Print options

January 20, 2012

Rhino Poaching in South Africa: Fighting Fire with Fire

by Darren Taylor

Conservation groups consider more aggressive measures for protecting the endangered species

This is Part 3 of a 5-part series:  Saving Africa’s Endangered Rhinos
Continue to Parts:     1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5


Game ranchers in a district of South Africa’s Eastern Cape province recently took a radical step to try to keep their rhinos safe from poachers. They invested heavily in the establishment of a specialized anti-poaching unit. They staffed it with former soldiers and policemen.

“We’ve employed an ex-head of (the South African police) organized crime (section) to head the unit up for us. He gathers intelligence; he warns us; he manages crime scenes, so we are very proactive in trying to prevent our rhino from being taken,” said one of the ranchers, Dale Howarth.

The decision to create the unit was taken after criminals slaughtered four of the ranchers’ rhinos in rapid succession. “I don’t even want to think about what this unit is costing us,” said Howarth. “But if we don’t pay a heavy price, then soon rhinos will be extinct in this part of the world.”

Conservationists say international organized criminal syndicates are targeting South Africa’s endangered rhinos for their horns. Illegal trade in horn is driven by the misguided belief in some parts of Asia that it cures cancer when it’s taken in ground form as a traditional medicine.

The International Rhino Foundation said horn currently cost about $57,000 a kilogram on the black market, making trade in it extremely lucrative.

According to South African wildlife authorities, poachers have killed more than 1,000 in the country in the past five years. And the crime is increasing rapidly. In 2011 alone, almost 450 were butchered. A lot of the rhino were darted and sedated with veterinary drugs and their horns removed with chainsaws. The animals died from either drug overdoses or from excessive bleeding.


Kirsty Brebner, who heads the Rhino Security Project at South Africa’s Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), said she wasn’t surprised by the action taken by the Eastern Cape rhino owners.

“The reserves thus far have been severely under-resourced in terms of weaponry and so on, while they’re trying to stop criminals who are using helicopters, military night vision equipment and sophisticated high caliber weapons to target rhino. You cannot pit pepper spray against people who are armed to the teeth like that, so the militarization of anti-poaching efforts has been inevitable,” she told VOA.

Brebner said many wildlife parks are therefore now employing people with military, security and “commando” backgrounds –who have the necessary tactical skills to prevent poaching and capture the criminals.

With help from former members of South Africa’s Special Forces, she said the EWT had facilitated a “national coordinated training program” to teach rangers to combat poachers effectively.

Lucy Boddam-Whetham, deputy director of Save the Rhino International, commented, “The anti-poaching rangers have to fight fire with fire and they have to use the same equipment…. They’re risking their lives every day; the poachers would not think twice at shooting at them. It’s really scary stuff out in the field...”

No idea how a rhino horn looks

But those involved in the global wildlife industry acknowledge that heightened security alone isn’t enough to stop the large scale butchering of the world’s last remaining rhinos.

“I don’t really think that this is a war (that can be) won with guns and people running around in camouflage kit,” said Angus Sholto-Douglas, director of South Africa’s Kwandwe rhino conservancy.

Jacques Flamand, a rhino expert with the World Wide Fund for Nature and an internationally respected wildlife veterinarian, agreed. “The poaching wave has been met with increased expenditure on security, but still the poachers kill rhino. Like predators and prey, the predator is always one step ahead of its prey and works things out…. Whatever (security) measures you put in place, a poacher will always find a way around them,” he said.

And so those trying to save the rhinos are supplementing intensified security with other strategies designed to combat the poaching syndicates.

“We’ve done a lot of work with (South Africa’s) National Prosecuting Authority to sensitize law enforcement officials on the issues of illegal wildlife trade, and how big it is, and the terribly negative impact it is having on not only our biodiversity but on our country’s legacy,” said the EWT’s Brebner. “We’ve had a lot of trainings for judges, magistrates, prosecuting authorities and (South Africa’s elite investigating unit) the Hawks.”

In addition, the EWT is training officials at South Africa’s points of entry. “We’ve started at the O.R. Tambo airport (the country’s biggest airport, near Johannesburg) and with border control personnel, to teach them how to identify rhino horn,” Brebner explained.

She said such training for South Africa’s customs, border and seaport officials is “sorely lacking.… Most of them wouldn’t have any idea of what a rhino horn looked like, for no other reason than they’ve never been taught.”

The EWT is also providing customs officials with dogs that have been trained to sniff out illegal wildlife products, including rhino horn. “We should have two more dogs within a few months. We’re doing this in collaboration with a cargo clearing company,” said Brebner.

Asians must condemn poaching

But wildlife sector role players agree that the best way to stop, or at least to slow, rampant poaching, lies in Asia. “The answer is to convince the Asians not to use rhino horn, so that the black market dissolves and there’s no more incentive to kill rhinos for their horns,” said conservationist Iain Stewart.

“Education in the marketplace that’s demanding rhino horn is what’s needed,” said zoologist Jennifer Gush, who worked on a ranch where poachers had killed two rhinos. “The people who want it must be made to realize that it is not an aphrodisiac, it doesn’t cure cancer…I think if education started there, that would ultimately stop the demand, or reduce it.”

Wildlife reserve manager Alan Weyer insisted that the poaching wave would break “only when rhino are worth more alive than dead. What we’re dealing with here is that in a certain part of the world the reverse is presently true.”

Howarth is adamant that the level of poaching will drop only when the governments of the Asian states alleged to be the centers of illicit horn trade, most notably Vietnam and China, speak out against it.

“Only those high authorities can stop people from buying rhino horn,” he said. “Their people won’t listen to outsiders.... The Vietnamese and Chinese governments (must) condemn it, and categorically state that (rhino horn) is not a cure for (any) sickness.”

South Africa and Vietnam cooperate

Tom Milliken of Traffic International, an organization that monitors the worldwide trade in wildlife products, has facilitated several meetings between South African and Vietnamese officials in his attempts to ease the poaching crisis.

“In setting up these meetings, we felt very strongly that as South Africa is moving very decisively to try to curtail this crisis, it’s imperative that countries where the consuming markets are, are active collaborating partners with South Africa in trying to defeat rhino crime,” Milliken said.

At one of these meetings, he said, Vietnamese state representatives acknowledged it would be “very difficult” to convince their citizens that rhino horn had no curative qualities, because the belief is entrenched among many in southeast Asia.

Nevertheless, Milliken described the meetings as “positive.”

“Both governments have now agreed a memorandum of understanding to establish collaborative law enforcement on rhino crime issues,” he said. “As soon as higher level government officials have signed it, hopefully we’ll enter a phase of more proactive and collaborative law enforcement between South Africa and Vietnam to deal a big blow to the criminal syndicates.”

‘Courting death’

Milliken did, however, emphasize that the Vietnamese authorities need to be harsher on their citizens who are trading illicitly in horns. “The most severe sentence that the Vietnamese authorities have ever imposed for this was in 2008 when an individual was given only three years in prison for possession of illegal rhino horns,” he said.

In contrast, Milliken said the Chinese government is “rising to the occasion and penalizing people caught with illicit rhino horns very severely.…One individual with two horns was given 15 years in prison.…”

He called on governments across Asia to launch “radical” public relations campaigns aimed at stopping trade in rhino horns.

“The bottom line at the end of the day in Asia (must be) if you’re betting on rhino horn to cure your cancer, you’re probably courting death.”