Kruger Park, South Africa – Rhino deaths in this country went past crisis point in 2013 when almost 1000 rhino were killed. This is up from last year’s record high of 668, meaning that the population is officially in decline as there are more rhino being killed than are born. South Africa is the last bastion of rhino, home to 83% of Africa’s dwindling population.
The carnage, according to Save the Rhino Foundation, began in 2008 when a Vietnamese minister publically claimed that powdered rhino horn had cured him of cancer. Up until then poaching-related rhino deaths averaged between 10 and 13 per annum, but in 2008 it spiked to 83, then an unprecedented number. The cancer-cure statement coupled with a burgeoning Vietnamese middle-class with money to burn on luxury products has ensured that subsequent years would see the deaths of rhinos increase exponentially – 122 in 2009, 333 in 2010, 448 in 2011 etc.
Today, thanks in part to demand and escalating costs, rhino horn is seen as more than just a cure for cancer, it is now being bought as a status symbol and as a financial investment with the Vietnamese being joined by consumers in Taiwan and China. Even though it is illegal to trade in rhino horn, the high price fetched for the horn has attracted the involvement of global criminal syndicates who use high-tech equipment to track down and kill the rhinos. This has caught the South African authorities unawares and they have since struggled to contain the onslaught.
Part of the problem is the 360 kilometre long border of South Africa’s premier game reserve, the Kruger Park, which it shares with Mozambique. Almost two thirds of rhinos killed (573 in 2013) were in the park where vigilantes are able to sneak across from the wilderness of neighbouring Mozambique and get back before anyone is alerted. The Mozambique government are not in a position to manage the problem as they are already mired in their own security issues, leaving South Africa to combat the crisis alone.
The good news is some, albeit small, impact in combatting the crisis is being made. In 2013 South Africa signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Vietnam, pointing toward a future joint effort deal with the crisis, and penalties for rhino poaching are becoming increasingly severe and frequent. Figures released by the South African Department of Environmental Affairs, show an increasing number of rhino related arrests over the past few years – over 330 arrests were made in 2013 compared to the 233 and 267 of the previous two years – and in a land-mark ruling a Vietnamese national found guilty of illegal trade was handed a maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment.
Law enforcement plays a crucial role in deterring poachers, however, according to South Africans Environmental Affairs Minister, Edna Molewa, there is no single answer to combat the current poaching crisis. The government are currently exploring captive breeding programs and the selling of its rhino horn stockpile, of which South Africa currently has 20 tons, in an effort to flood the market. The later is a highly controversial move and has generated the ire of many conservation groups that believe such a step would send the wrong message to the Asian market and may even increase the demand for rhino horn.
The solutions, it seems, are varied and largely untested, and while law enforcement has made significant strides, the deaths continue unabated and the trend of consecutive record deaths does not show any sign of easing up in 2014.