AFRICA’S DISAPPEARING ICONS

THE COUNTDOWN TO EXTINCTION

They are the second largest land animal on earth and one of the last remaining mega-herbivores on our planet. Our five remaining species of rhino are environmental engineers whose contribution to the eco-system is unprecedented and irreplaceable.  Rhinos don’t just change their environment; they shape and diversify it paving the way for the existence of countless other species of flora and fauna.  These majestic creatures have traversed savannahs and bushveld, wallowed in the swamps of tropical forests, survived searing heat and freezing ice ages for more than 40 million years, yet today, they are precariously close to extinction.

At the beginning of the 20th century there were more than 500,000 rhinos living in the wild in Africa and Asia. Today, there are less than 24,000.  Habitat degradation and human conflict have negatively impacted wild rhino distribution along with hunting during the early 20th century and wide scale poaching. Today, three of our five remaining species of rhino are critically endangered.  Two Asian and one African sub-species have been declared extinct within the last fifteen years.  One African sub-species are currently functionally extinct in the wild with just three adults (two females and one male) remaining in captivity.


Environmental Threats:

Habitat loss has been a major contributing factor to population declines, especially in Asia, where human populations are rising rapidly and natural habitats are being degraded and destroyed as humans and wildlife compete for resources.  Delicate and irreplaceable ecosystems are cleared to make way for palm plantations, logging, human settlement and agricultural expansion leaving less space and food for wildlife. Human encroachment disjoints habitats, leaving them fragmented and often too small to support all the wildlife.  Such environmental stress can cause catastrophic and irreversible damage.  

Many of Asia’s wild rhinos now live in small, isolated pockets thousands of acres smaller than their once large ranges.  Smaller, isolated populations bring additional risks to wildlife such as inbreeding which jeopardises species survival by reducing genetic diversity and increasing risk of disease.  

Similarly Africa’s rhinos also face reduced range due to human encroachment.  Community and political boundaries disrupt natural migration routes leaving both humans and wildlife competing for the same natural resources (known as human-wildlife conflict).

The instability of natural weather patterns can also have long lasting effects on habitats and wildlife, changing plant growth patterns which cause disruption to food cycles.  The forests and peatland in Sumatra are at increasing risk of fire during the dry season, which is getting longer, while disruption to the annual monsoons in Nepal and Assam, home to the Greater One Horned rhino could leave a shortfall in food or even cause wetlands to flood. Similarly, extended droughts in Africa leave the grasslands parched extending periods scarce of food and water. These extended droughts can also slow down the re-population of plant life and fertilisation of soils, which rhinos are particularly vital for through defecation.  In fact rhinos are a keystone species, a mega-herbivore with a pivotal role within the ecosystem.  The entire removal of important species such as rhinos could spell catastrophe for African savannahs.  Rhino grazing maintains grasslands (rather than decimate them as once thought) sustaining countless other species and increasing bio-diversity.


Illegal wildlife trade:

In recent years, wildlife crimes have escalated from a conservation problem to a humanitarian issue and global threat to national security.  Opportunistic hunters have been superseded by sophisticated and organised criminal networks and isolated pockets of poaching replaced by wide scale plundering of wildlife causing irreversible degradation of eco-systems.  These criminal activities exploit poverty, risk an economic collapse of tourism and pose increasing risk to human life.  


The illegal trade of wildlife is now the fourth largest trans-national crime after drugs, arms and human-trafficking. It’s a lucrative industry with an estimated worth between six and twelve billion pounds annually, providing substantial income for the organised crime networks operating on a local, national and global scale.  The trafficking of wildlife is intimately linked to terrorist organisations, utilising the profits of their criminal activity to increase manpower and weaponry and execute devastating operations across the globe.


One continent, providing the majority fuel source of this illicit trade is Africa.  The raping of African wildlife through commercial exploitation, however, is not a new phenomenon.  For centuries, Africa’s wildlife has been targeted by hunters and poachers alike and numerous species are now facing the repercussions of excessive human consumption.  


The market, powered by fictitious claims, misplaced beliefs and folklore regarding the use of rhino horns, has driven the murder of thousands of rhino across Africa.  At the epicentre of the current poaching crisis, which first began to escalate in 2008 is South Africa.  The country is custodian to the world’s largest wild rhino population, but it’s under attack.  Spanning  19,485 square kilometres (7,523 sq mi) in the provinces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga in northeastern South Africa the countries flagship game reserve, the Kruger is the ground zero of the poaching crisis.  Since 2008, the Kruger has lost between 45 and 65% of South Africa’s annual reported mortalities.  



Rhino poaching facts Q&A







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Contains graphic images of rhinos with injuries caused by poaching.  Discretion advised


2005

2006

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

Kruger National Park (KNP)

10

17

10

36

50

146

252

425

606

827

826

826

504

Marakele National Park (MNP)

0

0

0

0

0

0

6

3

3

0




Mapungubwe National Park (MAP)

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

1




Gauteng (GP)

0

0

0

0

7

15

9

1

8

5




Limpopo (LP)

0

0

0

23

16

52

74

59

114

110




Mpumalanga (MP)

0

2

3

2

6

17

31

28

92

83




North West (NW)

2

0

0

7

10

57

21

77

87

65




Eastern Cape (EC)

0

0

0

1

3

4

11

7

5

15




Free State (FS)

0

0

0

0

2

3

4

0

4

4




KwaZulu Natal (KZN)

1

5

0

14

28

38

34

66

85

99

115

162


Western Cape (WC)

0

0

0

0

0

0

6

2

0

1




Northern Cape (NC)

0

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

5




Total

13

24

13

83

122

333

448

668

1004

1215

1175

1054

1028


South Africa rhino poaching statistics







Why are rhinos being poached?

The primary reason for rhino poaching is those long appendages, majestically protruding from the rhinos’ snout. Rhino horn has been a staple commodity in Asian countries for centuries, predominantly as an ingredient in traditional medicine, but also as a status symbol representing fortune and power as well as a material of choice for many carvings and everyday commodity items.

Beyond the horns, however other body parts including tails, ears, feet, genitals, organs and blood are all falsely believed to have medicinal value. Even the urine, particularly from the Greater one-horned rhino is considered an antiseptic.

Are all rhino species under threat from poaching?

Poaching is always a concern for all five rhino species. Increasingly, the greater one-horned rhino (whose horn is seen as more potent in some Asian cultures) has been targeted, particularly in the Kaziranga National Park where around 200 rhinos have been poached since 2000. That number is significantly dwarfed by mortalities in Africa, in particular South Africa which has witnessed a steep year on year increase since 2008. It is Africa’s two rhino species (black and white) which are under increasing pressure from poaching.

Rhino poaching in South Africa increased by 1363% from 2008-2014. At the epicentre of South Africa’s poaching crisis is the 7,523 square mile flagship national park, the Kruger. Each year, the Kruger National Park accounts for between 40-65% of all poaching casualties in South Africa. On any given day, it’s thought there are between 12-15 poaching groups (of three to four individuals) operating within the park.

How do poachers remove horns?

Rhino horns are not attached to the skull. A small portion of the horn can be found under the skin surface (also valuable to poachers). A rhino horn can be safely removed above the germinal layer; a few centimetres above the skin surface (think not cutting your nails below the white area). Poachers however, will often remove the entire horn.

A poacher can immobilise a rhino and remove the horns in under ten minutes. The horns may be removed cleanly with chainsaws or crudely hacked with axes, pangas and saws.

Are rhinos killed to remove their horns?

Not all rhinos are killed before their horns are removed. One reason for removing horns while the animal is still alive lies in the perceived potency which gives greater value to the horn High calibre weapons have now been replaced by veterinary medications to bring down rhinos. Its possible veterinary medication is favoured by poachers because it’s quieter than typical firearms and has faster acting properties, thus drawing less attention to the criminal act.

The favoured drug is called Etorphine (known as M99). It’s 1000 times more powerful than morphine and has been fundamental to the anesthesia of large game mammals under proper veterinarian-controlled settings. The drug (depending on quantity administered) primarily impacts the neurological system, effectively immobilising the rhino but not rendering it unconscious. The horns will therefore be removed while the animal is effectively awake but unable to move.

Another reason for keeping the rhino alive is “horn pulp”, a serum secreted from underneath the root of the horn located in an area which sits below the skin surface but above the base of the skull. This serum also has an incredibly high resale value and because the root is a living part of the animal, keeping the rhino alive during horn removal will ensure a greater amount of pulp secreted.

What injuries do poaching survivors sustain?

Aside from the obvious facial injuries for those that survive poaching attacks, physical and psychological trauma rhinos also sustain other injuries, some treatable, others life threatening. Bullet wounds, fractures, organ failure and muscular injuries are just some of the physical injuries, although the list is not exhaustive

The rhinos eyes are sometimes gouged out in the belief the poachers become invisible and won’t be found by authorities, feet are also sometimes removed to prevent the rhino running away while spinal cords are severed to immobilise the rhino.

How do the rhinos die?

When the horns are removed by poachers, facial bones can be left fractured and the nasal passage is left exposed which can cause respiratory problems. The open wound is susceptible to maggot infestation and bacterial infection.

Most rhinos will not survive a poaching attack. Some will be killed instantly others will suffer excruciating pain often succumbing to shock, dehydration, blood loss, drowning in a pool of their own blood and organ failure.

Are complete horns more desirable to consumers?

In some Asian cultures, a full, complete horn (which includes the root of the horn, located under the skin surface but above the skull) is more desirable. A complete horn has a greater, perceived social impact than a partial, cut off horn. This area under the skin surface also holds a high resale value (weight depending) can sell on the black market for approximately £20-£30,000. This is why de-horning alone is not a sufficient poaching deterrent.

Who uses rhino horn?

The use of rhino horn was once widespread throughout Asia. Main consumer countries included Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Yemen and China. Today, the largest consumer markets are found in Vietnam and China (also the main driver in the illegal trade of pangolin and elephant ivory).

Rhino horn is estimated to cost around £35,000-£50,000 per kilogram (more valuable on the black market than gold, heroin and cocaine). Due to its escalating price, it’s largely only east-Asia’s rapidly expanding affluent and elite who can afford it, although the middle class has been identified as one of the largest consumer markets due to their aspiring social status and desire for wealth.

Why are rhino horns so expensive?

The value of rhino horn per kilogram has sharply risen from approximately £1,900 in 1980 to an estimated £35-£50,000 today. One full rhino horn can cost approximately £120,000 upwards. Much of the cost of rhino horn can be attributed to the misplaced belief of purported medicinal properties, perceived material value and increasing investment incentive.

The investment incentive to buy a rhino horn is a case of simple economics. The value of rhino horn is based on its desirability and rarity. Just like fine arts and antiques, the rarer, they are, the more valuable they become. As the number of rhino decreases, the more valuable the horns become. These prices are controlled by the syndicates who, rather than flooding the market, keep prices inflated by stockpiling, essentially maximising their potential value.

Who profits from wildlife crimes and the slaughter of rhinos?

There are two dimensions of the supply chain. The first is the sophisticated cartels running militarised operations, often exploiting the poorest communities by recruiting willing participants to poach the rhino. Poaching carries a lower risk, higher incentive than other illegal activities and one complete rhino horn can reportedly earn a poacher between $3,000- $5,000 per kilogram harvested. A substantial amount compared to the average annual income for a poorer villager, but one that pales in comparison to the end-market value. Of course, other participants within the supply chain are also rewarded for their participation. Estimated earnings include; middleman $15,000, trafficker $25,000, importer $35,000, and the retailer a smaller but still substantial amount.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who poach for subsistence, driven by poverty and hunger. These people are more often from the poorest backgrounds, excluded from reserves with little to no social interaction outside their community, viewing wildlife only as food. . According to Major-General Johan Jooste in an interview with National Geographic in August 2014, most rhino poachers operating in the Kruger National Park “are young men, in their 20s, recruited from poverty, but who later become greedy. They are uneducated and they have very few opportunities to get a job”. While many poachers are recruited from poorest communities, particularly along the South Africa/Mozambique border it would be erroneous to believe all poaching occurs this way.

Where do the profits from rhino horns and other wildlife crimes go?

Wildlife crime is considered the fourth largest trans-national crime after drugs, arms and human trafficking worth an estimated £6-£12 billion per year and increasing at an alarming rate. Criminal syndicates and militant gangs use the funds sourced from wildlife crime to fund other illegal activities, increase weapons and manpower, the repercussion of which effects each and every one of us. These actions cause massive loss of life, threaten national security, erode state authority and cause political conflict all of which destabilises economies.

In a lengthy statement made on 8th November 2012 the U.S. State Department held an unprecedented event on illegal wildlife trafficking and conservation. The then, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton summed up wildlife crime. “This is a global challenge that spans continents and crosses oceans, and we need to address it with partnerships that are as robust and far-reaching as the criminal networks we seek to dismantle.”

How many rhinos are poached in Africa each year?

Not all countries release poaching statistics, however, it has been widely reported that just under 1350 rhinos were killed across Africa in 2015 although this number remains unconfirmed.

Are all poached rhinos included in the official statistics?

The official poaching statistics are only for South Africa. They are released by the Department of Environmental Affairs, South Africa (DEA). The stats, once released on a monthly basis are now released every quarter (or so) but they are notoriously unreliable due to inaccuracy.

The poaching stats for South Africa only include dead, de-horned rhinos. Rhinos found dead, but with intact horns, unborn calves, poaching survivors, orphans and rhinos who survive attacks but later die are omitted. We also have it on good authority, not all cases are reported to the DEA. With this in mind, it’s estimated the true number of casualties on a yearly basis would be around 20-25% higher.

Does destroying horn stockpiles increase poaching?

Stockpiling rhino horn (and ivory) poses a security risk and is a financial drain to governments. Many nations have taken to destroying their stockpiles of rhino horns, however the destruction of such specimens is more than a symbolic gesture. Destroying stockpiles shows consumer countries governments will not condone the use of endangered animal products and body parts or consider profiting or trading to appease consumer demand. Destroying such specimens also sends a message to the criminals, who engage in poaching and trafficking all necessary measures will be taken to disrupt those who profit from the deaths of endangered animals.

Many supporters of trading rhino horns claim the destruction of such specimens leads to an increase in demand, however, there is no evidence these government sanctioned destructions impact supply. Many specimens destroyed are sourced from natural mortalities and in some cases have already been stored for decades. Most of the horns were not removed from the market or taken from circulation so there is no need to increase poaching to make up for any “short fall”.

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