As 2016 drew to a close, the surviving Black Rhino of Africa continue to be under threat of extinction. So how many died at the hands of ruthless poachers this year?

The Stop Rhino Poaching Trust puts the official figure at 702 (as of September) and the unofficial figure at 1080.

The same organisation puts the current figures for Black Rhino in South Africa at 2 040 and somewhere around 18 900 white rhino.

The World Wild Life Organisation estimates that there are less than 5 000 black rhino left in Africa and approximately 20 170 white rhino. The figures show that the critically endangered black rhino population has fallen by 92% from 65 000 in 1970 to around 5 000 currently.

Although factors such as natural attrition, deaths in Africa’s many conflict regions and human expansion certainly account for some of the decline, they most certainly are not the primary causes of the animals decimation.

Poaching takes the number one spot.

And this illegal trade does not only affect the rhino – it affects many species on a daily basis.

The United for Wildlife Organisation puts this into perspective on their website:

  • The illegal wildlife trade is valued at between $5-20 billion USD per year, it is the fourth most lucrative global crime after drugs, humans and arms.
  • It’s not just a crime against wildlife, 1,000 rangers have been killed in the last ten years, which is two per week, every week.
  • In South Africa alone, one arrest for rhino related crime happens every day.
  • 95% of the world’s rhinos have been lost in the last 40 years.
  • In 2011 between 40,000 and 60,000 pangolins were captured and killed in Vietnam alone.

What makes the rhino horn sought after?

There have been reports that rhino horn has been fetching prices as high as US$50,000 per kg.

This is similar to the street price for cocaine in the UK.

This demand has obviously resulted in a big surge in the number of rhino poaching incidents.

Who are these poachers?

According to Wild Life Detective:

At the lower end of the poaching spectrum are those driven by poverty and unemployment desperate to engage in any opportunity that will put food on their families tables.

The animals are usually shot several times before dying and the horns are hacked off using axes.

The horns are sold to syndicate operators for a pittance of what they are worth on the illicit market. High risk for minimal reward.

These poachers are easier to track and locate and many arrests tend to include this group.

At the top end of the poaching ladder are the professionals; crime syndicates, gangs and middlemen who have no scruples when it comes to the decimation of wild life.

These groups are often equipped with helicopters, high-powered rifles and tranquilliser guns, veterinary drugs and well established channels within which to move the end products.

One troubling fact is that the methods being used by the syndicates often reflect those used by wildlife capture operators in professional rhino management operations.

This video from Al Jazeera gives viewers an in-depth look at how complex and wide spread the poaching industry is.

But what sets the price?

Rhino horn has, for centuries, been an essential ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine.

Despite China being a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and banning trade in rhinoceros horn and its derivatives in 1993, the continuous rhino poaching suggest that the use of the horn continues unabated in traditional medicine markets.

According to Bernard Read’s 1931 translation of Li Shih-chen’s 1597 materia medica Pen Ts’ ao Kang Mu, rhino horn was prescribed for nearly everything:

“To cure devil possession and keep away all evil spirits and miasmas. For gelsemium poisoning. To remove hallucinations and bewitching nightmares. Continuous administration lightens the body and makes one very robust. For typhoid, headache and feverish colds. For carbuncles and boils full of pus. For intermittent fevers with delirium. To expel fear and anxiety, to calm the liver and clear the vision. It is a sedative to the viscera, a tonic, and antipyretic. It dissolves phlegm. It is an antidote to the evil miasma of hill streams. For infantile convulsions and dysentery. Ashed and taken with water to treat violent vomiting, food poisoning, and over dosage of poisonous drugs. For arthritis, melancholia, loss of the voice.”

Ironically, despite popular belief in the West to the contrary, it seems the only condition rhino horn is not prescribed for, is a lagging libido.

In addition to the recent surge in demand for rhino horn in Vietnam, where it is being touted as a hangover cure and treatment for terminal illnesses plus many more uses, a more concerning trend appears to be on the rise.

A more frightening trend is developing

A survey carried out by TRAFFIC in 2013 identified that:

“the motivation for consumers buying rhino horn is the emotional benefits rather than medicinal, as it reaffirms their social status among their peers. Image and status is important to these consumers, they tend to be highly educated and successful people who have a powerful social network and no affinity to wildlife. Rhino horns are sometimes bought for the sole purpose of being gifted to others; to family members, business colleagues or people in positions of authority.

Perhaps the most significant finding is the fact that beyond current consumer groups lies a large “intender” group: people who are not currently buying or using rhino horn, but who expressed their intent to do so in future. Dr Naomi Doak of TRAFFIC’s Greater Mekong Programme says, “Intenders want to become buyers and users of rhino horn as it is favoured and valued by those they want to impress. They have already made a conscious decision to purchase rhino horn even though they know it is illegal.”

TRAFFIC identified three main consumer groups:

Results from the consumer survey

  • 41% of those who admitted to buying or consuming rhino horn were buyers only. The majority of these buyers acquire rhino horn for their family, including parents or spouse.
  • 39% of those who admitted to buying or consuming rhino horn were consumers only. This group said they had never bought rhino horn, but had used it after receiving it from friends, family or business partners and colleagues.
  • 16% admitted to purchasing it as a gift for their boss, friends, colleagues or government officials.

What is being done to combat poaching?

The CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, agreement has been in place since 1975 and there are both supporters and detractors of the organisation. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species in the wild, and it accords varying degrees of protection to more than 35,000 species of animals and plants.

Both China and Vietnam are members of CITES.

Ongoing efforts are in place to combat poaching in many African countries. The South African government has committed both funds and resources to protecting its National Parks, with a degree of success.

Many private organisations have also entered the fray, providing funding for the supply of training for anti-poaching units and specialised equipment.

What is more troublesome however is the increasing concern that those within the wild life industry as well as highly placed government officials have become either directly or indirectly involved in the illegal trade.

An extract from the website of Stop Rhino Poaching, puts it this way:

“Ongoing, well-coordinated intelligence-led arrests aimed at poaching bosses and their local Vietnamese/Chinese buyers would go a long way to bringing the numbers down. Coupled with an expedited court process and strong sentences, our authorities could be sending out a strong message. Sadly, our failing systems, lack of political will and leadership, lack of investigative capacity, slow court processes and deeply embedded corruption are playing right into the hands of the poachers. While our focus is on the future of the rhino, the bigger question will ultimately be – what will it take to secure a future for our wildlife?”

The Al Jazeera video suggests corruption at government levels and many wild life conservationists hint at it.

What can we, as individuals do to help?

Joining any one of the reputable and active organisations combating poaching is one way, however there are other ways of contributing to the struggle.

Keep the noise levels up. Don’t allow the conversation to lap into obscurity, as happens so often with wild life concerns and keep your political representatives aware of the crises and ask the important questions – what is your government doing to help eliminate this scourge?

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