Rhino rescue

It’s time to get tough as Africa’s rhinos are facing a new decline. Born Free joins the fight against rhino poaching

rhino_rescue01People all over the world recognise the rhinoceros. It is a creature found today on two continents in habitats ranging from jungle to desert. The rhino is a prehistoric survivor of the ice age, but is today threatened in all areas where it still occurs due to man’s growing demand for rhino horn. Some species, such as the Javan and Sumatran rhino populations in particular, are in danger of disappearing altogether (around 60 and 275 individuals respectively) and in Africa, two sub-species, the West African black rhino and the northern white rhino, have almost certainly become extinct in the last 25 years.

All too often we hear about the poaching of both black and white rhino. African governments and private landowners are putting measures in place that will protect these animals from the well organised and increasingly ruthless wildlife crime syndicates which, driven by demand, feed the lucrative illegal markets for rhino horn in the Far East, particularly in countries like Vietnam where rhino horn, made of the same substance as human finger-nails, is perceived to have medicinal properties.

The situation is most critical in South Africa, where the largest number of rhino reside, making these populations an obvious target. In 2012, 668 rhino were poached in South Africa, and the tally for this year seems set to surpass that grotesque number even before this article gets to press. Soon, we will almost certainly see rhino populations that have had the opportunity to recover in the 1980s and 1990s going into decline.

There is much heated debate regarding proposals from South Africa to seek international support for plans to sell their stocks of rhino horn (amassed as a result of poaching and natural mortality) through some kind of legalised market structure. Kenya is standing firm against the idea of trading in rhino horn, drawing on the experience of what the ‘controlled’ trade in ivory did to drive elephant poaching and the price of raw ivory to record levels as demand increased.

Rhino conservation in Kenya
rhino_rescue02Following the catastrophic decline of the black rhino population in Kenya from an estimated 20,000 in 1970 to fewer than 400 in the early 1980s, considerable amounts of money and resources have been invested across the country, aimed at saving the black rhino from extinction. In Kenya, the former national wildlife agency (WCMD), the precursor to the current Kenya Wildlife Service, embarked on a strategy to protect the remaining rhinos and support their breeding in specially protected areas called Sanctuaries. Many of these Sanctuaries were surrounded with electric fences and patrolled by specially trained rangers who conducted regular monitoring and surveillance of their precious inhabitants. This model posted immediate success and within five years the number of rhinos in such sanctuaries increased by an annual rate of 5% (births outnumbered deaths by 4 to 1), heralding a slow increase in rhino numbers. In the meantime, private landowners who had black rhinos on their properties were also encouraged to establish sanctuaries to boost the national rhino breeding effort. The target: to increase Kenya’s rhino population to 680 by the year 2000 and as quickly as possible thereafter to 2000 individuals.

At the end of 2012 Kenya’s rhino population was 1025 (Ben Okita, Head of Conservation Programmes, KWS). Kenyan rhinos are special not only as charismatic megaherbivores but because they represent the largest population of the black rhino subspecies Dicerosbicornis michaeli. In addition to Kenya’s black rhinos there are approximately 394 white rhinos, all in private sanctuaries except for two populations in the National Parks. The initial founder group of 20 white rhinos was imported from South Africa. In 1995, an additional 20 white rhinos were imported to boost the genetic diversity of these animals.

Despite achieving success in bringing some of Africa’s rhinos back from the brink of extinction, renewed demand for horn has become a major threat to the survival of all rhinos around the world. Horn is being acquired through poaching, through pseudo-hunts (which has allowed the acquisition of rhino horn as a result of bogus trophy hunting) and as a result of robberies from museums and private collections.

rhino_rescue03It is estimated that annually over 2% of Kenya’s rhino population were poached between 2009 and 2011 (KWS Rhino Strategy, 5th Edition) although the rate is even higher in South Africa. In addition, many Kenyan sanctuaries are now over-stocked and it is proving difficult to establish new, secure sanctuaries.

To contain the poaching menace and eliminate rhino poaching, the Kenyan government, through KWS, has had to embrace new approaches and methods. One example is KWS has formed an elite cross-service anti-poaching unit made up of both rangers and police and with the backing of the Parliamentary Service Unit. Mandatory vetting of all staff involved in rhino conservation has also been introduced to stamp out any vestiges of corruption.

In the longer term, rhinos in less secure areas are being relocated to more secure locations and rhino rangers are being trained in rhino protection skills. Law enforcement is also being backed up by dog units at ports of entry and exit in an effort to detect illegal wildlife products being smuggled out of Kenya. This is proving successful, as the recent arrest of a Vietnamese man in transit from Mozambique to Hong Kong with 20.1kg of rhino horn confirms. Furthermore, they are also initiating an awareness programme setting out the issues surrounding rhino poaching as well as creating synergies with the World Health Organisation and pharmaceutical companies to expose the myth that rhino horn has genuine medicinal properties.