Rhino Wars: A Short History on #worldrhinoday

World War I and World War II left an indelible mark on the psyche of the world. Nations were destroyed, then formed, and countries, borders and international laws were created in the aftermath of these historic events. The world we live in today was shaped by these events. As those times live on in the collective memory of mankind, we are currently experiencing comparatively catastrophic and historically important events in Africa. A war is currently being fought between nations across the world. A war with human casualties on both sides – but without anyone truly realising what is at stake. We are in the midst of what can loosely be termed the Second Rhino War. Being World Rhino Day on September 22, it is apt to have a quick look at what rhinos have had to endure. The Second Rhino War is mankind’s third attempt at eradicating rhinos from our planet.

Know your Rhinos

There are five species of rhino worldwide – two in Africa and three in Asia. They are all being targeted and many of the sub-species have already become extinct. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, three of the five remaining species of rhinos are Critically Endangered. Our work is in Africa – and part of that is supporting the brave, tireless, undermanned, under-equipped, and under-supported rangers who put their lives on the line every day for these magnificent and gentle animals. The two rhino species found in Africa are the white rhino (Ceratotherium simum) and the black rhino (Diceros bicornis).

Black rhinos are divided into four sub-species (types), of which one is Extinct. Despite being the most numerous of the rhino species during the 20th Century, and numbering possibly as high as 850,000, the decline of black rhinos has been dramatic. By 1960 there were an estimated 100,000 left and by 1995 this had dropped by almost 98 percent, to a mere 2,410. Conservationists worked very hard and by 2010 had grown this number to almost 5,000, yet they remain Critically Endangered (considered by IUCN scientists to be facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild).

White rhinos are divided into two sub species known as the northern white rhino and the southern white rhino. There are only 3 northern white rhino left in the world, and none of them can breed. They are considered Extinct. The southern white rhino though, has an interesting story to tell.

Colonial Hunters

By the end of the 19th Century, southern white rhinos were believed to be extinct. This first massive decline in rhino species was largely due to relentless hunting and land clearance for settlement and farming during the colonial expansion, similar to the fate of bison in North America. But once humans begun to understand the need for wildlife, protected areas started to be formed and animals were afforded some breathing room.

The Greatest Conservation Success in History

Then a small population of 20-50 individuals was discovered in Zululand, South Africa. What followed is one of conservation’s greatest success stories. The Hluhluwe Valley Reserve and the Imfolozi Junction Reserve were proclaimed as game sanctuaries in 1895 and were the precursors to what is now known as Hluluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve, considered Africa’s oldest national park. The southern white rhinos were protected, and as a result the population started to grow. By the 1960s the population had recovered to an extent that the then Natal Parks Board (now Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife) embarked on an ambitious project to move rhinos to other parts of South Africa, bringing rhinos back to regions where they had previously ranged. It was at a time when the techniques to capture and transport rhinos was till in its infancy, and despite a few early setbacks, many of the methods and drugs developed then are still used today.

“Operation Rhino” was spearheaded by renowned conservationist, Dr. Ian Player (brother of the legendary golfer Gary Player). As a 25-year-old game warden, he personally undertook a mission to save African rhinos from extinction. He worked systematically to capture and transport these massive prehistoric creatures, sending them to repopulate other reserves and game parks in Africa (as well as zoos and parks internationally) to ensure that they had a better chance of survival.

By 1965 the southern white rhino was declared to have been “saved”. By December 2010 rhino numbers had grown to an estimated 20,170 in the wild and 750 in captivity. Although not considered a rhino war, this was man’s first attempt at destroying rhinos, and man’s wonderful story at saving them too. However, the Rhino Wars that have followed are a far more sinister affair that pits man against man, trying to protect a species that has no idea that it is even under siege.

The First Rhino War: 1965-1995

The First Rhino War was fought between 1965 and 1995. Rhino numbers in most countries, with the exception of South Africa and Namibia, plummeted. The demand for ceremonial dagger handles made of rhino horn was high in Yemen, particularly during the 60s and the 70s. Due to the Saudi oil boom, Yemeni people became more affluent and purchased the horn largely as a status symbol. The CITES trade ban came into effect in 1977, and in 1994 civil war broke out in Yemen, both of which contributed to a decline in demand for rhino horn, and thus a drop in poaching. Many Asian countries also banned the use of rhino horn in medicines and added stricter controls. Good had once again triumphed over evil.

The Lull

From 1995 to 2007, poaching incidents were negligible and rhino numbers were increasing. The CITES ban was working. It has also been suggested that stockpiled horns existed and could be distributed to new markets after key Asian markets banned rhino horn, which led to little need for obtaining new horns. Once stockpiles were depleted, new product was needed. It all changed when a rumour was spread in Vietnam that rhino horn cures cancer. Demand increased drastically and once again rhino poaching started to become a serious issue. The Second Rhino War had begun.

The Second Rhino War 2007 – ?

Just in the region we live and work in, reports come in daily of another rhino being butchered and often left alive. As a write this, rhino 107 in Zululand has just been killed for 2016. Crime syndicates supported the illegal trade and prices up to U.S. $100,000/kg [2.2 pounds] have been reported. (A large rhino can have up to 10kg of horn on its head). In 2010, 93% of white rhinos were in South Africa, and more than than 96% of black rhinos were in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya only. These range states are traditionally better funded with well trained conservation sectors, where the rhino is well protected. These are also the countries targeted by poachers, especially South Africa. This has led to professional, organised poachers, well trained and funded, usually with military backgrounds and intelligence-gathering capabilities. Teams often enter reserves, with members armed with AK47s whose role it is to engage anti-poaching teams, while the large-calibre shooter remains behind, protected and ready to escape if needed, or pull the trigger on the life of a majestic, defenceless rhino.

The emergence of the current wave of poaching is linked to rising wealth in Vietnam. Aside from the belief that it cures cancer, rhino horn is also used for many other purposes in Vietnam, from curing a hangover, being given as a gift, to simply owning a horn as a status symbol. Once again it appears to be tied to economics and increased disposable income, as well as unsupported archaic beliefs.

image002Poaching statistics in South Africa. Projections in red.

What can be done?

Strategy 1: Dehorning

Dehorning has been the most recent conservation gamble. The idea is to remove as much of the rhino horn as possible and thus devalue it as a poaching target. Once one reserve started to de-horn, everyone had to follow as any rhinos not dehorned become a greater target. In any event, whatever may help is worth trying. Almost everyone involved hates the thought of having to remove the part that makes a rhino a rhino, but if it gives the animal a chance, then we have to try. We know of one rhino that owes its life because of the procedure.

So much money and manpower that is needed for conservation in general is being pumped into protecting rhinos, and it is a war we cannot win unless ordinary people around the world begin to stand up and take notice – and do something.

Rhino work is not an easy task with the animal’s welfare always coming first.
Rhino work is not an easy task with the animal’s welfare always coming first.
Removing horns are another desperate attempt to give rhinos a fighting chance. Even the young are not spared.
Removing horns are another desperate attempt to give rhinos a fighting chance. Even the young are not spared.

Strategy 2: Legal Trade

The debate rages on about whether the trade in rhino horn should be legalised or not. Horns are being stockpiled by reserves and private farmers “just in case”. Its economics and one cannot blame the reserve owners as it’s not cheap to run a reserve when little funding comes from outside. Personally I am anti-trade and believe that all stockpiled rhino horns should be burned. I never used to be – but the more you look at it and understand the processes involved, the more it becomes obvious that trade in rhino horns will be the final nail in the coffin. Approving the use, and opening up demand to a greater percentage of the world’s most populous nations, as well as bringing Yemen back into the picture cannot add up to enough rhinos, wild or farmed. How much money and time has been invested in fighting poaching, and in education trying to prove the horns are not medically useful? How many rangers have died, how many poachers have left families behind, and how many conservationists already suffer from PTSD? It’s not worth it. We should burn it all and show the world that it is worthless.

A pair of white rhino horns
A pair of white rhino horns

Strategy 3: Legislation, Condemnation, Prosecution, Pressure

One of the best ideas I heard of was an attempt to apply pressure on the Chinese and Vietnamese governments by a South African citizen, Mark Wilby. He started a campaign where people around the world collect their toenail clippings and post them weekly or monthly to the closest Chinese embassy until something more drastic was done. No disrespect was intended to Chinese culture, but the use in Chinese medicine is a key driver of poaching, and should likely be sent to the Vietnamese embassies too. Unfortunately, like many great ideas, it just didn’t take off. But pressuring governments and making rhino horn illegal everywhere with strictly enforced, serious consequences both at the source and at the areas of demand are critical. Arrests must lead to long term jail time. No more corruption.

Strategy 4: Supporting those who are making a difference daily

Behind every story and every sad event, there are great people and conservationist putting their lives on the line. In the horror, they are the ones who make a small difference. They are the heroes no-one knows about. And they are the ones that need support. More boots on the ground, more funding for equipment, more training, and spreading awareness of what is truly happening are really what is needed.

We live in a world where Kim Kardashian’s Kimojis make a million dollars a minute, bombastic politicians are worth billions of dollars, and a painting sells for over 100 million dollars. And yet, global conservation is starved of funding (3% of US charitable giving in 2015 went to the environment/animals). If we as protectors of this world, cannot save a huge, iconic, prehistoric animal such as the rhino, then what can we save? What does it say about us as a species, and what does it mean for our children’s future?

In closing here are the words of respected and experienced wildlife vet, Dr. Dave Cooper.

“This must be one of the most brutal fortnights yet in the history of the rhino poaching war, in our province. At least 14 deaths were discovered in various protected areas in as many days. (I can’t go into detail at this time but it’s getting even more savage, as if that’s possible.) Yesterday honestly rates as one of the lowest points in my life as a wildlife vet, pretty much an emotional breaking point – but it’s not the first time; it’s something that is happening far too often.often. I don’t think it is possible to explain to somebody who hasn’t experienced this nightmare, what even one death scene does to you. It’s traumatic and haunting, and cannot ever be erased from your mind. I’ve attended over 400!!

So, how was yesterday even worse than all the others? Well- at first light on Saturday I flew out to do a post mortem on a dead rhino discovered the previous day. (I had been at other poaching scenes on Thursday and Friday already so this had to wait until Saturday).

While flying, we discovered a second body. Then a third. And then a fourth. FOUR! Can you even try and imagine what it’s like to experience so much death and destruction, all the time?! Thank God for Rowan’s veterinary help because it’s practically impossible to keep up anymore, physically OR mentally.

And then – just as I arrived at our friend’s home at midday, the phone rang again with news that there was a tiny orphaned calf, from one of those murdered rhino. And so another mad race back to the game reserve to get to him in time, all the while thinking this was going to be number five! The poor little guy is only about three months old, small enough to load in the helicopter. It’s always touch and go. But thankfully, with the devoted attention of my colleague Dumi Zwane all night at our bomas (and with 9 orphans, THAT’s a full time job too), the calf has started drinking and looks like he’ll be ok. If he hadn’t made it I’m not sure what I would have done.

I just cannot describe how utterly hellish yesterday was for all of us out there.

This is just TOO MUCH now!

I don’t think it is possible to explain to someone to someone who hasn’t experienced this nightmare, what even one death scene does to you. It’s traumatic and haunting, and cannot ever be erased from your mind. I’ve attended over 400!!!

Wild Vet (Dr. Dave Cooper, 18 September, 2016)

Clinton Wright is a Senior Wildlife Ecologist for Wild Tomorrow Fund, based in KwaZulu-Natal South Africa. Clinton has a masters degree in wildlife management and an undergraduate degree in animal science from Pretoria University.


  1. Dhanushka Weerasinghe
    September 23, 6:04 am

    The source of love is deep
    in us and we can help
    others realize a lot of
    happiness. One word, one
    action, one thought can
    reduce another one’s
    suffering and bring that
    One’s joy.
    ~Thich Nhat Hanh ~

  2. Dhanushka Weerasinghe
    Sri Lanka
    September 23, 5:54 am

    In this beautiful world animals have much as right to live as human beings.Animals cannot speak for themselves, for that reason we need to raise our voice and do something to make sure that their lives are free from suffering and exploitation. We need to make sure that other human beings also understand that they don’t have the right to kill animals for sport, for pleasure, for adventure, and for hides and furs. We need to make those cruel human beings understand the fact that animals have all the same sensations of pain as human beings. All animals are born free and they have the right to spend a free wild life. Animals also love their lives and do not wish to die or suffer. May all living beings free from suffering!!!