Last week we stopped over with an old friend and veterinary colleague who has worked in South Africa. We were amazed to hear that she had done a one-week locum in a veterinary practice when the principals had needed a stand-in because they were in the process of exporting 13 white rhino to China. She was horrified to learn that they were doing no such thing and had been caught in the act of darting and dehorning rhino. One of them committed suicide soon after his arrest. Apparently they were part of a large gang who have been involved in the rhino poaching “business” for quite some time and were somehow linked to the Thai man, Chumlong Lemtongthai who is in custody in South Africa. At his arrest the Thai kingpin reportedly had an outstanding order for 50 horns. That demand is still there. He was due to return to court yesterday for a further bail hearing, but I cannot find anything new on this matter. I have alreadv posted once about this and the original story appeared on the BBC wesbite
The latest figures (October 30th this year) are that over 600 rhino have been killed in South Africa in the last two years, just for their horns. The killing, which has been going on for centuries, had declined somewhat and an average of “only” 36 rhinos were poached in the five years up to 2005.
These two were slaughtered in Pilansberg NP and the stark photo was taken by Steve Dell, who is a field ecologist in the park.
A truly ugly new component is reported by Declan Hofmeyr of Madikwe Game Reserve, which lies on the extreme west of South Africa, close to the border with Botswana. During a recent arrest in the Kruger a Chinese hand grenade was seized from one of the poachers. That is bad enough, but it seems as if carcasses are also being booby trapped with Chinese munitions as a revenge tactic against rangers who killed some poachers last year.
The myth persists in many countries of the orient that rhino horn is the essential ingredient for many medical purposes. The most recent claim seems to be that is it a cure-all for cancer. If that is the case, why not harvest finger-nails from beauty salons, because the stuff is of the same make-up. Trouble is, rhino horn fetches about $35,000 US dollars per kg on the Oriental market. That’s a lot of incentive for the poachers.
The perpetrators are not only using simple old techniques of shooting with rifles, but have gone into the use of helicopters, night vision goggles and darting. It is not just South Africa. A few rhino have been poached in Kenya and no doubt other countries are being targeted. There was even a recent case in Tanzania in which a ranger was shot at with a poison-tipped arrow. His jacket saved him as the deadly Acokanthera poison, for which there is no antidote, failed to enter his blood stream.
Such is the demand for rhino horn that museums in the UK are being raided and horns from mounted specimens have been stolen. In a recent report one gang lost out when they stole what were actually latex horns from an exhibit.
The whole issue is clouded by other factors. It has long been known that the only way rhino can be protected is in heavily guarded refugia. High profile reserves like the Kruger National Park are employing military forces to guard their rhino, as are some of the private preserves in Kenya. They can afford to, but smaller operators are in a bind.
Another South African correspondent wrote to me just a couple of days ago. He has been intimately involved with the commercial game ranching industry in South Africa for many years, and understands that in the Africa of today’s world, wildlife has to pay its way. This is part of his email:
"The current rhino poaching and the moratorium on export/trade in the horn just illustrates the fact “that if it pays it stays”. Rhino horn is after all a renewable product and can be cropped I think every three years. What is now happening is that Game ranchers cannot afford the cost of protection as they cannot realise any income , the price of rhino’s has fallen and there will be fewer kept. The situation currently is though that the population growth is still exceeding the poaching rate."
There seem to be two separate movements on this subject. One is an attempt get a total ban on all rhino horn (and elephant tusk) trading world-wide. This has been spearheaded out of Kenya and the folks who started the petition are seeking a million signatures. If you feel this is an option, then got to this site.
The other idea, which has been touted before, is summarized in an online BBC article of Oct 30th this year by Pumza Fihlani titled Could legalising rhino horn trade stop poaching?
She states that “Some game farms in South Africa have resorted to de-horning rhinos before poachers get to them.” She may not know that this has been tried before, mainly in Zimbabwe. It failed. The poachers went ahead and killed rhino anyway.
A bulleted box derived from WWF and Campfire Zimbabwe data on that same BBC site gives one a picture
• 80% Africa's rhino population is found in southern Africa
• There are 4,500 black rhino in southern Africa
• The black rhino population has decreased by 95% since the 1980s
• There are 20,000 white rhino in South Africa alone
• About 80% of Africa's rhinos are found on state-owned land and the rest on private property.
According to Fihlani “South Africa has commissioned a study into whether legalising trade in rhino horn could in fact help to bring down poaching, the Department of Environmental Affairs announced recently.”
She correctly goes on to say that while many countries are desperate for answers to the poaching problem - and many agree that a lot more can be done to save rhinos, critics says South Africa's idea might be too unconventional and untested to get the supports it needs.
There were plenty of comments on Fihlani‘s page, with ideas like contaminating horns to make them undesirable in the TCM trade, shooting poachers on sight, harvesting horns every three years and genetic modification of rhino to be hornless among them.
On a final note, some artificial insemination trials have started and moderate success has been achieved. It is exciting from the scientific point of view, but will never really impact overall rhino populations.
Meanwhile, I’m off with family to visit old stamping grounds in Kenya and hope to see lots of rhino and other species in the private game preserves of Solio (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solio_Ranch) which was Kenya’s first private game reserve, and into which I moved quite a number of rhino on the 1970s. I wrote about it in my book The Trouble With Lions. Let’s hope we see sights like these. The older female of these two rhino was one of the last ones I worked on before we came to Canada
We also plan to visit Ol Pejetaas well as the Masai Mara. It will be fun to show my grand daughters where their mother was born and what it is about Africa that is so compelling. I will not have a computer with me, so no blogs until just before Christmas.