Rhino Poaching on the Rise

February 3, 2011 – Jen Noelken

South Africa rhino poaching has shown steady increases over the past few years.  Senior Program Officer for African species conservation at World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Matthew Lewis, stated South African rhino poaching has doubled annually the past three years.  Recent 2010 reports documented a staggering 333 rhinos were illegally killed.  Ten of the 333 rhinos were critically endangered black rhinos.  Already, five rhinos have been killed by poaching during the first month of 2011.

With approximately 21,000, South Africa houses more rhinos than anywhere else in the world.  Rhinos are a large part of Africa’s wildlife tourism.  Featured along with elephants, lions, leopards, and Cape buffalo, the animals create the famed “Big 5” tourism.  World famous safari destination, Kruger National Park features the largest population of both species of rhino, black rhino and white rhino, in the country.  Sadly, Kruger National Park suffered the worst poaching in 2010 with 146 rhinos killed. 

Rhinos have long been hunted for their horns.  Throughout Asia, rhino horns represent a traditional, mystic cure.  Believers feel the horn can cure anything from the common cold to more serious health issues.  A key component of traditional Chinese medicine, rhino horns continue to be in high demand despite banning of commercial trade in 1993 and the signing of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.  Demands for rhino horns are rising in Vietnam as well, where small amounts of ground horn can cost hundreds of dollars on the black market.     

Officials say poachers are becoming more sophisticated making it difficult to catch the criminals.  Large amounts of money made from poaching allow criminal networks to stay more advanced than the security defending rhinos.  Dr. Joseph Okori, World Wildlife Fund African Rhino Program Manager said, “This is not typical poaching.  The criminal syndicates operating in South Africa are highly organized and use advanced technologies.”  Poachers have turned to such advancements as helicopters, night-vision equipment, veterinary tranquilizers and silencers. 

South African law enforcement continues to tighten security measures, arresting around 162 poachers last year.  In Kenya alone, Kenya Wildlife Service official, Patrick Omondi, said 24-hour surveillance has been imposed on the country’s 600 remaining rhinos.  Those caught in association with rhino poaching leave officials baffled. 

Poaching has not been isolated to small criminals.  In 2008, a Vietnamese diplomat from its embassy in South Africa was caught on tape accepting illegal horns.  Late September 2010,   three-well known veterinarians from Modimolle, Limpopo were arrested in association with rhino poaching.  Officials in Johannesburg called Dr. Karel Toet, his wife Marisa, and one of Toet’s partners, Dr. Manie du Plessis, masterminds behind “hundreds of incidents” of rhino poaching across the country.       

Those convicted face increasingly harsh penalties in an attempt to curb poaching.  Officials from WWF South Africa, state they are committed to preventing detrimental affects “to the country’s excellent rhino conservation track record that it has built up over the past several decades.” 

Despite the current surge of poaching, rhino conservation efforts continue.  The World Wildlife Fund and Traffic, a collaborate effort between WWF and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), support anti-poaching strategies.  In South Africa, WWF and Traffic are helping train local rangers and working to introduce new technologies such as rhino horn transmitters. 

IUCN points to the success of recovering white rhinos from less than 100 in the late 19th century to more than 20,000 currently.  The group feels the same achievement can be reached for black rhinos with the help of state and private conservation authorities.  Consumers of rhino horns are compromising efforts by giving criminal networks motivation to kill rhinos for money.  IUCN spokesman states substantial resources must go into law enforcements in South Africa and Asia to make all trade in rhino horns illegal.    

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