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Poaching legacy casts shadow over Africa’s rhinos

by Johan van Wyk

The whole issue of rhinoceros poaching, along with images of bloated and mutilated carcasses, has featured in the news far too often during the immediate past for my liking. As I am neither a professional conservationist nor a game rancher, the rhino poaching matter has never been all that personal for me, even though I clenched my teeth and muttered a curse whenever I turned on the television or radio only to be confronted by the news of yet another poached rhino. As sometimes happens though, things took a personal turn for me over rhinos in October 2010. Before I explain why, a short history lesson is perhaps in order.

In the late 1970s, the then Rhodesia’s Lower Zambezi Valley was one of the last strongholds of the black rhino (Diceros bicornis) in Africa. At the end of the decade-long bush war in 1980, it was conservatively estimated that at least 3000 black rhinos (then the largest single population on the African continent) still roamed about the valley’s mopane forests and steep hills. Hunters pursuing big game had to be constantly on the alert to avoid bumping into rhinos and thus finding themselves proverbially on the horns of a horned dilemma.

The end of hostilities also saw the withdrawal of Rhodesian security forces and the cessation of regular patrols from much of the valley. So the resident game wardens were once again left to their own devices with limited resources to combat a growing influx of Zambian poachers from across the Zambezi. The ensuing slaughter was on a massive scale and by the late 1980s, it was clear that unless drastic measures were taken, hardly any rhinos would be left in the valley.

The Zimbabwe Department of National Parks and Wildlife, being both unable to cope with the extent of the onslaught as well as being riddled by corruption and inefficiency on many levels, came up with the radical solution at that time of asking some of the country’s bigger private landowners to provide a safe refuge for what remained of the Zambezi Valley’s black rhinos in a form of rhino ‘custodianship’. The result was that a number of rhinos were moved from the Zambezi Valley and other high-risk areas to private ranches which were considered to be safe at the time and where the rhinos could be protected.

One of the chosen ‘custodians’ was the 80,000-acre Buffalo Range Ranch, located in south-eastern Zimbabwe between Triangle and Chiredzi and in 1987 the Style family, owners of Buffalo Range since 1953, accepted eight juvenile black rhinos to look after from the Zambezi Valley. In spite of no financial support, the Styles watched over ‘their’ rhinos to such an extent that their numbers soon increased and by 2000, the year during which Zimbabwe’s disastrous ‘Land Redistribution Programme’ kicked off, the black rhinos in the 250,000-acre Chiredzi River Conservancy (of which Buffalo Range formed part by then) numbered 34.

Zimbabwe’s internal tribulations have been extensively covered in the media since 2000 and as can be imagined, the henchmen and their willing pawns hardly cared for the rhinos. They saw them as little more than a source of protein and perhaps some extra cash, if a precious horn could be prised apart and sold on the black market. Much like a heap of sand becomes blown away particle by particle and not necessarily all in one go, the poachers whittled away at the Chiredzi River Conservancy’s rhino population until, by 2007, no more than about half the number of rhinos since 2000 were left.

The year 2007 also saw what was probably the low point for rhino conservation in the area when professional hunter Barry Style, in the company of American safari hunters, encountered a tiny rhino calf in the bush that was attempting to suckle from the bloated carcass of her poached mother. To make matters worse, the dastardly poachers had attempted to hack off the calf’s tiny stump of a horn, in the process grievously injuring the poor little thing. As luck would have it, one of Barry’s safari clients happened to be a veterinarian who set about treating the terrified little animal after she was found by Barry’s team. She survived, thanks to the efforts of Barry and his American client.

In October 2010, I found myself in the Chiredzi River Conservancy hunting buffaloes with Barry. While the degree of destruction in many parts of the conservancy deeply saddened me, it was heartening to see the dedication of Barry and his staff for the preservation of the area’s wildlife. During the course of our visit, we saw good numbers of many game species such as buffaloes, wildebeest, zebras, bushbucks and elands. However, on the second day of our hunt, after a post-lunch siesta, we walked into the lounge area of the safari camp to find a very dejected-looking Barry waiting for us. One glance at his face was enough to tell us that something serious was amiss and he soon confirmed our worst fears. A precious rhino had been found - poached.

When we reached the scene of the crime, it was clear that the rhino had been dead for some time. The skin had been too much even for the hyenas and other scavengers to make a meal of and what was left of it was still in one piece, shrivelled up and hard. The animal’s bones lay scattered about a wide area where they had been carried by scavengers, but the skull told the sad story. The marks where the horns had been sawn off were clearly visible, as were the bullet marks, and a total of five AK-47 bullets were later recovered from the scene. It was an ignominious end for a noble animal whose ancestors first made the African bush their home millions of years ago.

As I stood next to the remains of that poached rhino on the banks of the Chiredzi River, I could not help but feel a certain amount of hatred towards those who make a living from poaching and rhino poachers in particular. As with many other illicit activities, the problem lies not with those who do the actual poaching (who are often poor tribespeople, struggling to eke out a living and for whom the few dollars to be earned by poaching a rhino represents a fortune) but with those behind the scenes, the middlemen and sponsors who make it their goal to sustain the demand for rhino horns and who reap the real profit.

During the past five years or so, the clamour for rhino horns for their alleged aphrodisiac qualities from Asia, particularly China and Vietnam, has surged dramatically. This, in turn, has led to a drastic increase in rhino poaching throughout southern Africa. South Africa’s Kruger National Park alone is home to not only considerable numbers of black rhinos, but also an estimated 18,000 or so white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum), the black rhino’s bigger and more docile African counterpart. Although there are large numbers of both black and white rhinos in private ownership as well in South Africa, the Kruger, with its vast swathes of uninhabited bush and plentiful rhinos, has certainly borne the brunt of the onslaught and the numbers of rhinos poached during the past couple of years in South Africa are shocking. More than 1000 rhino deaths (mostly white rhinos) have been attributed directly to poaching annually since 2013, with the vast majority of the damage being done in Kruger.

Clearly, the scale of the slaughter is on a massive and unprecedented scale. In Kruger specifically, a massive, military-style operation is underway in an effort to stem the tide of poaching. Hard-pressed but motivated game rangers, with the help of the South African National Defence Force and Police Service, are engaged in an all-out bid to catch and prosecute poachers, preferably before they can reach the rhinos, and gun battles with well-armed and determined gangs of poachers are frequent occurrences. On some of the bigger private game reserves, massive amounts of money are being spent on conservation and protection programs.

In spite of this, the poaching still continues and the rhino numbers are slowly but steadily decreasing. Another complicating factor is that the price of rhino horns on the black market currently outstrips that of gold. It is therefore no surprise that there are endless supplies of young men in the rural areas of Zimbabwe and Mozambique who are willing to risk their lives in the illegal pursuit of rhinos. The money is there to be made and plenty of it, too.

What is the solution to the rhino poaching problem? I don’t know. Some are advocating education programs throughout Asia in an effort to inform and instruct would-be consumers of rhino horns and thus curbing the market somewhat right at the source. From what I could find out, these programs have been only moderately successful. Another source of much-needed funds for rhino conservation is the trophy hunting (at great cost) of selected individuals of both black and white rhinos in South Africa and Namibia. As confusing as the idea of hunting a highly threatened species may sound to some, it is a given fact that animals grow older and the hunting of a few carefully selected, older male animals past breeding age is a valuable source of income. Their harvesting has no detrimental impact on the rhino populations as a whole and is a wonderful testimony to the success of rhino conservation efforts in the private sector throughout South Africa and Namibia.

Others are advocating the legalisation of the trade in rhino horns, a solution which actually makes a lot of sense at first glance. Many African game departments have considerable stocks of rhino horns after years of collecting horns from either poached animals or those that died of natural causes. These could be sold in a controlled way and provide much-needed income. Also, rhino horns grow at quite a rate - provided the rhino who has to do the growing is kept alive, of course - and sedating a rhino for dehorning purposes every second year or so can provide another ready source of rhino horn, alien as the plan may sound.

However, the key lies in the word ‘controlled’. Who is going to do the actual controlling? I don’t know, but in countries like modern-day Zimbabwe, and even South Africa to a much lesser extent, it will require a super effort to keep such a scheme from becoming just another money-spinner for a few powerful individuals. As such, the idea of controlled trade in rhino horns still needs a bit of thought by intelligent individuals, I submit.

One thing is clear to me at this point, though. Something very, very drastic needs to be done in order to save the rhinos from total extinction in a really short time..

Postscript: With the exception of a very small population of black rhinos surviving in a particularly rugged area south of Lake Kariba, the Zambezi Valley in Zimbabwe is now totally devoid of rhinos. The last few surviving black rhinos were moved out of the Chiredzi River Conservancy a few years ago to safer areas after it became clear that their welfare could no longer be guaranteed. In Kruger National Park and other areas in South Africa with viable rhino populations, the fight continues daily in an effort to protect both of Africa’s rhino species.

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