Poaching, mass harvesting of rhino horns and illegal trade - Tim Brown Tours

Written by Louise de Bruin

Out of the scores of rhino that once roamed the earth, only five types remain – according to the International Rhino Foundation (IRF).(2) Of the last remaining 4,200 Black rhinos, about 1,670 were estimated to be living in South Africa in 2009.(3) The country’s other resident species, the White rhino, is classified as near-threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List of threatened species.(4) And yet, rhino poaching is on the rise. Prices of up to US$ 40,000 a kilogramme have been recorded for the much prized rhino horn – more than 5 times the price of gold.(5) If serious action is not taken, these majestic mega-herbivores will soon be extinct.

This paper follows up on a report on the incidences of rhino poaching in southern Africa which was published by Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI) in November 2010. In terms of rhino poaching, much has happened since then. This paper serves to highlight the developments in rhino poaching and also explores the various facets of the situation. It argues that rhinos are generally poached because of the financial rewards their horns provide. As a result of man’s greed, the South African Government is resorting to the consideration of dehorning rhinos and legalising the trade of rhino horn in a bid to “curb illicit trade of the ivory and protect the endangered species.”(6)

The rhinoceros and its horn

Rhinos use their horns predominantly for protecting their calves, territorial dominance, digging for water, foraging, breaking branches and removing bark. The maternal care of a rhino is strong and the mother uses her horn to guide her young, break bark for the young to eat and for defence.(7) Rhinos also use their horns as an aid to push obstacles out of their way, and due to poor vision, to protect their eyes from such obstacles.(8)

The crime of poaching and how it is developed

South Africa is said to hold over two-thirds of the world population of rhino(9) and is home to both the White and the critically endangered Black rhino. South Africa is therefore a heavy target for poachers. Over the past few years, rhino poaching in South Africa has increased significantly; in 2007 there were 13 reported cases(10); in 2008, 83 rhinos were killed(11) and in 2009, this number rose to 122 rhinos.(12) In 2010, 333 rhinos were reported dead as a result of poaching.(13) According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Kruger National Park, South Africa’s showpiece and world-renowned game reserve, lost 146 rhinos to poaching in 2010. By March of 2011, the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs released figures stating 51 rhinos have been killed since January in South Africa; 33 of which were poached in the Kruger National Park.(14) With these statistics, the country’s rhino population is at grave risk of extinction.

Rhino poachers currently in operation have surpassed their predecessors in terms of organisation. Poachers today are hard-core criminals, involved in major crime syndicates. Joseph Okori, WWF African Rhino Programme Manager, says, “The criminal syndicates operating in South Africa are highly organised and use advanced technologies. They are very well coordinated.”(15) Helicopters, night-vision equipment, veterinary tranquilisers and gun silencers are used during these operations. There has even been a confirmed case where two veterinary practitioners were involved in poaching and linked to these syndicates.(16) It has therefore become not only a question of the professional criminal but also, and more troubling perhaps, of the ethics of veterinarians who are using their training and skills to enable poaching.

Why the revival of rhino poaching? Miracles, of course.

Poaching has increased over recent years due to an increase in the demand for rhino horn. According to Rhishja Larson, founder of the organisation Saving Rhinos, poaching is on the rise because, “in the last few years, rhino horn has been marketed as a cancer treatment — not only in hospitals, but on Traditional Chinese Medicine websites. So there is still a perception among rhino horn consumers that it’s a ‘miracle cure’ of some kind.”(17)

However, it is unlikely that miracles can be found in something that can be likened to the nails of a human being. The horn is made up of protein, keratin, calcium and melanin.(18) There is no modern scientific or medical evidence to support the claims that the horn of a rhino can cure cancer, or that the horn has any other medicinal properties.(19) Rhishja Larson supports the assertion that rhino horn consumption has no medicinal benefits as “it has been extensively analysed in separate studies, by different institutions, and rhino horn was found to contain no medical properties whatsoever.”(20) Even if there was evidence to support the use of rhino horn, as the Endangered Wildlife Trust states, “claims that rhino horn has any medicinal value must be weighed up against the use of other more effective, sustainable and ethical products.”(21)

Legal instruments governing the environment and the conservation of wildlife

There are a number of legal instruments governing the trade of Rhino products from as early as 1976. Currently, the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (Act 108 of 1996) stipulates that: “Everyone has the right to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that: (i) prevent ecological degradation; (ii) promote conservation; and (iii) secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.” Following a noticeable rise in poaching in 2008, South Africa intensified the enforcement of laws regarding hunting and trade. In 2010, through strengthened law enforcement, 162 poaching arrests were made.(22) The Government has been very vocal about the escalation in rhino poaching, calling on law enforcement agencies to deal more harshly with anyone guilty of such crimes.(23) The South African military, for example, is patrolling the border of the Kruger National Park and neighbouring Mozambique.

Going back over the three decades, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned the trade of rhino products in 1976.(24) In both support and contradiction of this ban, in 2009 the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs published a moratorium on the trade of rhino horns, as stipulated under section 57(2) of the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (NEMBA) 10 of 2004, stating however, “Rhino horn may still be traded as part of a trophy obtained during a legal trophy hunt.”(25)

Another piece of legislation is the South Africa Threatened or Protected Species Regulations (TOPS) of 2007 which stipulates that “no person may, without being in possession of a valid permit: hunt, capture, kill, convey, import, export, keep live rhino in captivity, or possess a rhino horn.”(26)

However, taking note of the Asian demand for rhino horns, this is not solely a South African or African problem but involves the Asian authorities as well. In 1993 China passed a law banning the trade of rhino horn in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).(27) This has failed to be an effective implementation as TCM is a popular and thriving market. It is thus imperative that, the world over, governments should work together closely in order to find ways to arrest the situation.

Dehorning and the legalisation of the horn

Rhino poaching is only going to cease when the demand for the horn abates. This seems unlikely considering the high economic gains from selling these horns. Although prices vary on the black market, according to South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the rhino horn is valued at approximately ZAR 12, 000/kg (US$ 1,712/kg).(28) The Asian market measures the value of the horn by the rarity of the rhino. As such, a Black rhino horn is higher in value than that of a White rhino. The Asian market includes China, Thailand and Vietnam as the primary importers. Malaysia, Japan, India and South Korea are also involved in importation, but to a lesser degree.(29) On the black market, rhino horn is higher in value than cocaine and gold.(30)

It would therefore appear more feasible to consider options that would lessen the demand for horns. One such option was considered in November 2010 when the Department of Environmental Affairs National Rhino Summit was held to discuss the possibility of legalising the rhino horn trade.(31) Because of the high price on rhino horns, dehorning has been considered as a feasible way of increasing funds in order to put money back into the conservation of the species.(32) Legalised dehorning would be a systematic method of dehorning rhinos, whereby authority and management over the process is conferred. The rationale behind this theory is that if rhinos were being dehorned under supervised management and with proper care, the horns could be sold or used to generate money for the benefit of rhino conservation. If such an initiative was passed, strict regulations would have to be implemented. Only registered professionals would be permitted to carry out the dehorning, and stringent control mechanisms would also have to be established.

Another idea has been tabled by those in favour of dehorning as a viable option to lessen poaching. This camp claims that because of a greater availability of horns, the price of horns would decline substantially, and therefore reduce the incentive to poach.(33) However, while some have noted it may deter poaching, conservationists have warned that this could only be implemented on a case-by-case basis, after in-depth analysis has been done. Conservationists have also cautioned that legalised dehorning may imbue a false sense of security and result in authorities slackening their enforcement and patrolling duties.(34)

However, even on dehorned rhinos the threat of poaching remains. Reports of the horn being dug out of the remaining ‘stub’ of dehorned rhinos, and political killings out of revenge and spite have been reported.(35) Poachers are ruthless and are prepared to remove any trace of the horn. Their interests are not for the animal and whether it lives or dies, but how much money can be earned from every horn-retrieval. The re-growth factor of the horn can also lead to further risks and negative associations with dehorning. As Karen Trendler’s report on rhino dehorning points out, using this method in one area may lead to aggravated poaching in other areas. She suggests strategic or selective dehorning as a preventative option. Strategic or selective dehorning targets specific rhinos such as those situated in vulnerable areas such as fence borders and close to roads.(36)

Trendler does, however, stress that dehorning can only be effective if used in conjunction with intensive anti-poaching measures such as patrolling. Regulation and management are therefore necessary but very difficult factors to establish. How can a horn truly be deemed legal? Does this legalisation not make it easier for illegal horns to fall between legal horns, and so pass through the trade? Additional resources are required with such processes, to monitor and police the trade. Every horn would have to be identified, weighed and micro-chipped.(37) Whether South Africa has the available capital for such rigid implementation is uncertain. Furthermore, as noted by the Endangered Wildlife Trust, “should a legal trade route be established, this could provide a front for trade from illegally obtained sources, as it may be difficult to establish the origins of the horn.”(38) The Trust has stated furthermore that even if the trading of rhino horns is legalised and is under properly controlled management programmes, there may be too few rhino left to satisfy the market.(39)

Another crucial question is if dehorning is legalised, what will become of the horns? This is something that is yet to be decided. Will they remain the possession of the owners, should they go to national museums, or should they be sold? Additionally, if rhino owners are in possession of the horns, they too are likely to become susceptible to criminal attacks.

The dehorning process

The process of dehorning, if done properly, for instance, by qualified veterinarians working in wildlife, should not hurt the animal. However, if the operation is not performed by experienced wildlife vets, the horn can be cut off too close to the skull. This causes immense pain and puts the rhino at severe risk of bleeding to death. Maggot infestation and infection are also probable when dehorning is not done properly.(40)

Furthermore, even when operated on by a qualified wildlife vet, there remain a number of consequences for the animal. For instance, the repeated use of tranquilisers is harmful to an animal and because a rhino’s horn will grow back, the use of anaesthetics for the dehorning process will have to be repeated over time. Some of the long and short term effects of repeated exposure to anaesthetics include injuries, bruising, overheating, cardiac distress, respiratory depression, increased blood pressure, localised pressure myopathies and miscarriages in pregnant females.(41)

Would dehorning be sustainable?

The probable answer is no. Dehorning is an expensive process and horns grow back approximately 12cm each year.(42) The process involves a team of experts – including a vet and a veterinary anaesthetist – equipment and helicopters. The entire process works out to approximately ZAR 8, 000 (US$ 1,142) per animal. With such high costs involved, it is certainly not a viable option for large national game reserves with a number of rhinos. Equated in terms of what the dehorning process would cost the Kruger National Park if it had to dehorn its rhinos each year, Trendler approximates a cost of between ZAR 47 and ZAR 60 million (between US$ 6.7 million and US$ 8.6 million) per year.(43) Therefore, perhaps only private game farm owners would be able to consider this is an option to for the preservation of the animal.

Another problem: rhino farms

In 2005, China announced TCM as a “strategic industry”.(44) Soon thereafter, reports of rhino poaching and the establishment of ‘rhino farms’, which serve to mass harvest horns, started to surface. These farms are said to be a mechanism to boost the pharmaceutical industry and the number of ‘rhino farms’ are increasing in Asian countries. These farms are sure to ignite the illegal trade of horns, thereby rapidly increasing rhino extinction in the wild – as seen in the case of tigers following the upsurge of illegal tiger farms across China.(45) According to the IUCN, South Africa has exported 141 rhinos to such farms since 2000(46) and in 2010, the Chinese media reported 16 rhinos arriving in China from South Africa.(47)

What needs to be done and what is being done

Rhino poaching and the issue of the horn are not only a South African problem and strategies to combat the problem therefore require co-operation between a number of international parties, most notably Asian and local authorities. Because the demand for rhino horn is rife in countries such as China and Vietnam, the South African Government and these countries’ law enforcers should be making a combined, concerted effort to bring this problem to a halt, and adhere to the provisions set out in the Bill of Rights of the South African Constitution as related to conservation. Law enforcement needs to become stricter, especially with regard to the illegal trade of products. Societies need to be educated on the meaning of conservation and the moral responsibilities that we, as a society, have to the environment.

Various potential solutions exist, however, funding is critical to all of them. Relocation of rhino from high risk areas to low risk poaching areas is an option; however, there are major costs involved, ranging from registration fees, tranquiliser and anaesthetic costs to transportation. Increasing security measures is another costly strategy which reiterates the importance of funding. The International Rhino Foundation (IRF) has pointed out some of the major shortages preventing sustainable alternatives to dehorning: “Rhino-protection-staff in some protected areas don’t even have basic equipment, such as binoculars, GPS units, cameras, or fingerprint kits to gather scene-of-crime evidence against poachers, and other gear.”(48) The IRF is thus implementing a new project, with partners in Zimbabwe and South Africa, to rectify this problem.

Other strategies include projects like that of the WWF which has launched the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project in South Africa. This project aims to increase the overall number of Black rhino by making available additional breeding lands through partnerships with owners of large areas of Black rhino habitat.(49) Another project is TRAFFIC, a joint project between WWF and IUCN. TRAFFIC is a wildlife trade monitoring network which works in conjunction with other anti-poaching efforts in South Africa and internationally. Locally, TRAFFIC is helping to train local rangers, facilitate regional dialogue on security, and introduce new technologies such as transmitters in rhino horns and sniffer dogs.(50)

Concluding comments

Considering the broad spectrum of issues associated with rhino poaching and the horn of a rhino, it appears the central argument in this subject has become a matter of business versus conservation. Decisive collaboration needs to be taken by governments, conservation groups, the veterinary council and society so that the crime of rhino poaching may be brought to a definitive end. Education is imperative to highlight damaging superstitions and myths and to stress the importance of preserving this animal for our future generations.

As a result of man’s destructive hand, alternatives have had to be sought. The question has become ‘can a rhinolive and function without its horn?’ when the real question is ‘should a rhino have to live and function without its horn?’. The mere fact that we have resorted to such degrees yet again forces us to question society, and the future of our environment.

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