To Protect Rhinos, There’s No Room for Gray Area

In mid-November, South African authorities confirmed that the number of rhinos poached in the country so far in 2014 (1,020) has exceeded the number killed in 2013 (1,004).


Human demand for rhino horn is threatening to drive the world’s remaining rhino populations to extinction. (© Rod Mast)

Later that month, the conservation world mourned the passing of Dr. Ian Player, a global conservation icon and important rhino advocate.

Then this week, we learned that a northern white rhino died of old age at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, leaving the total population of this subspecies at just five individuals left on the planet.

These tragic milestones are stark reminders of the unprecedented challenges faced by the world’s five remaining rhino species. Given all that’s at stake, I believe that a total ban on the sale of rhino horn for the foreseeable future is the best plan of action — not just for the rhinos’ survival, but also for the people whose livelihoods depend on them.

graph of number of rhinos poached in South Africa

Number of rhinos poached in South Africa 2007-2013 (data from Department of Environmental Affairs, South Africa)

A Brief History of the Rhino Horn Trade

For thousands of years, rhinoceros horn has been a highly sought-after, luxury commodity desired for a wide range of uses. In Yemen, horns are carved into dagger handles called jambiya. In Vietnam, rhino horn powder is believed to detoxify the body, particularly as a treatment for cancer or as a hangover cure. Since the early 20th century, trophy hunters primarily from the United States and Europe have invested large amounts of money to travel to Africa to hunt rhino, among other species.

The trade in rhino horn is currently both legal and illegal, a gray area that poses problems. In 1977, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) listed all five species of rhinoceros as Appendix I species. This means that the animals or their parts (e.g., intact or powdered rhino horns) cannot legally be traded internationally for commercial purposes.

In 1995, because of re-established and stabilized white rhino populations in South Africa and Swaziland, CITES “down-listed” the white rhino populations of these two countries to Appendix II, allowing closely monitored international trade in live animals to select destinations (like zoos), and as strictly managed hunting trophies. Additionally CITES has agreed to an exemption for Namibia by allowing up to five black rhinos to be taken by trophy hunters each year. Just this year, a license to shoot a rhino in Namibia was auctioned off to an American hunter for US$ 350,000, with the proceeds going toward conservation efforts in that country.

Rhino horn is currently worth about $99,000 per kilogram ($45,000 per pound) on the black market — more than twice the value of gold.

How Rhino Poaching Hurts People

The surge in rhino poaching is impacting people in three major ways:

park ranger, DRC

Park ranger in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the last decade, over 1,000 people have died in the service of protected areas around the world. (© Conservation International/photo by John Martin)

 1.     Threatens Game Rangers

The rangers responsible for patrolling protected areas often do so under difficult conditions with insufficient support. They cover vast tracts of land and frequently put their lives in danger.

In the last decade, over 1,000 men and women have died in the service of protected areas around the world. Even when game rangers successfully apprehend suspected poachers, the systems in place do not always guarantee that rangers are protected. In South Africa, rangers can only engage suspected poachers in a firefight in self-defense; they face severe penalties if this cannot be proven in court, especially if a suspected poacher is killed.

 2.     Threatens Governance

The illegal wildlife trade threatens governance on many levels. It exploits poverty-stricken villagers, corrupts public servants and pushes the ethical boundaries of private industry.

Since 2012, more than 823 suspected rhino poachers have been arrested in South Africa. The vast majority of these suspected poachers are Mozambicans who cross over the border into Kruger National Park (arguably South Africa’s flagship protected area and home to Africa’s largest rhino population) attempting to strike it rich.

Mozambique’s per capita national income is $610 per year, so one can understand why poor Mozambicans might consider crossing into the park to kill rhino. But people without other options aren’t the only ones killing South Africa’s rhinos.

In 2010 a very active poaching syndicate involving South African veterinarians was broken up by law enforcement authorities. Other suspects accused of involvement in rhino poaching currently awaiting trial in South Africa’s courts include a member of South Africa’s National Defense Force, a police officer and a lawyer. In the U.S., the owners of a South African hunting company have been indicted for selling illegal hunts to potential clients. It would appear that the lure of making a substantial profit is worth the risk to people from all walks of life when the targeted resource is so valuable.

3.     Threatens Ecotourism and Livelihoods

The World Bank reported that in 2013, international tourism in South Africa contributed 5.9% to the country’s GDP. That same year, South Africa’s tourism sector provided around 4.5% of employment in South Africa, creating more jobs than the mining industry.

This has an obvious impact on communities that border protected areas in South Africa. With an unemployment rate of around 25%, steady jobs and reliable income are cherished in the country. Many locals have made it clear how much they value parks and species like rhinos for their livelihoods; watch this video starting at 11:05 to learn more.

Within South Africa, government institutions, the tourism industry and the general public recognize the urgency of the rhino poaching situation and are vocal in their support of anti-poaching efforts. Public buy-in is crucial to successful efforts to curb recent trends and ensures that sufficient attention is given to this crime.

tourists in safari in Botswana

Tourists on safari in Botswana. (© Levi S. Norton)

What Next?

Within the conservation community, there are many groups doing commendable work to fight poaching. For example, CI joined six of the largest conservation organizations in the world to form the United for Wildlife campaign, which has committed to dismantle the entire illegal wildlife trade chain, from countering poaching on the ground to addressing criminal networks that are trafficking products to reducing consumer demand.

Regarding rhinos in particular, there are a range of opinions regarding the best way to combat their slaughter.

Some people argue that all species of rhino should be down-listed to CITES’ Appendix II and that the international trade in rhino horn should be legalized and intensively moderated. Stockpiling rhino horn — which can be harvested from living animals and will slowly regenerate — and carefully managing the flow of the resource to the consumer is another idea that is being considered as one way to meet the demand. However, there is also a strong argument to be made that the trade in rhino horn should be banned altogether.

There are undoubtedly some positive things happening for rhinos. Globally, demand reduction strategies appear to be working and bilateral diplomatic efforts have been made to address the rhino poaching crisis. In South Africa in particular, law enforcement and protection efforts are ramping up, the ecotourism industry is growing and new legislation is becoming a substantial deterrent to would-be poachers. So why are rhinos still disappearing at such a worrying rate?

While many of these solutions are important for the long-term well-being of rhinos and people alike, I believe that to keep these species around long enough for these actions to take effect, banning the international sale and trade of rhino horn — at least for the immediate future — is essential.

In order for rhino populations to recover, we need both an immediate halt to their rampant killing and a permanent shift in attitude to reduce global demand for this product. There’s no room for gray area.

Michael Beckner is the wildlife trafficking manager in CI’s Africa and Madagascar field division.


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