RHINO POACHING INCREASES IN THE 2000s
Rhino poaching has surged since 2007, in part as a growing affluent class in countries such as Vietnam and Thailand spend more on rhino horn for traditional medicine. Richard Conniff wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “In 2008, rhino horn suddenly began to command prices beyond anyone’s wildest imagining. The prospect of instant riches has driven a global frenzy...Investigators from Traffic, a group that monitors international wildlife trade, traced the sudden spike in demand to a tantalizing rumor: Rhino horn had miraculously cured a VIP in Vietnam of terminal liver cancer. [Source: Richard Conniff, Smithsonian magazine, November 2011]
Between January 2006 and September 2009, 470 rhinos were poached in Africa. During that period 50 percent of rhinos were poached in Zimbabwe and 45 percent were poached in South Africa. Almost 70 percent of the poached rhinos were killed by shooting. At a ranch in Limpopo Province in South Africa even a baby rhino with just a stump for a horn was killed for its horn.
In 2011 a single rhino horn was valued at around $400,000, twice the value of the equivalent amount gold when it was at record highs. South Africa lost 333 rhinos in 2010, up from 13 in 2007. In 2011 a record 448 rhinos were poached in South Africa alone, a 33 percent increase compared to the year before, driven by high demand from Asian countries. That year police in Europe reported more than 30 thefts of rhino horn from museums, auction houses and antiques dealerships. In 2012, 262 rhinoceros were lost from January to June, according to WWF.
Most of the poaching takes place in South Africa, Around 250 rhinoceros were poached in Kruger National Park in 2011. Kruger has more than 10,000 white rhinos and about 500 black rhinos.
In 2009, nearly 70 percent of illegally killed rhinos were shot, but methods such as the use of poison and immobilising drugs are now being used to avoid detection. Zimbabwe's collapse under Robert Mugabe in the late 2000s, the Los Angeles Times reported, added to the problem, with corrupt government, army and wildlife officials reportedly involved in poaching and smuggling rhino horn and ivory. The airport in that country's capital, Harare, is reportedly a key transit hub.
As was the case in the 1990s there were also cases of thieves breaking into museums, auction houses and galleries to get their hands of valuable horns. There were reports of 20 such robberies in Britain during the first six months of 2011. During a smash-and-grab robbery of the Natural History Museum at Tring in London in September 2011, thieves made of with worthless replicas thinking they were the real things.
China, Vietnam and Thailand Fuel Record Killing of Rhino in Africa
In July 2012, AFP reported: “China, Vietnam and Thailand are among the worst offenders in fuelling a global black market that is seeing record numbers of rhinos killed in Africa, environment group WWF said. Releasing a report rating countries' efforts at stopping the trade in endangered species, WWF said the survival of rhinos was under grave threat in South Africa. [Source: AFP, July 23, 2012]
Global efforts to stem the trade have been under way for years, but China, Thailand and Vietnam are allowing black markets in various endangered species to flourish by failing to adequately police key areas, according to WWF. The conservation group said there were some bright spots around the world, with India and Nepal receiving a best-possible "green" score for their efforts to stem the trade in elephants, rhinos and tigers.
In July 2012, AFP reported: “The WWF said Vietnam was one of the countries of most concern, giving it a worst-possible "red" score for failing to stem the trade in rhino horns as well as tiger parts. "It is time for Vietnam to face the fact that its illegal consumption of rhino horn is driving the widespread poaching of endangered rhinos in Africa," said WWF's global species programme manager, Elizabeth McLellan. "It must crack down on the illegal rhino horn trade." [Source: AFP, July 23, 2012]
“WWF said Vietnam was the top destination for rhino horns illegally imported from South Africa. It described South Africa as the "epicentre" in an African rhino poaching crisis, despite strong government efforts there that began in 2009 to stop the killings. The wildlife group accused the Vietnamese government of doing very little to stop rhino horns from being imported, describing penalties in Vietnam for buying them as not nearly strong enough to act as a deterrent. It also said Vietnamese diplomats had been arrested or implicated in South Africa for trying to buy rhino horns. [Ibid]
Terrorism and the Ivory and Rhino Horn Trade
Laurel Neme, Andrea Crosta and Nir Kalron wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The connection between terrorism and wildlife smuggling is clear. An 18-month undercover investigation conducted by our groups found an indisputable financial trail between the illicit trade in ivory and rhino horns and the Shabab. This connection is of increasing concern to world leaders. In her recent announcement of a new global effort to combat poaching, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton noted that African terrorist groups, including the Shabab, "fund their terrorist activities to a great extent from ivory trafficking." [Source: Laurel Neme, Andrea Crosta and Nir Kalron, Los Angeles Times, October 14, 2013]
Our investigation detailed how the Shabab acts as a middleman, taking orders from agents in Asia or Persian Gulf states and purchasing ivory from small-time brokers to fill those orders. The terrorist group, we found, pays better than many middlemen (about $90 a pound in 2012), making it an attractive buyer. The brokers (often related by clan) who engage the poachers, pay about $23 per pound, which means they make a hefty return in their dealings with the Shabab.
The Shabab's spot as a premier broker is in part due to its financial and organizational prowess. And a recent crackdown by the Kenya Wildlife Service on ivory smuggling at its ports and airports has made the group an even more essential player. But the real driver of the Shabab's ivory business is soaring demand in consuming countries, which raises prices and makes the trade ever more lucrative. Illicit raw ivory now fetches nearly $700 per pound in some parts of Asia. The money the Shabab earns from the black market in ivory allows the group to recruit and pay its soldiers well and consistently. Because of the trade, Shabab fighters are paid about $300 a month, while those in Somalia's regular army have often earned far less.
As of December 2009, poaching has been on a global increase whilst efforts to protect the rhinoceros are considered increasingly ineffective. The worst estimate, that only three percent of poachers are successfully countered, is reported of Zimbabwe. The horn is incredibly valuable: an average sized horn can bring in much as a quarter of a million dollars in Vietnam and many rhino range States have stockpiles of rhino horn.
Although rhinos are of large size and have a reputation for being tough, they are actually very easily poached; they visit water holes daily and can be easily killed while taking a drink. White rhinos can be easily approached. Black rhinos leave distinctive three toed prints and follow regular routes, making them easy to track. They are also relatively easy to approach and kill with a rifle or automatic weapon. Many poachers saw off the horn and left the rest of the animal to rot.
According to Wikipedia six methods of killing rhinos have been recorded: 1) Shooting is by far the most common method used; rhino horn traders hire sharpshooters and often supply them with rifles and ammunition. 2) Trapping in a pit depends largely on the terrain and availability of grass to cover it; pits are dug out in such a way that a fallen animal has little room to manoeuvre with its head slightly above the pit, so that it is easy to saw off the horn. 3) Electrocuting is used where high voltage powerlines pass through or near a protected area, to which poachers hook a long insulated rod connected to a wire, which is suspended above a rhino path. 4) Poisoning by smearing zinc phosphide rat poison or pesticides on salt licks frequently used by rhinos. 5) Spearing has only been recorded in Chitwan National Park. 6) With a noose, which cuts through the rhino's skin and kills it by strangulation.
Poaching of Indian Rhinos in Assam
In August 2012, Manimugdha S Sharma of TNN wrote: “Poachers killed a full-grown male rhinoceros inside a forest in Jorhat district, Assam. A forest department team found the carcass in the woods hand-reared by 'forest man of India' Jadav Payeng. "I heard gunshots around 10am and immediately alerted the forest department. But nobody came until Thursday morning. It was the only rhino in my forest. I have lost him," Payeng told TOI amid sobs. Divisional forest officer (DFO) Naba Kumar Malakar confirmed the killing and said the team did not find any visible proof of poaching despite combing the forest the whole day. "The poachers sawed off the rhino horn and its nails. We have found holes in the hide, which look like bullet wounds,” Malakar said. [Source: Manimugdha S Sharma, TNN August 4, 2012]
Ranger Pankaj Kalita said the difficulties in reaching the forest---locally known as 'Molai Kathoni' (Molai's Woods) after Payeng's pet name Molai---also hampered the search operation. But not everyone has been convinced by this "explanation". "I had called up the forest office around 12pm on Wednesday when I learnt about the gunshots from Payeng. Why did it take four hours for the message to be relayed to the DFO? If they had acted with alacrity, they could have nabbed the poachers before they left the forest. Poachers were seen earlier in the forest and two of them had been arrested due to Payeng's timely information. Only if they had acted with a sense of urgency," said Jitu Kalita, Payeng's associate.
This year's flood in Assam alone claimed 17 rhinos in Kaziranga National Park, with poachers adding two more to the tally last month. With this latest killing, the rhino death toll in the state has gone up to 20. That's an awful statistic for Assam that is the last home for the Indian rhino in India.
Rhino Poaching in Africa
Poachers in South Africa are use chain saws to rip rhinos' horns off, in some cases mutilating the poor animals while they are still alive and leaving behind bloody cavities in their heads of those lucky enough to survive. Sometimes, they simply shoot the beasts dead, even though the horns can grow back within two years without harming the animal if carefully cut.
Illegal rhino killings in South Africa are skyrocketing — from number of 13 in 2007 to 122 in 2009 to 333 in 2010 to 448 in 2011 and 668 in 2012.
The dramatic increase in poaching is driven by the belief that rhino horn has medicinal powers and the fact that an increasing number of people can afford the high prices to obtain. The horn is also seen as a highly desirable status symbol in some Asian countries, notably Vietnam. Up until about 2010, only a handful of rhinos were poached but the number shot up when rumors circulated at about that time that a Vietnamese minister's relative was cured of cancer by the horn. There is no basis in science to support the claim.
Poachers are operating in organised crime syndicates. Increasingly evidence points to the illicit horn and ivory trade funding the operations of terror organisations including al- Shabaab in Somalia, and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa.
Rhino Horn Poaching Hits New Record in South Africa in 2013
More white rhinos were illegally killed in South Africa in 2013 than in any previous year, according to government figures. A total of 1,004 animals were poached, a 50 percent increase over the previous year. Reuters reported: - The number of rhinos killed by poachers has hit a new annual record in South Africa, raising worries of a downward population spiral in a country that is home to almost all of Africa's rhinos. As of the end of September, 704 rhinos had been killed by poachers in South Africa, exceeding the annual record of 668 set in 2012, according to data provided by the Environmental Affairs ministry on Tuesday. [Source: Jon Herskovitz, Reuters, October 1, 2013]
The greatest threat to the estimated 22,000 rhinos in South Africa comes from those trying to cash in on the black market value of their horn, which sells at prices higher than gold. Many of the poachers come from neighboring Mozambique and sell the horn to crime syndicates to feed rapidly rising demand in Southeast Asia, where the horn is thought by some to cure cancer and tame hangovers. "We need people to be ashamed of this. The fact that our rhinos are killed is because there is a market out there. There are people who are coming to steal our heritage," said Fundisile Mketeni, a top biodiversity official at the ministry.
He said a baby boom among rhino stocks is softening the blow, while the ministry has mounted a global campaign to shut the doors for illegal exports to places such as Vietnam, China and Thailand, which are the main consumers of the contraband.
Most of the killings are taking place in the flagship Kruger National Park, which borders Mozambique. The park covers an area about the size of Israel and has been the focus of an arms race between poachers and rangers. The park service has been turning its rangers into soldiers, using drones to patrol airspace and sending out crack units by helicopter once suspected poachers have been sighted. "The poaching syndicates are determined to carry on with their nefarious acts, using the poverty that is prevalent in Mozambique and South Africa to recruit poachers," said Ike Phaahla, a spokesman with South African National Parks.
In January 2013, the WWF reported: Poaching statistics released by the South African government reveal 668 rhinos were slaughtered in 2012—a 50 percent increase over 2011 and a staggering 5000 percent increase since 2007, when the number poached was 13. The increased value of rhino horn has enticed well-organized, well-financed and highly-mobile criminal groups to become involved in rhino poaching.[Source: WWF, January 10, 2013]
In January 2013, AFP reported: Kruger park authorities “blamed the staggering rate on "recent floods in the Kruger National Park, thick vegetation, two weeks of a full moon, aggressive incursions from Mozambique". Authorities said 18 suspected poachers have been arrested and seven rhino horns recovered in three week period. Some suspects were found in possession of heavy calibre hunting rifles and ammunition. [Source: AFP, January 31, 2013]
Rhino Survives Two Nasty Attacks by Poachers
Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa, Robyn Dixon wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “She has a bullet in her face, another in her leg and every reason not to trust humans. The first time Phila was shot by poachers, during the soccer World Cup in July, the bones in her foot were shattered, and she took a bullet behind the shoulder. Another rhino was slaughtered and her horn taken off. Then, six weeks ago, Phila was shot at least nine times; one of the rounds tore through her nasal cavity and left her bleeding for weeks. [Source: Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times, November 24, 2010]
After the first shooting, Phila's owner had the 5-year-old rhino transferred from his reserve to a supposedly secure enclosure on a different property in the northern province of Limpopo. Her horn was removed to discourage poachers, and she spent several months recovering. Then came the second attack. She was in an enclosure, called a boma, of about 10,000 square feet, with a fence of closely spaced poles.
"Days before she was due to be released, these guys came back. And for 45 minutes they stalked around the outside of the boma, shooting at her like a fish in a barrel, in the dark," said the owner, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Allan, because of concerns about the safety of rhinos on the reserve where he breeds the animals. Panic-stricken, Phila dashed around the boma, crashing into the fence and trees, as the poachers fired at her head. They were willing to kill her for the stump of her sawn-off horn.
When police trackers and helicopters arrived, they found no trace of the criminals. When he received word of the attack from his farm manager, Allan said he felt dead inside. "You feel sick to the stomach. You actually feel totally empty. What can you do about something that you took all the best steps to prevent — and it's happened?"
He thinks the word "poachers" is too mild to describe the criminal syndicates involved in the business. "While rhinos have got horns and it's a desirable product, they're on their way to extinction. They're gone," he said. "How do you get over this greed, and the criminality that goes with it?"
After the second attack on Phila, Allan didn't know where to turn, terrified an insider might leak details of her whereabouts. He finally found what he hoped would be a secure location — with guards — but in October, two helicopters flew low over the boma. (Some poaching gangs use choppers to attack.) "When I heard that, I said to the zoo, 'Please, you have got to take this animal.' "
Phila (her name means life in Zulu) will be at the Johannesburg Zoo until she recovers, probably less than a year, after which Allan hopes to bring her home. Under treatment at the zoo, she has regained the hearing in one ear. But she still has a bullet in her nasal passage and one in a leg. She's lost so much weight that her ribs poke out and her legs are as skinny as sticks. She's doing fine, eating like a horse," says Masombuka, her keeper "and less nervous of people."
Rhino Horn Smugglers in South Africa
The involvement of sophisticated criminal syndicates has risen along with the price of rhino horn. Col. Johan Jooste of South Africa’s national priority crime unit told Smithsonian magazine, “The couriers are like drug mules, specifically recruited to come into South Africa on holiday. All they know is that they need to pack for one or two days. They come in here with minimal contact details, sometimes with just a mobile phone, and they meet with guys providing the horns. They discard the phone so there’s no way to trace it to any other people.” [Source: Richard Conniff, Smithsonian magazine, November 2011]
Sometimes even people involved in the effort to save rhinos are involved in poaching and smuggling. “A lot of people are gobsmacked by how pervasive that behavior is throughout the industry,” Traffic’s Tom Milliken told Smithsonian magazine. “People are just blinded by greed---your professional hunters, your veterinarians, the people who own these game ranches. We have never seen this level of private sector complicity with gangs supplying horn to Asia.”
South Africa has a huge stockpile of rhinos at various location but will not reveal how many there nor their location. Most are said to have taken from animals that died naturally. Some were confiscated from poachers.
Record Rhino Horn Seizure in Hong Kong
In November 2011, the New York Times reported: “Authorities at the Hong Kong International Airport made a record seizure of illegal rhino horns last week, estimated to be worth about $2.2 million, officials said. Customs agents confiscated 33 rhino horns, 758 ivory chopsticks, and 127 ivory bracelets concealed inside a shipping container from Cape Town, South Africa. The concealed animal parts were labeled as “scrap plastic,” an increasingly common trick for smuggling horns and ivory out of Africa and into Asia. [Source: Rachel Nuwer, New York Times, November 21, 2011]
Milliken told the New York Times the rhino horns were likely bound for Guangzhou, China, where the largest waste processing industry in the world is located. “Unfortunately, Guangzhou also has a very large ivory carving industry,” he said. In this case, airport scanners revealed the presence of hidden rhino horn, but conservationists have no way of telling how many illegal goods slip under the radar. “We don’t really understand exactly how much ivory goes undetected,” Mr. Milliken said, but added that new seizures in Africa and Asia are made every week.
Conservationists at Traffic are concerned that last week’s seized shipment was destined for China, and not Vietnam, indicating that the Chinese market for rhino horn may also be on the rise. “Before, we’d been looking at Vietnam as the epicenter of rhino horn consumption,” Mr. Milliken said, “but this is a surefire indication that Chinese consumer dynamics are kicking in as well.”
Scientists at the University of Pretoria in South Africa hope to compare DNA samples from the rhino horns to records in their African rhino database to identify the poached rhinos. This would help to pinpoint the location of the crimes and could help to narrow an investigation into the poachers’ identity.
Mr. Milliken says arrests and convictions for illegal wildlife trade crimes don’t occur frequently because of a number of challenges, including misinformed or corrupt officials and a lack of collaboration between supply countries, like South Africa and Tanzania, and demand countries, like China and Vietnam.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons and Save the Rhino, last picture New York Times
Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014