn South Sudan, looking for arms funding and bush meat.
In some countries, anti-poaching walks, two guards abreast, rotate patrol duty every night. This means rangers must walk, on foot, through national parks teeming with nocturnal predators, such as leopards, lions and hyenas. However, according to rangers, it is not the animals they fear, but the humans in their midst.
In South Africa, the National Defense Force has deployed drones, helicopters and spotter craft to help take down illegal poachers in the park. In Zimbabwe, where the military also patrols, there are strict signs that warn visitors that anyone seen walking outside their cars on game drives will be presumed to be poachers and shot “on sight.”
Some governments, such as Zimbabwe, have attempted to battle the lure of the rhino horn by removing it surgically under veterinary supervision. However, this was met with unintended and devastating consequences. Poachers, who had spent days tracking these rhinos, killed the de-horned creatures anyway. Whether they did it out of spite, or to never make the mistake of tracking the same rhino twice, is hard to say.
Many have begun to fear that the idea of the free-ranging rhino has become a dream of the past.
Conservation centers, which in East Africa have become the guardian shields between rhinos and poachers, can cost $5 million to set up and maintain for just a 10 year period. Most governments, already dealing with crippling security issues and corruption, lack the funds to create these centers. While private donors have stepped up to create sanctuaries across Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, they are finding their security costs ever-rising.
The passage for smuggled rhino horn is via East Asian shipping routes. Here rhino horn, despite being made from little more than keratin (read: hair and nail fiber), is used in ancient Chinese herbal medicine to treat everything from headaches to cancer. Clearly keratin does not cure cancer, or much of anything for that matter, but because people are still willing to pay top dollar for it, the trade continues.
Anti-poaching measures have taken millions of dollars from local economies. They have also endangered the lives of thousands of park rangers, conservationists and military personnel working across the continent.
Yet for the rhino, the prognosis is far worse. Annihilation of the species is looming closer, with some declaring an extinction date only a few decades away. Meaning that due to outdated herbalist beliefs, with zero scientific backing behind them, we might lose one of nature’s most prolific species within our lifetimes.