Saving the rhino in South Africa

In 2010, rhino poaching has increased dramatically throughout South Africa. It is believed that over 180 rhinos have been poached in national parks and private game reserve since the beginning of the year. That is highest level seen in the country in fifteen years.

South Africa is considered as the last frontier for the rhino. This species has been largely exterminated from the rest of the continent. More than 90 per cent of Africa’s rhinos live in South Africa, where conservation methods carried out since 1970s have had a great success. But now the species is under threat due to poaching.

“We are under siege”, say the representatives of the Private Rhino Owners’ Association.

Rhino poaching is an organised crime with high stakes. Helicopters are believed to be employed to drop off poachers in the areas where rhinos live. Conservation agencies say that the combination of the growth of demand and the communication boom are at the root of the escalation in rhino poaching. On one side, there are more wealthy middle class people in East Asia who can afford to buy rhino horn. On the other, the pervasiveness of cell phones makes it easy to communicate orders and arrange delivery.

In some Asian countries, rhino horn is incorrectly believed to cure a wide range of diseases, including cancer.

There have been scores of arrests made in the past year, but in spite of this the poaching has not decreased. It will be difficult to stop poaching for as long as the price of rhino horns remains high on the black market and for as long as poachers can count on high returns for their illegal activities. Before dying of wounds he received in an exchange of gun fire, a rhino poacher in Pilanesberg Reserve in the North West province told the Anti-Poaching Unit he was promised R10,000 to kill and de-horn one of the animals.

In their despair, some groups have proposed radical measures aimed at curbing rhino poaching.

There is a call to have the horns removed from the animals in a controlled manner, thus making rhinos worthless to the poachers. However, others say that this strategy makes a rhino even more vulnerable, leaving the animal without horns to defend itself against its natural enemies. On top of that, the move would bring into question the country’s popularity as the unique destination to view the famous "Big Five" – elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo and rhino.

Other groups, like the Wildlife Ranching South Africa (WRSA), see the solution in the legalisation of the rhino horn trade, under strict control and standards, overseen by South African authorities.

In August 2010, a national committee has been set up to coordinate the fight against rhino poaching. The committee was set up at the Lead SA rhino summit and a resolution was signed by 37 representatives of organisations including the Hawks, the Department of Environmental Affairs, Crimeline and the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

The committee will set up a national number that people can phone to report rhino poaching activities; co-ordinate the intelligence from all groups to the National Wildlife Crime Reaction Unit; co-ordinate a national fundraising campaign for specific anti-poaching initiatives; and run an information campaign about rhino poaching and the use of rhino horn.

At the beginning of September 2010, the problem of rhino poaching was also on the agenda of the South African environmental authorities at their fourth "Parks and People" conference. The government representative said that crimes like rhino poaching can be curbed if conservation groups work more closely with communities living in and around protected sites, because crimes like poaching are difficult to police.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) declared September as the Rhino Month and launched a campaign aimed at raising funds and support for those who place their lives on the line in the fight against rhino poaching. The WWF urged the public to dust off their vuvuzelas and participate in "Make a noise for rhino" day on September 22.

Although the picture on the rhino poaching front is currently dismal and heart-wrenching, the concerned groups are confident that the stepping up of the anti-poaching activities will give results. “The rhino is part of our South African heritage. We have brought them back from extinction once, and we must not allow to find ourselves in that situation again”, they say.

Image source: Kruger Park blog.