Rhino deaths reach tipping point

In 2008, the number of rhino poached barely reached double digits. Last year, the number was 668 and will be about 700 when you read this, meaning an average of 2.7 rhino die every day. By the end of the year, between 900 and 1000 rhinos will have died for their horns.

This is despite a massive response from government and civil society. The department of environmental affairs – which runs SANParks, where most of the rhino have been killed – has worked locally and ­internationally to stop poaching.

Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa has travelled to all the consumer countries and signed memorandums of understanding with Vietnam and Mozambique to combat poaching, and there is also growing international co-operation, mainly driven by the parallel slaughter of elephants across the continent – at least 25 000 were killed last year.

This year's meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) ordered several countries, including Vietnam and Mozambique, to make a dent in poaching. If they do not, they will be kicked out of the body and will not be allowed to trade in endangered species. This would be costly.

Molewa has said in the past that the current rate of poaching is just about sustainable. South Africa has 85% of the world's 25 000 rhino, but the death rate could exceed the birth rate by 2026.

"This is around the corner, and that is scary," she said. "I can assure you that we will not allow rhino to become extinct on our watch."

But accelerated poaching could hasten this. In a good year, the average birth rate is 26 rhino a week, with 18 being killed a week this year. In the eight days before World Rhino Day – September 22 – 53 were killed.

Arrests have increased at the same time, with 219 suspected poachers arrested this year. But these are mostly low-level poachers; the higher levels of the smuggling chain tend to be based overseas. The only way these kingpins can be arrested is through international co-operation.

The sheer size of the Kruger National Park and its shared border with Mozambique hamper ground enforcement. The fence between the two countries was taken down to create the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park, and poachers based in small towns like Massinger in Mozambique now have bases inside the greater park.

There are no rhino left on the Mozambique side; those that stray across the border do not survive more than 48 hours.

Mozambican rangers have taken to driving rhino back across the border into South Africa. This is because poachers know the rhino are safe once they cross the border from Mozambique.

South African rangers have adopted counter-insurgency tactics. The army has been deployed and casualties are constant on both sides. The worst times are moonlit nights, when poachers are able to spot rhino easily. On these nights, eight helicopters patrol the park, searching for poachers and dropping off teams of dogs to follow their scent.

Poachers who are arrested are now getting stiffer sentences, with DNA evidence ensuring their conviction. Rhino crimes have also been elevated to the National Joint Operations Centre.

With the increased force, and an extra R75-million from the treasury not stopping poachers, Molewa is planning to ask Cites to allow a once-off sale of South Africa's legal rhino stockpile. This would flood the market and meet the demand, effectively destroying the black market, she said. The stockpile is 16 000kg. But the move has been condemned, with groups like the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) saying similar sales in the past only escalated demand.

A report by consulting firm Dalberg this year on illicit wildlife trafficking said the global trade was worth as much as R100-billion a year. "The risk involved is low compared to drug trafficking, and high profit can be generated," it said. Rhino horn is now twice the value of gold and platinum, and is more valuable than diamonds and cocaine. In 2006, rhino horn sold for R8000 a kilogram, now it can fetch as much as R300 000.

The report placed the biggest blame on poverty and corruption. "Poaching tends to thrive in places where corruption is rife, government enforcement is weak and there are few alternative economic opportunities." In poor communities where there are few options for work, poaching is often too lucrative and the risks too minimal to deter would-be poachers, it said.

And where there is demand, there will be supply. A World Wide Fund for Nature investigation in Vietnam found that the average consumer of rhino powder is 48 years old and a businessman. Using the powder, and giving it to friends and colleagues, gave him a "badge of wealth and power", it said.   

The US believes poaching in eastern Africa is funding extremists and has added ­combatting the trade to its counter-terrorism work. And the EIA says that al-Shabab, the group that claimed responsibility for this week's terror attack in Kenya, gets 40% of its funding from selling elephant tusks and rhino horns.

'I know it is wrong, but it pays well'

"I lost my parents when I was nine years old, so very early on, I had to take care of myself. I became a poacher because I needed to survive and ­poaching is a job that pays very well. I knew it was wrong, but the risks seemed to be minimal and it just paid too well.

"They [the government] need to give us opportunities to work and support our families. I am in good health and I want to work, but there are no opportunities for me. I would be happy if I could have my piece of land, be a good farmer, and have enough resources to take care of my family." – Poacher interviewed for the Dalberg report into illicit wildlife trafficking

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Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

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