South Africa’s government announced that at least 1,020 rhinos have been killed by poachers since the beginning of the year. The figure sets a new record and one that the government calls a tragedy.
An estimated 1,004 rhinos were killed in all of 2013. The trend has been escalating since 2007 when they counted thirteen dead 13 rhinos poached in South Africa.
In response, the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) has established a $10-million Emergency Response Fund to stop the killing, trafficking and the public demand for rhino horn and other wildlife products.
“They’re believed to cure a number of ailments,” says Kathleen Garrigan, senior communications and media relations officer for AWF. People in Vietnam, China and other Asian countries maintain a cultural belief that a range of conditions from cancer to hang-overs and fever can be cured with products made from rhino horns, she said. “So it’s a pretty persistant belief that goes back many, many thousands of years and that’s why we’re having difficulty in stopping the demand for it, which is driving the poaching on the ground,” said Garrigan.
Garrigan pointed out that the rhino poachers are just one part of a larger problem. The wildlife trafficking occurs within large international organizations where other illegal activities usually occur.
“You usually have a kingpin or a very high-up individual who commissions any number of products—it could be rhino horn, it could be ivory, it could be drugs, you know, usually these criminal syndicates are operating in a number of different areas to make money.”
The chain begins when members of illegal syndicates strike deals with local poachers in Africa’s forests and savannahs. The syndicates send agents into impoverished villages offering residents money to go into a national park or reserve to shoot a rhino, chop off the horn and bring it back.
The local poacher usually earns more money performing this task than he would make in one year. As the horn moves through the supply chain, Garrigan says, more and more money is being made.
AWF’s Emergency Response Fund allows the organization to quickly respond on the ground by investing in prevention strategies where the poaching is taking place.
Garrigan said “… we put money in training and expertise into those areas to help protect that particular population of rhino. AWF also tries to break the chain of traffickers by providing “sniffer dogs and dog handlers that are able to be placed at seaports and airports to sniff out wildlife contraband.”
Another big challenge is the most daunting and that is putting a halt to the demand for rhino horn.
Garrigan said AWF has joined with a partner, the animal charity, WildAid, to produce anti-poaching public awareness messages on Vietnamese television and other media. The country has one of the highest demands for rhino horn. The messages are voiced by major sports figures and other influential celebrities.
“We’re sort of beating the pavement in Vietnam, trying to draw attention,” said Garrigan, “to inform the public as to what’s going on in Africa and why their buying habits matter and have a very, very significant impact on rhino populations in Africa.”