Rhino Poaching – Can it be Stopped?

Rhino poaching has reached an all-time high in South Africa, with private game farmers resorting to desperate measures in order to keep their rhinos safe, such as dehorning them in a bid to deter poachers.

The Western Black Rhino has recently become extinct, and the future is looking equally as bleak for their cousins. Game farmers are understandably concerned about the alarming rate in which rhino poaching is rising and are taking the risk of upsetting their paying tourists who have come to Africa to see wildlife. Recent statistics released by South African National Parks show that rhino poaching increased by 173 percent between 2009 and 2010, with 455 rhinos poached during the two years. Protrack, an anti-poaching organization in Hoedspruit, say South Africa is losing one rhino every 21 hours. That’s not to mention the rhinos in other African countries. From 1970 to 2000, over 90% of the world population of rhinos has dropped.  With the illegal trade in rhino-horn continually rising since then, despite the work of anti-poaching patrols and conservationalists, some game farmers have decided to beat the poachers to the job and humanely saw off the horn of their rhino themselves.

Rhino horn is valued in many Asian countries for its alleged healing properties – supposedly curing anything from headaches to devil possession. It is also used for ornamental purposes to make cups, buttons and dagger handles. Some use it as an aphrodisiac.  Studies have shown that rhino horn is made of keratin – the same substance found in human skin, hair and nails. Although science has shown that rhino horn has no medicinal value, it continues to be sold and imported in large quantities. Signatories of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITIES) banned the international trade in rhino horn in 1976, however, the trade has only increased since then.

Adam Chapple, a British university student, is a qualified field guide who has spent two summers in Hoedspruit training

for his qualification. During his time in South Africa, he has seen many animals in the wild, including rhino. Hoedspruit, close to Kruger National Park, is famous for its endangered species centre and is one of the worst effected areas of rhino poaching. According to the South African department of environmental affairs, 40 rhinos have been killed as of July this year in or around Hoedspruit. Chapple believes de-horning rhinos is a good idea. “As sad as it is to see a dehorned rhino it’s better if it prevents them being poached,” he says. However, Chapple also believes there may be a flaw in the plan. “If a poacher does come across a dehorned rhino they have been tracking for days, what’s to stop them killing it in anger anyway?” Adam Baugh is an experienced field guide in South Africa and has assisted a game reserve with micro-chipping their rhino’s horns – another measure used to try and halt the trade. He agrees with Chapple, “There have been times when dehorned rhino have still been killed because poachers retaliate in anger.” Baugh thinks game farmers need to use technology to protect their rhinos. “We need to invest in monitoring and tracking the rhinos and there should also be higher security in parks. We need to keep fighting the poachers.”

So why is the illegal trade in rhino horn so prominent? The appeal is clear to see when looking at the financial gains of poaching. Rhino horn sells on the black market for R140,000 (£10,855) per 1kg – typically, a rhino horn weighs 10kg. There is a large amount of poverty in South Africa and so it seems that the lure of such a financially lucrative trade, no matter the ethical cost, will continue to grow. With the amount of money earned per rhino horn, over time some poachers have been able to invest in new tools such as GPS and helicopters. This could be one reason for the large increase in rhino poaching in recent years.

Rhinos are prehistoric creatures that have been on the earth for 50 million years. It is not yet known whether dehorning them impairs their ability to survive in the wild, however, mother rhinos are known to protect their young from predators by using their horn. They are often shot by poachers with guns or rifles and the rhinos are found with their horns sawn off and other body parts left. Some poachers dart the animals with anaesthetic and saw the horns off when they’re asleep, leaving the rhino to wake up minus its horns and bleed to death. If a rhino is with its calf, the calf is left orphaned and usually starves to death or falls prey to lions or other predators.  According to the Endangered Wildlife Trust, dehorning rhinos is an ineffective method because poachers are prepared to remove the whole horn, sometimes even going so far as to remove the small nubs on rhino calves. When rhinos are dehorned by game reserves, the root of the horn is still left intact and poachers may still extract this in order to sell it. Re-growth of the rhino horn would also have to be cut regularly in order to keep the horn mass low. With the price of horn per kg, there is still money to be made from a dehorned rhino. Apart from the veterinary costs of dehorning a rhino, the rhino is also exposed to risks such as injury or death during immobilisation. Once the horn has been cut from the rhino, the game farmer is at risk of armed robbery from poachers. The dehorning process is still a new development and in time, it will become clear whether the idea is successful.

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