Thursday saw the fourth annual World Rhino Day, where campaigners were raising awareness of the plight of the world’s five rhino species, three of which are classified as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List.
I became aware of the plight of the rhino in 2012, as a final year criminology undergraduate whilst researching topics for my dissertation. Having always had an appreciation and passion for wildlife, I wanted to focus on wildlife crime, and after seeing that rhino poaching had been increasing yearly since 2007, with 668 killed that year. Since then, poaching has increased yearly and already this year, at least 702 rhinos have been killed in South Africa at the time of writing. So how did it get to this point and where do conservationists go from here?
The histories of the two African rhino species (White and Black), have had periods of devastation followed by recovery. In the 19th century, before the onset of the colonial era, rhinos were a common sight across Africa, with black rhinos numbering approximately 850,000. By 1960, populations had plummeted to 100,000 due to relentless hunting by the colonists. The poaching problem hit a peak in the 1970s, due to an increase in demand from Asian consumers as well as political and economic instability in many range states. These factors led to a 98% reduction in the population of black rhinos by 1995, to just 2,410. Fortunately the efforts of conservationists increased this number to almost 5,000 by 2010.
The story of the southern white rhino is even more dramatic than the tale of the black rhino. Near the end of the 19th century, the southern white rhino was believed to be extinct due to intensive hunting and habitat loss brought about by human settlement during the colonial era. Fortunately, a small population of 20-50 individuals was discovered in South Africa in 1895, and thus the Hluhluwe Valley and Imfolozi Junction game reserves became sanctuaries in order to protect them. In 1960, the population had recovered enough for Dr Ian Player and his team to consider the translocation of some individuals to other South African reserves in order to begin new viable breeding populations. After several attempts, Dr Player managed to successfully transport several rhinos in crates on trucks and by 2010, southern white rhinos numbered 20,170; one of the greatest conservation success stories.
The latest rhino poaching crisis seems to echo that of the first, which occurred from 1965 until 1995. The 1960s and 1970s saw hundreds of rhinos slaughtered for their horns due to the demand for ceremonial dagger handles in Yemen as the Saudi Arabian oil boom increased affluence, with rhino horn considered a status symbol. This killing continued unabated until CITES enforced a rhino horn trade ban in 1977 and the Yemeni civil war broke out in 1994, leading to a decline in demand and therefore a drop in poaching rates.
A period of peace for the rhino continued from 1995 until 2007, with poaching incidents occurring rarely, allowing populations to recover their numbers. This was until mass sales of rhino horn stockpiles were sold to new markets, developing a demand for rhino horn once more as soon as a rumour spread in Vietnam that rhino horn could cure cancer. Once the stocks were depleted, a new supply of rhino horn was needed and so 2007 saw the onset of a huge surge in poaching. Worth $100,000/kg, poachers are now well organised gangs, armed with AK47s and helicopters, funded by corrupt government officials and crime syndicates. The increasing economic wealth of Vietnam has established the country as a major consumer of rhino horn, and it is South Africa’s rhinos that have fared worst as 95% of Africa’s entire population resides there. Here, the number of poached rhinos reached a peak of 1,215 in 2014, compared to just 13 in 2007.
Today, the rhino conservation battle still rages on, with many different strategies being employed in an attempt to curb the devastating poaching levels. One of these is a continuing debate on whether the rhino horn trade should be legalised so that reserves with large stockpiles of horn can sell them, before putting the money made from the sales back into conservation of the species. This is a highly contentious topic as the last time that this happened, demand increased as a result, which had a knock-on effect on the number of rhinos poached. Potentially, legalising the trade could result in making the poaching problem worse.
Some game reserves have resorted to a less subtle method of preventing their rhinos from being poached: de-horning. In the past this method has been used in Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. This method involves removing as much of the horn as possible, to devalue the rhino and therefore deter poachers. This has to be done regularly as the horn grows over time, which can be a risky procedure. Studies have also found that calf mortality rates are higher in the calves of de-horned rhino, so de-horning may in fact be detrimental.
In order to decrease demand, pressure needs to be put on major consumers through well-advertised campaigns, educating people on the effect that consumption of rhino horn has on wild rhino populations. As well as this, people engaging in illegal wildlife trade need to be effectively punished if they are caught in order to deter other people from engaging in these activities. Sentences need to be longer for those who are caught.
To be able to do any of these things, conservation needs more funding from governments. In order to compete with the highly organised poaching gangs, more equipment and training needs to be given to anti-poaching patrols in game reserves. Governments also need to find effective ways of tackling the corruption that lies at the heart of the trade. At the moment, there is simply not enough funding to achieve these things. For example, the US currently only allocates 3% of its government funding to environmental issues. It is no wonder then that conserving iconic species sometimes seems like an uphill struggle. If nations can be persuaded to ensure that enough resources are allocated correctly to ensure the efficiency of an intelligence network among its law enforcement, and the implementation of advertising campaigns that promote awareness of the rhino, as well as educating those directly involved in the consumption of rhino horn; maybe, just maybe, there is a chance that we can once again quash rhino poaching.
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