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rhino and baby, featuring giraffe in background


The Rhino Poaching Crisis

With Southern Africa’s rhino population seriously imperilled, the time for indecision has passed.

Words by Marcus Janssen

Among Africa’s Big Five—that select group which, ironically, received that name due to their perceived threat to humans rather than anything to do with their size—the rhino is surely the most vulnerable. Strangely, this first occurred to me at an extremely unlikely moment when, at the age of 19, I clung to the branch of a red ivory tree as an enraged black rhino sought me out in the clearing below.

I was there as the manager of a tented camp for a private safari company in Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa’s North West Province. One element of my weekly chores was to pull together enough firewood to maintain the two fires beneath the hot water tanks. And, as happens, despite the threat of elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion, and leopard nearby, I had become complacent as I set out with the Land Cruiser and its depressingly empty trailer.

It was in the process of dragging a sizeable acacia branch—discarded by an elephant weeks before— to the vehicle when I saw something in the corner of my eye. Of course, I had left my rifle in camp.

As I looked up, my eyes locked with that of a male black rhino standing only about 60 or so feet away. His nostrils flared as he tried to pick up my scent on the oven-warm breeze. My mind flew into overdrive, a thousand thoughts converging to leave me in a fog of indecision. All I knew was that I had to act swiftly, except that I remained where I was, rooted to the spot, still gripping that acacia bough.  

After several eternal seconds, the rhino located my scent and took a few deliberate steps toward me. With a jolt of adrenaline coursing through me, and almost involuntarily, I raced for my vehicle as the rhino charged.

I don’t recall clambering into that tree, but I vividly recall the heavenly realization that I had remained in one piece. With the sharp scent of red ivory sap filling my nostrils, my face resting on my knuckles, I recall feeling sorry for that impressive animal.

I had violated his territory. Distressed at my presence, the rhino was now unable to locate me. There was something pitiable about him. My powerful desire was to leave him in peace, but I found an urge to explain myself, to stress to him that I had meant no harm, but as the next few minutes crawled on, the sum total of my actions involved observing him as he simply stood there.

The past 20 years have thrown up several encounters with rhinos—happily, more often the more docile, larger white variety. But every time I’ve had a sense that, despite their natural armor and intimidating size, they need our help. And at this time, with southern Africa in the midst of yet another rhino poaching epidemic (although one unlike what has come before), nothing could be more true.

Close up of a Rhino and its horns
Ariel shot of two Rhinos grazing amongst the trees

Contentious conservation

Tragically, despite our best conservation efforts, it’s already too late for the western black rhinoceros and northern white rhinoceros.

Close to the edge of extinction since the 1930s, the western black rhinoceros had seen its population rise thanks to the efforts of the French colonial authorities. By the early 1980s, there were around 100 rhinos, but by 1997 only 10 to 18 roamed northern Cameroon, their last redoubt. A few years later, only a handful remained. Whether through complacency or incompetence on behalf of the Cameroonian government, those last few fell beneath the hand of poachers by 2003.  

While the northern white rhinoceros is technically not yet extinct, its days are numbered. Again, its precarious situation is the result of tragic inaction. Over half a century ago, there was 2250 spread over five countries—the northern white was more numerous than its southern cousins. Today, there are only two remaining, both in captivity in the Ol Peteja Conservancy in Kenya.

Fortunately, there’s more to be cheerful about when it comes to Africa’s other two rhino species. While both the southern white rhinoceros and the black rhinoceros have been perilously near eradication, considerable conservation efforts in South Africa and Namibia have seem both populations become considered sustainable. The southern white rhino’s recovery is in fact one of the most impressive conservation successes in history.

In 1948, the southern white rhino population totaled a mere 550. Today, mainly in South Africa, there are an estimated 21,500. But the method by which the rhinos were pulled back from the brink of extinction has been controversial and has divided conservationists and environmentalists.  

At the beginning of the ‘60s, South Africa was home to a few hundred white rhinos that were found mainly in KwaZulu Natal’s neighboring game reserves of Mfulozi and Hluhluwe. Led by the late, great, Dr. Ian Player, formerly Mfulozi’s head warden, the country commenced on a pioneering course of action labeled ‘Operation Rhino’.

The goal was to create satellite populations of white rhinos in other areas of South Africa. This included Kruger National Park and, for the first time ever, privately-owned land.

Not only was the latter controversial, but maintaining rhinos on private property is a tricky and expensive proposition. As such, with the aim of offering landowners an incentive to buy, keep, and protect their rhinos, a decision was made in 1968 to supply a handful of trophy hunting permits for the species.

Despite the furor, the plan worked. A decade on, the live auction value of a southern white rhino had shot up from R200 to R250,000 per animal. “The trophy hunting market drove this increase in the price of live rhinos, making the breeding of rhinos an attractive option,” Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes says, a wildlife resource economist who has studied the economics of rhino ownership for over twenty years “And not only to private landowners but also to the national and regional parks who have also generated revenue by selling rhinos to the private sector.”

Dr. Player himself highlighted how legal, regulated trophy hunting had been integral to the success of Operation Rhino: “Hunting led to the increase from a few hundred rhinos in 1953 to in excess of 18,000 in 2010. For the loss of a few animals (for the purposes of trophy hunting), their overall numbers increased. Regrettably, this is a form of logic that is lost on most people.”

And South Africa’s new pro-utilization policy didn’t just benefit the rhino. Underpinned by a thriving trophy hunting industry and associated wildlife breeding programs, game numbers rocketed. From 1.5 million heads of game in the 1970s, there were in excess of 20 million by the turn of the century.

In those first few years of the 2000s, the prospect was good for Southern Africa’s rhino. Demand for rhino horns on the black market seemed to be at a sustainable level while the number of rhinos continued to rise. It was, however, only the quiet before the storm. Soon was to begin the most dramatic increase in rhino poaching ever witnessed in South Africa.

'Anti Poach' printed under the wings to spread awareness
Baby rhino stands next to mum, giraffe in background

A new breed of wildlife criminal

Between 1990 and 2007, rhino poaching incidents in South Africa were relatively scarce— five in 1991, six in 1996 and 1997, and nine in 2001. Fast forward to 2014, and the country would be blighted by poachers responsible for as many as 1200 rhino deaths per year.

The country’s relatively unregulated wildlife utilization policy had resulted in impressive wildlife recovery throughout the 1980s and 90s, but it had also spawned a new variety of wildlife criminals. Operating within the wildlife industry, these ruthless renegades exploit South Africa’s wildlife with apparent impunity thanks to their expertise, contacts, and legitimacy.

Consequently, rhino poaching has become more sophisticated. Better equipped and trained poachers, better at avoiding detection as well as killing rhinos, undermine anti-poaching initiatives at every level.

By 2014, poachers in South Africa would be killing as many as 1200 rhinos per year.

The horns then pass through hard-to-crack networks of traffickers or ‘runners’ who work with GPS devices and mobile phones to coordinate with the poachers on the ground. The horns then pass from the runners to the businessmen who trade with criminal syndicates. This shadowy latter group arranges for large shipments of horns to arrive, through convoluted routes, in Asian markets. It only takes 24 hours for an animal killed in Kruger National Park to have its horn available on the black market in Vietnam, Yemen, and China.

This sophisticated new poaching model has only been enabled by the astonishing sums end-users will pay for rhino horn. To put it in context, rhino horn has a higher street value per gram than cocaine or even gold.

With per capita income quadrupling over the last twenty years, the burgeoning and affluent Vietnamese middle class is keen to acquire the latest in luxury goods. And “one of the best ways for a Vietnamese to flaunt wealth and success,” Ronald Orenstein writes in his book, Ivory, horn and blood – Behind the elephant and rhinoceros poaching crisis, “is ‘face consumption’: consuming, preferably where others of wealth and status can see you do so, something rare and expensive.”

For the status-hungry in Vietnam, rhinoceros horn has become is the “alcoholic drink of millionaires”, as a Vietnamese website puts it. The party drug of choice for the wealthy young. 

Rhino horn is also the preferred currency to acquire favor with political figures or business partners. And ironically enough, with the debunking of the western misconception that the horn acts as a kind of aphrodisiac, some Vietnamese men are using it as a kind of natural Viagra and a remedy for impotence. It’s even become a cure-all that, in some quarters in the country, has the power to cure cancer.

For a variety of reasons, Vietnam has now become the world’s largest end market for rhino horn. There isn’t much optimism that the authorities will curb the issue, despite Vietnam being signed up to CITES ((the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), an international inter-governmental agreement with the goal of ensuring that the international trade in wild animal specimens and plants does not threaten their survival.

Baby rhino lying by its mother in Africa
small birds sit and relax on this rhino's back

So, what can be done?

The illegal trading of ivory and rhinocerous horn is perpetuated by poachers willing to risk everything, criminal syndicates that appear to be able to operate with impunity, and a wealthy customer base willing to pay astronomical sums for what they want. In the final analysis, it’s all about price.  

That high price ensures the control of the syndicates over the trade routes, and the continued poaching activities of militias and gangs in impoverished African countries. Disrupting these well-organized and well-motivated groups is beyond the political will and competence of most governments. Solving the problem, with corruption rife in poverty-stricken African countries and conservation of wildlife not high on the priority list, remains little more than the dream of Western idealists.

“If, however, the prices come down substantially – below the level at which it would be profitable for the syndicates to operate – the scale of operations of the criminal enterprises dealing in rhino horn will be forced to diminish,” Orenstein writes.

How to achieve the all-important lower prices? For some, the answer lies in the legalization and control of the rhino horn trade. It’s a solution that’s fraught with issues, assuming as it does that those in charge of the system would not be corrupted to milk the system, leading to an exacerbation of the current situation.

In short, there is no clear quick fix. Only addressing the problem at the source with a long-term, multi-pronged approach will eliminate—or at the very least substantially reduce—the market for rhino horn. This approach needs to also be paired with vehemently defending the rhinos on the ground with all of the resources at our disposal.

Anti-poaching initiatives and operations with local, national, and international level support have proven highly effective. In 2016, a total of 680 poachers and traffickers were arrested for rhino-related poaching offences in South Africa, up from 317 in 2015. In conjunction, the number of rhinos lost to poachers dropped from 1,175 in 2015 to 1,054 in 2016—a decline of 10.3 percent.

In Kruger National Park, 2016 saw 417 arrests and a drop in rhino poaching incidents from 826 in 2015 to 662 last year—a reduction of almost 20 percent year on year. These results come despite a rise in illegal incursions into the park.

“We are fighting a war that can’t be won here in South Africa.”

“We are fighting a war that can’t be won here in South Africa,” says a tired and disheartened Thabo Mkhize, a South African wildlife ranger. “Until the problem is addressed at source, they (the poachers) will keep coming, and we will keep losing rhinos, despite our best efforts. We are their last line of defence, but we can’t keep it up for ever. In the end, we will lose this war and our rhino will go the way of their northern cousins.”

Thabo is, of course, correct. Only through educating the end consumer can the tide be turned, the demand quashed, myths dispelled. Through education and appealing to that one unifying quality in people—our humanity. “People are greedy,” adds Thabo. “But if those who buy rhino horn in bars in Vietnam saw the sickening things that I see every day, they might think twice. At least I like to believe they would.”

I often recall that encounter with that majestic black rhino in Pilanesberg National Park in 2000, eight years before the rhino poaching pandemic stunned South Africa. Is that bull still alive or has he, like so many of his kind, been slaughtered senselessly for his horn?

All I know is that the time for indecision has passed. Africa’s remaining rhinos are in the cross hairs—it’s our responsibility to ensure that the trigger isn’t pulled.