Horn of sorrow

2013-09-24 00:00

WILL the latest efforts to deter rhino poachers work? Only time will tell. Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s most recent anti-poaching effort, to infuse rhino horns with dye and toxic pesticide, may be the first step in the right direction — as it makes the rhino horn toxic to the end user.

Called an infusion — it is anything but a nicely steeped cup of tea. Anyone using the treated rhino horn in a so-called medicinal product will get seriously ill — perhaps even die.

But KZN MEC for Agriculture and Environment Dr Meshack Radebe says he is not worried about the human rights of those who are prepared to hack the horns off endangered animals, leaving them to die a cruel death.

“We are fighting a war and it’s time for the gloves to come off,” he said.

The first rhinos to be officially treated with the infusion were the rhinos in the front-line game parks along the border with Mozambique — Tembe Elephant Park and Ndumo, which have lost 15 rhino due to poachers. Earlier this year, South African National Defence Force soldiers were called in to patrol the borders, while environmentalist considered what to do.

At a big press event this month, it was all system go for the toxic-dye infusion. Politicians from Mozambique and local politicians were there to witness the procedure. Journalists were bused in for the event and their mission was to get the word out. Our rhino horns are now toxic — consume this horn at your peril.

The new anti-poaching method was the brain child of Lorinda Hern and Dr Charles van Niekerk of the Rhino Rescue Project. The whole cost of the project will be funded by the Peace Parks Foundation, as part of its broader involvement in the Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation Area that connects protected areas in Mozambique, South Africa and Swaziland.

If the results are successful, the project will be expanded to game parks in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, where the rhino populations have been decimated. The infusion treatment has been tested at one or two private game reserves in the North West Province, and the treated rhinos have shown no ill-effects as the toxin does not spread beyond the keratin in the horn, and the dye that is used is similar to the indelible dye that is used on the bank notes that are transported in cash-transit vans. It cannot be erased once touched and is traceable even if it is ground up into fine powder. Anyone who cuts the horns or grinds the rhino horns will be marked.

The dye is mixed with a powerful pesticide that is very harmful to humans who ingest it. Obviously it depends on the amount that is consumed, but even in the smallest amount it is not safe.

The people who buy the horns that have undergone the infusion process will be gambling with their lives. In the past, anti-poaching efforts have been focused on protecting the rhinos and many methods have been used, from implanting microchips in the horns to track the animals movements, and even cutting horns off to the stump. But dehorned rhinos in Zimbabwe have been killed for their horn stumps.

Others have concentrated their efforts on technology and have bought anti-poaching equipment such as light aircraft and have employed specialist staff. Drones, similar to those used in the Iraq war, have been used to follow rhinos and to act as surveillance, and hi-tech cameras, strategically placed around the game parks, are triggered by sensors to alert guards to the movement of rhinos and poachers.

The specialised training of anti-poaching units has been stepped up and game rangers have been trained in warfare and criminal-tracking methods. Their own lives are at stake when they confront poachers armed with high-velocity weapons.

But the truth is that poaching syndicates have the will to counter all those measures and more. They rely on inside information and they have money — lots of it. They have money to bribe game rangers, police officials and ordinary people. To them, that chunk of horn is worth $3 500 (R35 000) for 100 grams. By comparison, 100 grams of gold would be worth R42 300.

Other poaching syndicates have hired helicopters, used guns with silencers and even hired vets in a bloody conspiracy. Using the legal hunting quota as a means to an end, some have pretended to “hunt” a rhino — not even knowing how to hold a rifle to shoot, they have asked the game guide to shoot their prize.

Vietnamese embassy workers have also been caught with rhino horns and have evaded conviction because of diplomatic immunity.

WWF anti-poaching expert Matthew Lewis recently addressed KZN Ezemvelo Wildlife staff and said that convincing rural communities living around game parks that the rhinos are worth more alive than dead should be a main priority.

“The most important link to the poaching syndicate is the local guy who goes into the park and who risks his life for R1 000. He is given the gun and an axe and told to go and get the horn. If you can reach those men and persuade them that it is not worth it, then you have won half the battle.

“Getting the community on your side is very important, as people need to feel invested in the process. You want them to be the eyes and ears of the game rangers on the outside.”

Ezemvelo has encouraged the formation of community conservation ambassadors at each of its parks and they do a lot of community interaction and education. But for many rural people living below the breadline, the conservation of animals is a concept that is foreign to them.

This is also the case with the Asians who consume the rhino horn. “Animal-rights issues are not familiar to the average Chinese person who is not raised with a consciousness about conservation. They are taught that animals are there to eat, and for the average person, the rhinoceros is simply an animal worth more for its horn.”

In mainland China, many rhinoceros have been bought for a breeding programme. Initially, the animals were purchased for a zoo, but this was a flimsy façade and the real intentions of the programme have become clear.

In a Time magazine exclusive, it was revealed recently that a tourism site known as African View is actually a rhino-breeding facility. The firm has been importing rhinos from South Africa and they are being kept at the breeding station in Sanya, Hainan province. The company says it is going to develop various rhino-horn products, including 500 000 “rhino horn detox pills”.

Time magazine also reported that this is not the only rhino-breeding facility in China — a second place in Yunnan province in southwest China imported 16 white rhinos last year. At the recent Ezemvelo Game Auction last week, 15 white rhino were sold for a collective sum of more than R7 million.

Last week, only days after the rhinos at Tembe Elephant Park underwent the infusion process, a poaching gang was arrested, with help from the community who tipped off the police.

Tembe Elephant Park section ranger Len Gunter said KZN Ezemvelo Wildlife, SAPS and Nyathi Anti-Poaching had been working on a particular criminal syndicate for some time, following informed tip-offs. Last week, they caught the gang of four. They found an unlicensed rifle, ammunition, a silencer and an axe. The suspects were arrested and taken to Manguzi Police Station. Gunter said one of the suspects was a Mozambican national, while the three others were South African.

Also last week, at Hluhlwe-Imfolozi Park, a poacher was caught after gun shots were investigated. Musa Mntambo, Ezemvelo spokesperson, said: “Two gun shots were heard late afternoon on Sunday inside the park. Field rangers were sent to investigate and there was a shoot-out between the rangers and three men. A man was injured and apprehended, and two others escaped. The next day a rhino carcass was found. The suspect was searched, and rangers found a set of horns, a bag, a torch and an axe.

The number of rhino poachers who have been arrested in South Africa this year has reached 167. The Kruger National Park remains hardest hit, as 362 rhino have been killed so far this year.

As more rhinos get treated with the infusion and poachers are told their goods are “useless”, the outcome could be positive for the survival of one of the Earth’s oldest animals. The two Asian species of rhinoceros — the Sumatran and Javan rhinos — are practically extinct and there are no herds in the wild.

If rhinos are being bought at local game auctions and exported to rhino farms in China to produce useless rhino-horn medicine, this might be the best solution, even though wildlife conservationists may baulk at the poor treatment of these magnificent beasts who will be caged and treated like battery hens for their horns. As one exhausted game ranger said in a pragmatic way: “Alive is better than dead”.

• trish.beaver@witness.co.za

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