The fight against rhino poaching in South Africa has taken on military proportions with the government sending in army troops to help protect the embattled species.
South African conservationists pride themselves in rescuing the rhino from virtual extinction. At the end of the 19th Century, fewer than 100 white rhinos remained in the wild on the African continent. Through decades of dedicated private and state-led efforts, significant increases in population numbers were achieved and today the country is home to some 21,000 rhinos, by far the largest population anywhere in the world.
That is not to say that the rhino is out of the woods, conservationally-speaking. Black rhinos remain classified as critically endangered with only about 4,200 remaining in the wild, while white rhinos are considered as near threatened.
Now, a major new wave of rhino poaching is once again terrorizing this unique species.
The trend is obvious and shocking. Between 2000 and 2007, an average of 15 rhinos were lost to poachers in South Africa annually. Then the numbers started to climb alarmingly from 83 in 2008 to 122 in 2009 and a record-breaking 333 in 2010.
Most of these were white rhinos, but in 2010, 10 black rhinos were among the victims. The majority of the rhino poaching activity occurs in the country’s largest and most renowned national park, the Kruger National Park, which straddles its border with Mozambique. Of the rhinos poached in 2010, no fewer than 146 were killed there.
The figures for 2011 remain alarming with more than 220 rhinos having been slaughtered by poachers in South Africa this year already and some experts warning that the number may approach 400 by December.
This new wave of rhino poaching appears to be driven by a rising demand from Asia, where rhino horn is a much sought after ingredient in traditional medicine. The Vietnamese market, where the material is sold as a supposed cure to cancer, has been especially implicated in the recent spree, with horns literally worth their weight in gold and prices reportedly reaching $55,000 per kilogram and more.
Those responsible include local and international groups and individuals. South African officials have started talking of “khaki collar crime”¯ after the garb traditionally worn by game rangers. Those arrested and implicated in recent times include wildlife traders, veterinarians, professional hunters, game farm owners, business men and game rangers themselves.
The poachers are part of sophisticated criminal syndicates and often work under the cover of darkness, using veterinary tranquilizers, high-powered rifles, silencers, machine guns, night-vision equipment and helicopters.
All of this has led South African authorities to step up efforts to protect the country’s rhino population. The South African National Defence Force recently deployed 140 soldiers in the Kruger National Park that work jointly with the police and employ aggressive paramilitary-style tactics.
The strategy appears to be yielding some successful results. This year, 127 poachers have been arrested, 64 of them in the Kruger Park alone and monthly rhino killings have started to decrease.
The Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s main parliamentary opposition party, has called for a temporary moratorium on legal rhino hunting after it was revealed that some professional hunters have been abusing their legal hunting permits to export rhino “trophies”¯ to the illicit rhino horn market.
Ultimately, however, the fight against rhino poaching will not be won by fighting gun battles in South Africa’s game reserves and national parks, nor by improving national and international regulations and laws — all trade in rhino horn is already illegal throughout the world.
The real battle lies in convincing those who consume rhino horn, for whatever reason they do so and wherever they live, that their actions are threatening to wipe out one of the planet’s most majestic animal species. Only when they stop demanding and paying money for rhino horn will rhinos in Africa be truly safe.
Andreas is a book shop manager and freelance writer in Cape Town, South Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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