Perspective One: The Problem of Rhino Poaching

African White Rhino

African White Rhino

by Johan Fourie

A historical perspective highlights the problem quite vividly. At the start of the millennium seven rhinos were poached in South Africa for the entire year. These modest numbers remained the trend up to 2007.

In 2008 numbers rose dramatically to 83 rhino poached for the year, a 640% increase. The growth continued its nearly exponential rise, consecutively totaling 122, 333, and a staggering 448 in 2011. A 3400% rise in four years!

These figures leave no doubt that extinction is now a real destination for the rhino populations of South Africa. The ironical thing is, should this happen, that it would all have been in vain. Twenty thousand rhinos would have died for nothing, for the much-revered medicinal qualities of the rhino horn are a fallacy.

The only people to benefit from this massacre will be the criminals in our society. They are the ones who are ruthlessly exploiting the resource, but not only that, they are also ruthlessly exploiting the consumer public. These are the victims who are being fed myth after myth to sustain and expand the market of paying users. Their pain and fears of sickness and death are being callously manipulated for the quick buck

The last Java rhino disappeared from Vietnam but months ago, a sure sign that extinction has become a reality. Can we allow this to happen? Can we simply stand by while a magnificent animal species is exterminated for no real benefit?

All that we need for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. Seldom was this truer than now. So how do we go about stopping this madness?

Stopping rhino poaching needs a multi-pronged strategy.

Security experts will tell you that a security problem should be tackled in two ways. Firstly, the risk to the criminal must be increased and secondly the reward must be reduced. If we apply this universal truth to our current problem, it already points to two strategies.

Increasing the risk to the poachers means upgrading anti-poaching efforts. Already this poaching has escalated to the equivalent of counterinsurgency warfare in parts of South Africa, notably the Kruger National Park. Statistics show that 56% of all rhinos are being poached in the Kruger National Park. It is therefore understandable that the counter-poaching operation has to be formidable to counter the threat.

While an intensive effort using highly trained staff is viable in the Kruger National Park, this is not the case in smaller reserves. A small reserve with two or three rhinos to protect can hardly afford to employ a task force of counter-poaching personnel. They are largely left to their own devices and have to rely on existing staff, neighbours and volunteers to protect their animals. There has been an increase in technological resources that can assist with the safety of rhino, but these are expensive and not foolproof.

The latest innovation is to create a DNA database of all rhinos within South Africa. At the moment only one in five rhinos have been entered into the database, as participation is still voluntary. This database can work well if all (or nearly all) rhinos in South Africa have been recorded. Such a comprehensive record will make it almost impossible to trade illegal rhino horn. This could vastly increase the risk to the illegal trader. But the logistics required to make this successful is a little mind-boggling, to say the least.

Reducing the reward is an economic exercise. Market forces fortunately work for criminals and non-criminals alike. If vast quantities of legal rhino horn could be released onto the free market, it could decimate the ridiculously high prices that rhino horn is fetching at the moment. There is no economic sense in paying ten times the price of legal rhino horn. This strategy requires the blessing of CITES, which is not an easy task, because there are many fears that such a system could be misused. Should this be coupled with the DNA database, it could provide a formidable counter offensive to illegal trade.

The exploited public of the Far East also have a role to play. It is they who are the victims, being sold one of the biggest fraud schemes of all time. Educating these victims is essential to the strategy, so that they realise how they are being misused. However, many of these traditional medicines have been in existence for hundreds of years, which means that it is embedded in the culture and tradition of these people. Changing the minds of people under such circumstances will not be easy and will certainly take a generation or two to achieve.

Can we win the war? Yes we can. We know what to do. Now it is a matter of forming a united front against this shameful achievement of the human race. We cannot allow evil to outweigh good. Let good men do what they need to.

by Johan Fourie
The Nature College
South Africa

Mr Fourie is also the bestselling author of Stryd in die Bos (Battle of the Bush) a book highlighting the dire situation the South African rhino population is currently facing.

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