The enormous increase in rhino poaching in Southern Africa over the last decade has become a threat to the survival of black rhinos and white rhinos on that continent. The poaching is driven by demand for rhino horn in Asia, particularly Vietnam, and has been facilitated by politicians, the military and powerful businessmen throughout the continent.
Thanks to strenuous efforts by National Park authorities in many countries, the poaching has now reached a plateau, rather than continuing upwards, but any relaxation of the effort involved will probably lead to a further upsurge.
Rhino horn, which is keratin, like your fingernails, grows throughout the life of the animal, and could therefore produce an annual crop. In that sense it is, at least on paper, a sustainable product. In the mid-1990s the South African Government decided that putting a commercial value on it would encourage private landowners to keep rhinos, thus increasing the rhino populations with great conservation benefit. It worked, rhino populations in the country doubled and the South African rhino populations are now so much bigger than those elsewhere in the continent that, in a sense, they are the only ones that matter.
So, with rhino populations increased and a sustainable product available to flood the market in Asia at a price that would easily undercut the cost of wild-poached animals, why on earth has the poaching problem got worse not better? The answer lies in the nature of the demand in Asia. Rhino horn has become linked with power and prestige, not with medicine, aphrodisiacs or dagger-handles. The possession of a rhino horn is a symbol of wealth and power – all the more so if the horn is from a wild caught animal.
Nowadays, using their mobile phones to record the stages, poachers can kill rhinos to order and ensure a ‘chain of custody’ of the product to their Asian clients. Farmed or ranched rhino horn is of no interest. The reason why international authorities continue to refuse to allow a legal trade in farmed or ranched rhino horn is that it would make it too easy for criminals to hide illegal wild-caught horn among the legal.
So, the rhino ‘ranchers’ can no longer export rhino horn; some owners have up to 1500 rhinos on their properties and tons of stockpiled rhino horn, and they are starting to ask questions about what’s in it for them? Many of the rhinos live on private conservancies that make their living from hunting, not photographic, safaris. Whether we like it or not hunting makes big money, more than photo safaris, and is a good use of marginal land in Africa.
In Zimbabwe recently I heard that two of the big conservancies (and in Zimbabwe rhinos pretty much only survive in viable numbers in the private conservancies) are thinking of abandoning keeping rhinos on their properties. They make no return and the poaching threat is actually a danger to conservancy staff, so why would they go on doing it?
Rhinos encapsulate a conservation dilemma that splits African countries. There is the Southern African ‘if it pays, it stays’ utilitarian view of wildlife, which sits in contrast to the ‘preservationist’ view in Eastern Africa, e.g. Kenya, where hunting is banned.
World opinion seems to be moving against the Southern African view (see the absurd furore over Cecil the lion a couple of years ago). But a consequence of this could be the removal of wild animals, including rhinos, from private lands and a massive reduction in their populations. This cannot be a good outcome from a conservation perspective, but until the linkage of rhino horn with power and prestige in Asia is broken, it is hard to see any other result.
Simon Tonge, Executive Director, WWCT