Last year's record total of 668 rhino poached in South Africa is looks likely to increase by 50% in 2013, with 891 rhino already killed this year. With just a month to go and the traditional spike in poaching in the last quarter, the number could exceed a thousand.
This comes in spite of the South African government and private sector throwing significant resources at the problem. The treasury has freed up an additional R75-million just for anti-poaching work. The army has also been working alongside rangers in local parks for the last three years, and rangers spend about 80% of their time on anti-poaching work. Drones and dogs have been deployed, and violent contact is almost constant.
At the same time, the number of arrests linked to poaching has increased to 310, although these are mid-level couriers and people physically involved in poaching. The kingpins are protected by the fact that they are based overseas. But with its new emphasis on poaching – thanks to the links to terrorist groups that get funding from selling ivory and rhino horn – the United States recently put a $1-million bounty on a kingpin in Laos.
The department of environmental affairs trumpeted a rare success on November 27 when it reported that R23-million worth of rhino horn had been seized in Hong Kong. This was being investigated by the environment unit at the Hawks, with the horn's DNA being used to create possible links to individuals and groups that could be tried.
The relentless surge in poaching is down to the equally relentless growth in the price of rhino horn, which is now one of the most valuable commodities on earth. In consumer countries in Asia it is thought to cure diseases and is also a status symbol. A kilogram can go for as much as R600 000, while a live rhino in South Africa sells for R150 000.
Over 500 of the poached rhino have been from the Kruger National Park, which traditionally suffers the highest of fatalities in the country. This is because it shares a 360km open border with Mozambique, where poachers in villages on that side of the new trans-frontier park are immune from interference by South Africa. Lax laws also mean that poaching is not treated as a serious crime in Mozambique, while it now is in South Africa.
In its desperation to stem the poaching, the department of environmental affairs has proposed a once-off sale of rhino horn. This can only happen after the 2016 meeting of the Convention in Trade of Endangered Species, and faces overwhelming opposition from other countries.
The department's plan is for the sale to flood the market, thereby destroying the black market. Further plans are being investigated for the farming of rhino. This would create jobs in rural areas, as well as generate funds to for anti-poaching opportunities. But this option is still far off.
For now, the number of rhino being poached is increasing by 50% a year. At this rate, before the end of the decade the number of annual rhino deaths will exceed the number of births .