SA rhino under threat from poaching

2012-05-07 07:35

Johannesburg - Decades of conservation efforts to save rhino are coming undone, as surging demand for their horns in Asian traditional medicine has spawned a vast criminal trade powered by poaching.

South Africa is the epicentre of the poaching battle. A conservation success story, the country is home to 70% to 80% of the world's rhino.

In 2007, 13 rhino were poached. In 2011, the number hit 448, and more than 200 have already been killed this year.

In Kenya, Zimbabwe and other countries, poaching is also on the rise, but at a less dramatic pace.

The southern Africa Rhino Management Group warns that if current trends continue, the number of deaths will outstrip births, sending the rhino population on a downward spiral.

Conservation efforts

The massive herbivores that seem to have stepped right out of pre-historic times were nearly killed off during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Through conservation efforts, and lucrative private game farms, white and black rhino populations have rebounded. Africa now has an estimated 20 700 white rhino, and 4 800 black.

Poaching is now threatening that fragile success. Demand for rhino horn in Asian traditional medicine is booming. On the black market, the horns are literally worth their weight in gold: About €50 000 ($66 000) per kilogram.

China, once a major buyer, has taken steps to observe the international ban on trade in rhino parts, according to Traffic, which monitors illicit wildlife trade.

"Right now it's very rare in China to use rhino horn in medicine," said spokesperson Luo Anan. "People's attitudes have shifted since 1993, when the use of rhino horn in Chinese medicine was banned, and they now use other things, such as buffalo horns, instead."

"There is relatively little demand in China now, especially for medicinal use. The demand mainly comes from Vietnam."

In Vietnam, the horn is ground into a powder that is believed to treat fevers, stay youthful and even cure cancer. None of those uses have any scientific basis. Rhino horns are mostly made of keratin, the same material in human fingernails.


Driven by the huge profits, poachers organised into criminal networks that infiltrated even into conservation efforts. In February, four rangers at the famous Kruger National Park were arrested on poaching charges.

All it takes is a cellphone and a GPS to track rhinos.

Once spotted, some gangs operate by helicopter, others by foot. The rhino is darted, or simply gunned down. A few minutes later, the horn is hacked off.

Animals that survive the initial attack usually die of their injuries. When mothers are killed, their young usually dies soon afterward from lack of care.

South Africa last year deployed soldiers along the borders, even inside Kruger, in a bid to stop the slaughter.

Guides who use radios to alert each other to lions, leopards and elephants are no longer allowed to signal the location of rhino.

Some private reserves that can't afford armed patrols have started de-horning rhino. That's a difficult procedure in itself, and offers no long-term protection: The horns grow back.

Others are injecting horns with poisons or colourants.

Revived debate on legalising trade in rhino horns has so far failed to convince experts or conservationists.

What everyone agrees is that the only long-term solution lies in reducing demand, with greater law enforcement in importing nations and better education for consumers.

  • reymister619 - 2012-05-07 08:11

    My teenage son had a brilliant idea, why not cut off all their horns and sell them. Use the money to pay for guards? Nah, that would be too logical and too easy.

      Christo - 2012-05-07 08:28

      Because they will kill a rhino to get to the growth plate of the horns as well. They need to start guarding our boarders and check cargo's at airports and harbours more thoroughly. They should also have very strict and stiff sentences for people caught poaching and/or trading the horns. - 2012-05-13 20:03

      Think this one through mate. If you sell it all at once the price will crash. If you sell it a controlled rate demand will be maintained and so will the high prices, but the poachers and criminal syndicates will still be there too. In fact demand is likely to increase and all the security guards in all the towns and cities in South Africa may not be enough to deal with the sniper rifle-wielding, helicopter-hopping criminals and their suitcases full of cash.

  • margot.stewart1 - 2012-05-07 13:42

    The South African government should be spear heading the drive to stop trade in rhino horn. Instead, they are seriously considering it because the parastatal parks boards own most of it! This is not only the biggest embarrassment in the world of conservation it is actually also the biggest fraudulent act in living history. One government (South Africa) wants to sell a bogus product as medicine to others (Far Eastern).

  • owen.mshengu.sharif - 2012-05-07 17:26

    Arm Rangers with an array of weapons: AK 47, High Powered Sniper Rifle, Shot Gun so they can shoot poachers on sight/site. Don't waste time trying to arrest them - unless they can provide information in how to track down the dealers. Another effective method is to de-testosteronise the bastards with on-site castration devices ...

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