News / Africa

    Wildlife Experts Distraught as Record Rhino Killings Plague South Africa

    Factors such as myth that horn cures cancer drive poaching levels to new highs in 2011

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

     

    In April, conservationist Alan Weyer witnessed a scene he said had continued to haunt him. Summoned to an area of the Kariega Game Reserve in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, the park’s manager saw a rhino shivering silently in a clearing in the bush.

    Poachers killed this rhino at South Africa’s Kariega Game Reserve last year
    Poachers killed this rhino at South Africa’s Kariega Game Reserve last year

    “This animal had been darted (and sedated), the horn had been removed, but the animal hadn’t died. The animal stood up and it was walking around with, literally, its face hacked off. It was absolutely dreadful,” Weyer said. “We could not save it. A vet had to put the rhino down.”

    Just a month before, poachers had targeted another of his rhino. “It’s clear that the animal bled to death because of the hemorrhaging where they cut the horn off,” Weyer explained.

    The rhinos killed on Kariega are just two of the almost 450 slaughtered by poachers in 2011in South Africa. “We are incredibly worried at the moment. We are actually facing the worst rhino poaching crisis for decades,” said Lucy Boddam-Whetham, deputy director of the United Kingdom-based organization, Save the Rhino International.

    In 2010, 333 of the endangered animals were killed in South Africa. Both 2010 and 2011 were record years in terms of killings in the country. In most cases, the rhinos – members of South Africa’s famous Big Five animals – were tranquillized with veterinary drugs before poachers sawed their horns off.

    More expensive than gold

    In Asia, rhino horn has been used for centuries in traditional medicines to treat minor ailments such as headaches and fevers. “Commonly it’s ground into a powder and combined with other ingredients to form a medicine that you would swallow like a pill, or it can be ground and mixed into water so that you drink it,” said Tom Milliken of Traffic International, which monitors the world trade in wildlife products.

    Rhinos graze in the Kariega wildlife reserve. The animal’s horns are much-prized in some parts of Asia, where some people believe the ground horn cures cancer
    Rhinos graze in the Kariega wildlife reserve. The animal’s horns are much-prized in some parts of Asia, where some people believe the ground horn cures cancer

    The Zimbabwe-based director of Traffic’s operations in Southern and Eastern Africa added that demand for rhino horn had boomed in recent years because of a growing belief in parts of Asia, most notably in Vietnam, that it could cure cancer.

    “If you’re selling the gift of life, you’re able to ask a premium price and I believe that’s what’s going on,” commented Milliken, who’s traveled across the globe to investigate the increase in poaching in recent years.

    According to the International Rhino Foundation, the price of horn is currently nearly $57,000 a kilogram – making it more expensive than gold.

    “You lose one rhino, you’ve just lost half a million rand (about $62,500); you lose two, you’ve lost a million rand. Sadly the poachers are selling (horn) for a lot more than that,” said Weyer.

    Several studies put the average weight of white rhino horn entering the black market at almost 3.7 kilograms. So criminal syndicates are making huge profits. And they’re reaping these rewards by selling horns that consist just of keratin – the same protein that makes up human hair and fingernails, which science has proven has no curative properties.

    Rhino horns from South Africa seized late last year by customs officials in Hong Kong
    Rhino horns from South Africa seized late last year by customs officials in Hong Kong

    On par with drugs and weapons trafficking

    But the scientific facts have not permeated the markets for rhino horn in Asia, said Boddam-Whetham, resulting in South Africa becoming the international epicenter of poaching. Its wildlife reserves are home to most of the world’s remaining white and black rhinos – about 20,000 animals.

    The World Wide Fund for Nature said poachers killed more than 1,000 rhinos in South Africa in the past four years. “It’s a really sudden increase in rhino killings,” said Boddam-Whetham. “If you look back to 2007, there were only 13 lost. So you can see the massive jump…. I think it’s been a massive shock to everyone – the level of poaching at the moment.”

    “Certainly not the least reason for the sudden spike is that rhino poaching has now become part of international organized crime, on the same level – in terms of execution, sophistication and ruthlessness – as drug and weapons trafficking, said Kirsty Brebner, director of the Rhino Security Project at South Africa’s Endangered Wildlife Trust.

    Conservationists attribute the sudden increase in rhino poaching in large part to an economic boom in Asia in recent years, with more Asians now able to afford expensive rhino horn medicines
    Conservationists attribute the sudden increase in rhino poaching in large part to an economic boom in Asia in recent years, with more Asians now able to afford expensive rhino horn medicines

    Despite this, she said, governments and law enforcers have not invested enough resources in anti-poaching operations and the smuggling of illegal wildlife products.

    “This opened the door for organized crime. Rhino poaching is an easy avenue to riches,” Brebner said. “Some of the organized crime syndicates are seeing it as an easy option, to move away from their traditional drugs and explosives and guns and so on. It’s a low risk, high reward type of operation….”

    Asian economic success fuels poaching

    Another factor in the upsurge of rhino poaching, according to many in the wildlife industry, is the Asian economic boom of recent years. “Suddenly, with more disposable income than ever before (in Asia), rhino horn has made a huge resurgence on the local market,” Milliken stated.

    In South Africa, the race is on to save the lives of rhinos such as this from being wiped out by ruthless poachers
    In South Africa, the race is on to save the lives of rhinos such as this from being wiped out by ruthless poachers

    He said this is particularly true of Vietnam, which is now one of the world’s fastest growing economies on the back of its oil, mining, manufacturing and agricultural industries.

    “In Vietnam it’s at the point now where they’re selling horn for home use,” said Milliken. “There’s a whole subsidiary industry that is manufacturing these rhino horn grinding bowls, so that you can grind the powder at home and then add water to it and drink it. This is a usage that I’ve never seen anywhere in the world except in Vietnam.”

    South African game park manager Alan Weyer says the battle against the poachers has escalated into a “war”
    South African game park manager Alan Weyer says the battle against the poachers has escalated into a “war”

    Boddam-Whetham explained, “More Asians are now able to afford expensive rhino horn products and also the increasing Asian footprint in Africa has opened up trade routes to get rhino horn out of Africa and into Asia.”

    The cancer factor

    Brebner said the myth that rhino horn could cure cancer was undoubtedly the biggest driver of poaching. Milliken agreed: “This has stimulated usage (of horn) in a way that we haven’t seen before.”

    Many in the global wildlife sector attribute the surge in rhino killings to supposed claims a few years ago by Asian politicians and celebrities that the horn cured their life-threatening cancer.

    “There was a Vietnamese diplomat or MP that came out a couple of years ago saying that rhino horn had cured his cancer. This has led to a big interest in rhino horn and demand for it,” said Boddam-Whetham.

    South African conservationist and game park owner Dale Howarth insisted that soaring demand for horn stemmed from “a Korean national minister who publicized that he’d been cured from cancer from taking rhino horn.”

    Milliken said such stories were commonly told in Asia and spread around the world. “Everybody’s heard it. They’ve heard it so much that there’s kind of a tacit belief that maybe it happened, but we can’t actually validate any of these stories. When you really go for the details to get a name and to put a face on this, you can’t get there,” he maintained.

    Milliken described the cancer cure legends as urban myths that are brilliant marketing tools invented and spread by criminals to boost demand, and thus prices, for rhino horn.

    He said killings have increased massively as the poaching syndicates have been driven to kill as many rhino as fast as possible because they know that the rhino horn market is a “bubble economy that will burst” relatively soon.

    “Obviously people who take rhino horn and have cancer are not going to be cured in the long run. So I think that there’s a race against time here (and) that the criminal syndicates are maximizing their profits while they can.”

    Milliken remained concerned that the bubble would not have burst before the “large-scale entry of China into the illegal rhino horn trade.

    “China looms large in the background. We’re increasingly worried about the market for rhino horn in that country,” he said. “With the largest number of consumers in the world, any resurgent rhino horn trade in China is going to have major consequences around the world.”

    Back on South Africa’s wildlife reserves, conservationists and anti-poaching units continue their efforts to save the country’s rhinos. It’s a battle that many acknowledge they lost in 2011. It’s also a battle that’s transforming as it intensifies.

    “It’s now a war, plain and simple,” said park manager Alan Weyer.

    You May Like

    Turkey, US Splits Deepen Over Support for Kurdish Militants

    Ankara summons American ambassador to protest remarks by State Department spokesman who said Washington does not consider Syria's Kurdish Democracy Union Party (PYD) a terrorist organization

    Obama Seeking $19 Billion for National Cybersecurity

    Move, touted as attempt to build broad, cohesive federal response to cyberthreats, calls for increase in cybersecurity spending across all government agencies

    Video Foreign Policy Weighs Heavy for Some US Voters

    VOA talks to protesters in Manchester, New Hampshire, who sound off on foreign policy issues such as the Guantanamo Bay prison, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clownsi
    X
    February 09, 2016 8:04 PM
    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clowns

    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Rocky Year Ahead for Nigeria Amid Oil Price Crash

    The global fall in the price of oil has rattled the economies of many petroleum exporters, and Africa’s oil king Nigeria is no exception. As Chris Stein reports from Lagos, analysts are predicting a rough year ahead for the continent’s top producer of crude.
    Video

    Video Foreign Policy Weighs Heavy for Some US Voters

    VOA talks to protesters in Manchester, New Hampshire who sound off on foreign policy issues such as the Guantanamo Bay Prison, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Middle East Affairs and national security.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video New Hampshire Voters Are Independent, Mindful of History

    Once every four years, the northeastern state of New Hampshire becomes the center of the U.S. political universe with its first-in-the-nation presidential primary. What's unusual about New Hampshire is how seriously the voters take their role and the responsibility of being among the first to weigh in on the candidates.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Bhutanese Refugees in New Hampshire Closely Watching Primary Election

    They fled their country and lived in refugee camps in neighboring Nepal for decades before being resettled in the northeastern U.S. state of New Hampshire -- now the focus of the U.S. presidential contest. VOA correspondent Aru Pande spoke with members of the Bhutanese community, including new American citizens, about the campaign and the strong anti-immigrant rhetoric of some of the candidates.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.