Well-equipped, sophisticated organized crime syndicates have killed more than 800 African rhinos in the past three years - just for their horns. With the most serious poaching upsurge in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya, Africa’s top rhino experts recently met in South Africa to assess the status of rhinos across the continent and to identify strategies to combat the poaching crisis.
“Although good biological management and anti-poaching efforts have led to modest population gains for both species of African rhino, we are still very concerned about the increasing involvement of organized criminal poaching networks, and that, unless the rapid escalation in poaching in recent years can be halted, continental rhino numbers could once again start to decline,” says Dr Richard Emslie, scientific officer for the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s (SSC) African Rhino Specialist Group (AfRSG).
South Africa alone lost 333 rhinos last year and so far this year has lost more than 70. Most rhino horns leaving Africa are destined for Southeast Asian medicinal markets that are believed to be driving the poaching epidemic. In particular, Vietnamese nationals have been repeatedly implicated in rhino crimes in South Africa.
Black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) currently number 4,840 (up from 4,240 in 2007), whilst white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum) are more numerous, with a population of 20,150 (up from 17,500 in 2007). Population numbers are increasing, however, with the rise in poaching, there is still cause for concern due to inadequate funding to combat well-resourced organized criminals.
Rhino experts urged greater cooperation between wildlife investigators, police and prosecutors; magistrates and judges to be more sensitive to rhino issues; and assistance in developing new tools and technologies to detect and intercept rhino poachers and horn traffickers. While the number of arrests has increased there is an urgent need for improved conviction rates and increased penalties for rhino-related crimes in some countries.
The AfRSG commended recent initiatives to combat poaching. These include the establishment of a National Wildlife Crime Reaction Unit in South Africa, increasing protection throughout the rhinos’ range, DNA fingerprinting of rhino horn, regional information sharing and engaging with the authorities in Vietnam. In addition, wildlife agencies are working closely with private and community rhino custodians, as well as support organizations, to protect rhinos.
“In South Africa, a large number of rhinos live on private land. Rhino management, including control of rhino horn stockpiles and security, needs to be improved and coordinated among rhino holders,” says Simon Stuart, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission. “This is essential if we are going to face the poaching crisis head on.”
In some countries, white rhinos are still hunted as trophies. The group noted that some professional hunters have demonstrated questionable and unethical behaviour, adding that improved management of the allocation and monitoring of hunting permit applications, especially in some South African provinces, needs urgent attention.