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South Africa battles to save rhinos from high-tech poachers

The recent brazen slaying of two rhinos–a pregnant mother with her two-year-old calf–in a highly popular wildlife park on the outskirts of Johannesburg, has focused attention on the growing poaching crisis in South Africa, a country renowned for the conservation of the endangered animal.

Law-enforcement officials say they are in a battle against organized criminals armed with the most sophisticated military hardware and funded by an Asian market willing to pay upward of a million U.S. dollars for a single rhino horn.

By Leon Marshall

Johannesburg–It is a vicious triangle of lust (or love perhaps), greed and death. In faraway China a person feels in need of something that will perk up his sex life. The potion he mistakenly believes will do the trick is rhino horn, and he is prepared to pay good money for that.

In South Africa, across the Indian Ocean, a plot comes into motion to obtain the horn and ship it to the East. The operation involves elaborate reconnaissance and sophisticated weaponry.

Somewhere in the bush, game rangers happen across the carcass of a rhino, its horn hacked off. And so the cycle goes.

The killing could have been done silently with a crossbow capable of piercing the pachyderm’s thick skin and making its steel-tipped arrow disappear entirely into its body, smashing the vital organs. The animal could have been brought down with an assault rifle, or with a powerful tranquilising dart.

Worried that the noise could have alerted security operatives, the killers might have acted so fast that they brutally chopped off the downed animal’s horn while it was still alive. Rangers can tell from the struggle markings at the site when this was the case.

Powerful syndicates are mostly behind the poaching and smuggling. Their methods and equipment are becoming more advanced by the day. This, and the alarming increase in rhino poaching show how enormously profitable this gruesome trade has become.

Some poachers take off in the dead of night in small helicopters from the back of trucks near their target area and locate and bring down their quarry using high-powered rifles fitted with night-vision telescopes.

A few months ago, TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) warned in a joint statement about the surge in rhino poaching in South Africa and neighbouring Zimbabwe: “The trade is made worse by increasingly sophisticated poachers, who now are using veterinary drugs, poison, cross bows and high-calibre weapons to kill rhinos.” (South Africa, Zimbabwe epicenter of rhino poaching crisis, data show)

The use of such sophisticated methods is believed to have been the case in the killing last month of a six-month-pregnant rhino and her calf in a game park on the outskirts of Johannesburg.


A dead cow and her calf, found slaughtered by poachers on May 29, 2010. The mother’s horn was stolen, but for reasons not known the calf’s horn was not taken.

Photo by Kelly Pera, conservation manager of the Rhino & Lion Nature Preserve

The rhino was named Big Queenstown and was kept on a 3,000-acre (1,200-hectare) private reserve in the so-called Cradle of Humankind, declared a World Heritage Site for its important fossil finds.

A heartbroken Ed Hern, a Johannesburg stock broker who started his Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve in 1985, responded: “She has been with us for 20 years and has had eight calves. It is like a death in the family.”

Reflecting the growing concern at the sharp increase in the killings, and the extent to which the perpetrators are getting away with it, he dejectedly added: “These guys have state-of-the-art equipment. We are no match for them. Nobody is.”

He feels the South African government should talk to the Chinese government to get it to stop the illicit trade at that end. He also wants better controls of the transport and use of helicopters to make their use in such operations more difficult.


Photo by Kelly Pera, conservation manager of the Rhino & Lion Nature Preserve

The poaching is happening in national, provincial and private reserves around South Africa, which is considered the last bastion of Africa’s seriously endangered white and black rhino species. Both have been brought back from the brink of extinction through dedicated programmes that have seen the white rhino population grow to an estimated 17,500 today and the far more threatened black species to just more than 4,000.

The two are better off than the other three species that are the only ones left from the range of species that once walked Earth. (The Rhino International Foundation puts the East’s one-horned rhino species at about 2,800, the Sumatran rhino at 200, and the Javan species at a tragic 40 to 50.)

But even though better off, the two African species are feared to once more be under growing threat as a result of the alarming spike in poaching. Hardly a week goes by without news of yet another killing.

Within days of the Johannesburg incident, news came in of another killing, this time in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, the game reserve in South Africa’s Indian Ocean coastal province of KwaZulu Natal which became world-renowned for the rhino rescue operation that was launched there in the 1950s.

The killing brought to nine the number of rhinos already killed in that province so far this year. The number for reserves around Johannesburg is 14. For the country as a whole, including the country’s flagship 5,000,000-acre (2-million-hectare) Kruger National Park with its estimated 300 black and 3,000 white rhinos, the tally is already being put at close to a hundred so far this year.

The total for the whole of 2007 was a mere ten.

Though some of the rhino horn gets smuggled to places like Yemen and Oman where it is coveted as dagger handles, the main cause of the growth in demand is being attributed to the newfound wealth in China where it is used in medicines and as an aphrodisiac, despite persistent scientific proof that it contains no such properties. It has been explained over and over that it consists of no more than keratin, which is the same type of protein found in hair and nails.

Still, security operatives in South Africa say a horn can fetch a casual poacher recruited from a poor community about U.S.$300 a kilogram (2.2 pounds), the middle person about U.S.$6,000, and the persons selling it across the counter in the East about U.S.$90,000. It means a good-sized horn could generate close to a million dollars.

Security agencies have stepped up their operations drastically and have had successes in arresting poachers and smugglers. But Ken Maggs, head of environmental protection services of South African National Parks (SANParks), emphasises that such sting operations need to be exceedingly fine-tuned and carried out according to the book as the syndicates are able to hire the best lawyers.

He said this at at a briefing of the media last year after the arrest of a number of suspects around the country. He afterward showed the media a stash of rhino horn confiscated from poachers and smugglers over the years.

“The whole thing is intelligence driven. We need lots of co-operation,” he said. In this particular case, a tip-off from tourists who spotted a dead rhino in the veldt played a helpful part in getting the investigation that led to the arrests off to a quick start.

At the media briefing David Mabunda, chief executive of SANParks, spoke of adopting the “iron-fist approach” and of creating a collaborative strategy involving the police, customs, South Africa’s national intelligence service and even its Revenue Services (SARS). He said there was close co-operation as well with CITES (the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and TRAFFIC.

A National Wildlife Crime Reaction Unit has subsequently been set up. Headed by Maggs, it involves the South African Police’s organized crime specialist units, Maggs’ own parks unit, prosecutors and officials co-opted from other agencies.

Pelham Jones, chairman of the Private Rhino Owners Group, is hopeful that once fully operative, this new co-ordinated approach will result in better intelligence and more arrests and successful prosecutions. Already, he says, there have been a number of arrests of late.

But he believes a much wider effort is needed. “We as a nation brought these animals back from near extinction. Now they are under threat once more. This is our heritage and all of us must take responsibility for looking after it. We must speak out. We don’t go to China and steal their panda bears. In the same way we ask their government and their people to respect our animals,” he says.

Ultimately, the message needs to get through to the end users that the magical qualities they attribute to the horn simply do not exist. What they are paying their money for is really worth no more than powdered hair and nails.

Leon Marshall.jpg

Nat Geo News Watch contributing editor Leon Marshall is an environmental writer in South Africa. A leading political journalist and executive editor for Africa’s largest newspaper group for years, he has won numerous awards, including a 2004 Reuters-IUCN Media Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. Leon has covered climate change from a global and African perspective, having attended conferences on the issue in many parts of the world. He has written extensively on the ambitious transfrontier-parks program of the sub-continent and is now writing a book on the subject.

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  1. mirkodega
    June 14, 2010, 5:42 am

    Ultimately, the message needs to get through to the end users that the magical qualities they attribute to the horn simply do not exist. What they are paying their money for is really worth no more than powdered hair and nails.

  2. savingrhinos
    June 10, 2010, 10:18 pm

    Mr. Marshall –
    Excellent article – thank you for bringing attention to this urgent matter.
    Exposing the link between China and South Africa’s rhino poaching epidemic was long overdue.
    Also appreciated is your mention of the fact that science has proven rhino horn contains no medicinal properties.
    Thanks again.
    Rhishja Larson
    Saving Rhinos LLC