Horns, guns and money

With­out dra­matic ac­tion, the rhi­noc­eros in the wild will be ex­tinct within 10 years. The cam­paign against the bloody, lu­cra­tive trade in rhino horn has to com­bat pow­er­ful eco­nomic in­cen­tives for poach­ers.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By Pamela Wade

The cam­paign against the bloody, lu­cra­tive trade in rhino horn has to com­bat pow­er­ful eco­nomic in­cen­tives for poach­ers.

Sarah Jones is no baby. She’s the zookeeper who, in 2015, was given an award for brav­ery by po­lice af­ter coolly dis­tract­ing a Sumatran tiger with its favourite toy, draw­ing it away from her fa­tally mauled col­league at Hamil­ton Zoo. But when talk­ing about the re­cent at­tack on a rhino or­phan­age in South Africa, she’s in tears. “This is a tragedy,” she says, her voice break­ing.

Early on the morn­ing of Fe­bru­ary 20, five armed men broke into the grounds of the Fundimvelo Thula Thula Rhino Or­phan­age, deep in KwaZulu-Natal province. They over­pow­ered the armed guard, hold­ing him hostage for two hours as they waited for the vol­un­teers car­ing for the baby rhi­nos to ar­rive at the or­phan­age. Hav­ing de­stroyed the CCTV cam­eras, the in­trud­ers beat and tied up the staff, be­fore sex­u­ally as­sault­ing one of them. They then shot the or­phan­age’s two big­ger rhi­nos, Gugu and Impi, both 18 months old, killing one and fa­tally wound­ing the other, be­fore hack­ing off their small horns and flee­ing.

Sub­se­quent se­cu­rity as­sess­ments con­cluded that Thula Thula could not guar­an­tee the safety of its or­phans or staff, and on May 2 the de­ci­sion was made to per­ma­nently close the or­phan­age. Poach­ers now view or­phan­ages as soft tar­gets af­ter de­fence was at last ramped up in the poach­ers’ tra­di­tional hunt­ing grounds, Kruger Na­tional Park, fur­ther north on the bor­der with Mozam­bique. This im­mense game re­serve of nearly two mil­lion hectares has borne the brunt of a world­wide poach­ing epi­demic tar­get­ing many species, from ele­phants to pan­golins. In 2005, just 10 rhinoceroses were killed in Kruger: in 2015, 826. This es­ca­la­tion is mir­rored through­out South Africa’s re­serves, as well as among the other species of rhino en­demic in Java, Su­ma­tra and In­dia, which are reg­u­larly preyed upon by poach­ers.

South Africa is home to 80% of the world’s white rhino and 50% of the black, but they are be­ing killed at the rate of three a day: one ev­ery eight hours. Of the 65,000 black rhino in the wild in Africa in 1970, only about 5000 re­main; white rhino num­ber fewer than 20,000. Although the an­nual deaths by poach­ing have de­clined slightly since the 2014 record of 1215 (the 2016 to­tal was re­cently an­nounced as 1054), rhi­nos in the wild are still on track for ex­tinc­tion within 10 years. The western black rhino sub­species is al­ready ex­tinct; the north­ern white and the Ja­van rhi­nos are tee­ter­ing on the brink.

No rhino is safe, any­where. In early March, in the first at­tack of its kind in Europe, poach­ers broke into Thoiry Zoo, near Paris, shoot­ing the res­i­dent rhino, Vince, and cut­ting off his horns. The Thoiry killing caused con­cern as far away as in Auck­land Zoo, where se­cu­rity pro­ce­dures are al­ways un­der re­view.

Last month, a rare one-horned rhino was shot in a na­tional park in Nepal and its horn taken, de­spite anti-poach­ing mea­sures. Even dead rhi­nos are tar­gets: in 2013, the horns were stolen from four stuffed rhino heads at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Ire­land in Dublin, even though they had been re­moved from pub­lic dis­play af­ter sim­i­lar in­ci­dents else­where.

At the end of the sales chain, rhino horn is worth about US$65,000/kg – more than gold or co­caine. The main cus­tomers are in China, where the horn – made of ker­atin, like hair and fin­ger­nails, and of un­proven and un­likely med­i­cal ben­e­fit – is an ­in­gre­di­ent of tra­di­tional medicine for ail­ments such as fever, rheuma­tism and gout. In Viet­nam, it

It’s a lit­er­ally life-and-death sce­nario for both sides, but the poach­ers, driven by grind­ing poverty, are des­per­ate.

is be­lieved to cure any­thing from hang­overs to cancer. In nei­ther coun­try, in­ci­den­tally, is horn con­sid­ered an aphro­disiac.


Grow­ing af­flu­ence in both coun­tries has brought about an in­sa­tiable de­mand, de­spite horn be­com­ing scarcer and con­se­quently more ex­pen­sive af­ter stren­u­ous ef­forts to pro­tect the rhino. This has in­creased both its value and de­sir­abil­ity as a sta­tus sym­bol. In Ho Chi Minh City, noth­ing is more im­pres­sive than be­ing able to sup­ply your guests with an anti-hang­over shot of ground rhino horn dis­solved in wa­ter be­fore a night on the town. An inch of horn is con­sid­ered a gen­er­ous wed­ding gift.

The Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species (Cites) has banned in­ter­na­tional trade in rhino horn since 1977, so the main beneficiaries of the black mar­ket are ter­ror­ist groups in­clud­ing Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram and the Lord’s Re­sis­tance Army. Poach­ing is the world’s most lu­cra­tive crime af­ter drug, arms and hu­man traf­fick­ing, and the horns, as well as ivory and other an­i­mal body parts, are smug­gled us­ing the same net­works. The prof­its are used for weapons, equip­ment, train­ing, travel, bribes and all the other ex­penses of ter­ror­ism.

The poach­ers get a more mod­est re­turn for the risks they take. They en­ter the parks by night, of­ten by the light of the full moon, usu­ally car­ry­ing hunt­ing ri­fles but some­times AK-47s and night-vi­sion gog­gles. How­ever, they know that equally wellarmed rangers, with dogs and he­li­copters, are watch­ing for them. It’s a life-and-death sce­nario for both sides, but the poach­ers, driven by poverty, are des­per­ate.

Around the bor­ders of Kruger Na­tional Park alone, two mil­lion peo­ple live at sub­sis­tence level in shel­ters with no elec­tric­ity, run­ning wa­ter or gov­ern­ment help. The es­ti­mated un­em­ploy­ment rate is 75%. This sit­u­a­tion is com­mon through­out South

In Viet­nam, an anti-hang­over shot of ground rhino horn dis­solved in wa­ter is a sta­tus sym­bol.

Africa, and the temp­ta­tions posed by rhi­nos, peace­fully graz­ing on the other side of a fence in pub­lic and pri­vate game re­serves, are ob­vi­ous.

A fur­ther threat for Kruger is its por­ous bor­der with Mozam­bique, a na­tion even more poverty-stricken, where the rhino has al­ready been poached to ex­tinc­tion.


There is no sim­ple answer to the prob­lem. The idea of a le­galised trade, us­ing har­vested horn from farmed rhi­nos, has its sup­port­ers at high lev­els. De­spite vig­or­ous protest, last month the South African Con­sti­tu­tional Court dis­missed the mora­to­rium on the do­mes­tic trade of rhino horn, a move that will inevitably in­crease in­ter­na­tional sup­ply.

Even some rhino-pro­tec­tion agen­cies see le­gal trade as a valu­able source of funds, but the coun­ter­ar­gu­ment runs that ac­qui­esc­ing to de­mand will sim­ply in­crease it, as well as sus­tain­ing the black mar­ket. “When the buy­ing stops, the killing can too” is their catchcry.

That’s the be­lief of Auck­land busi­ness­man Peter East­wood, a staunch pro­tec­tor of the rhino. He has founded a New Zealan­dreg­is­tered char­ity, called imakead­if­fer­ence, which comes at the cri­sis from two an­gles: pre­ven­tion and re­ac­tion.

Most African wildlife is now within fenced re­serves, so more tourists than lo­cal chil­dren have ac­tu­ally seen a rhino. To make a con­nec­tion with the iconic wildlife, East­wood’s char­ity sup­ports the Rhino Art project, which funds ed­u­ca­tors to visit poor ru­ral schools. They talk to the stu­dents about rhi­nos, giv­ing them pens to colour a pic­ture and en­cour­ag­ing them to write an­tipoach­ing slo­gans. So far, more than 250,000 chil­dren have re­ceived the mes­sage about con­ser­va­tion. Even The Lion King is used, the movie dubbed into Zulu so young South Africans can take on board the con­cept of en­vi­ron­men­tal in­ter­de­pen­dence.

“This is an at­tack on the world’s trea­sures, not just South Africa’s,” East­wood told a group of young wildlife am­bas­sadors on one of his reg­u­lar vis­its. “It’s re­ally im­por­tant that ev­ery­one in the world takes re­spon­si­bil­ity for the wildlife. We want to make sure that the rhino is there for the next gen­er­a­tion.”


Funds from East­wood’s char­ity sup­port, among other projects, reg­u­lar aerial and tracker dog pa­trols in Zu­l­u­land. Some of the money is spent on in­form­ers who can alert rangers to poach­ers in their area; it’s dirty work, but poach­ing is a dirty busi­ness.

Imakead­if­fer­ence is one of the bene­fac­tors of Thula Thula where, later on the day of the Fe­bru­ary 20 at­tack, the trau­ma­tised staff were back on duty, keep­ing to the nor­mal rou­tines in the hope of min­imis­ing the shock and dis­tress for the re­main­ing an­i­mals. All their baby rhi­nos had al­ready seen vi­o­lence when their moth­ers were shot or tran­quil­lised and left for dead, their horns hacked off by axe or ma­chete.

“Impi was two months old when he was res­cued from be­side his mother’s six-day­old car­cass,” says Jones. “He had sur­vived by eat­ing mud from the wa­ter hole next to her body. He ar­rived, hav­ing wit­nessed her death, splat­tered with her blood and ex­tremely trau­ma­tised.”

Jones got to know this rhino – and Gugu – well dur­ing three weeks she spent at the or­phan­age as part of a fact-find­ing tour of South Africa’s rhino con­ser­va­tion projects, be­fore re­turn­ing to her role as pri­mary keeper of Hamil­ton Zoo’s six rhi­nos.

“I would sit back and watch from a dis­tance as they grazed, wal­lowed and slept in the hot African breeze un­der the shade of a tree. I had tears in my eyes of sad­ness, but also ut­most hap­pi­ness that they were sur­vivors and one day they would be wild again.”

Impi and Gugu were due to have been re­leased – to­gether – into a pri­vate re­serve the week af­ter they were killed. They did not get their happy end­ing. But with ed­u­ca­tion, reg­u­la­tion and fi­nan­cial sup­port, it is still pos­si­ble that the rhino, as a species, will not fol­low them into the void.

A black rhino charges at Phinda Pri­vate Game Re­serve in KwaZulu-Natal.

Far left, even rhi­nos in zoos are in dan­ger from poach­ers – this one was killed and butchered for its horns.

From top, Gugu and Impi were 18 months old when they were killed; Sarah Jones with a baby rhino; staunch rhino pro­tec­tor Peter East­wood.

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