Poaching crisis in South Africa

For up to date rhino poaching figures, please visit our Poaching - The Statistics page

The South African situation

(A version of this article was originally published in The Horn, spring 2011. Author: Jo Shaw, Programme Officer - Large Mammal Trade, TRAFFIC East/Southern Africa office)

South Africa is viewed as the primary custodian of Africa’s rhinos. With 18,796 white rhinos and 1,916 black rhinos as of last estimates at the end of 2010, this represents approximately 93% and 40% of the total white and black rhino populations respectively. In recent years poaching levels have soared, and the current crisis is creating debates worldwide about the best way to tackle illegal poaching.

Background

The unwavering commitment shown towards rhinoceros conservation and diligent investment in protection and monitoring meant that South Africa largely escaped the first terrifying wave of rhino poaching that occurred throughout the rest of Africa prior to the mid-1990s. The recovery of the white rhino population from somewhere between 20 and 50 individuals in KwaZulu-Natal in the early 1900s to the current global population of over 20,000 animals is one of the great conservation success stories and perhaps partly explains the deep emotional attachment and pride that many South Africans feel for their rhinos.

One of the acknowledged reasons for South Africa’s past rhino conservation success has been the strong alliance between private and public sector players. Indeed, approximately 20-25% of rhinos in South Africa are now privately owned, a larger number than currently persists in the majority of former rhino range states. A significant incentive for private ownership of rhinos has been the potential for income generation via trophy hunting. Sport hunting of white rhino started in 1968 at a time there were only 1,800 animals and has continued with an average of approximately 50 animals hunted per year ever since. Traditionally, white rhino trophy hunts have been sold primarily to international hunting clients from the United States and Europe for roughly £20,000 each.

Sources of rhino horn

However, from the mid-2000s something changed relating to the demand for rhino horn from Asia, which has placed rhinos throughout Africa increasingly under attack. In South Africa, rhino horn has been sourced in at least three ways. One of the first indicators of this change was the increasing number of hunters from Asia taking part in trophy hunts of white rhino, or “pseudo-hunting” as it has become known. As white rhinos in South Africa were placed on the Appendix II listing of CITES in 1994 with special exemption for sport hunting, export of hunting trophies remained a legal mechanism for the international movement of rhino horn. It has been noted that these hunters were generally unskilled and inexperienced and prepared to shoot even young female rhinos as long as they came away with a horn.

Secondly, there have been a spate of thefts and armed robberies of rhino horns from stockpiles on game reserves and museums throughout South Africa and this crime has also shown a dramatic rise in Europe and the US. Since 2007, at least 65 horns have been stolen in South Africa and around 50 internationally.

Rhino poaching

However, the most disturbing trend has been the horrific increase in poaching of rhinos in South Africa. Prior to 2006, illegal killing of rhinos was being maintained at consistently low levels. Since 2008, rhino poaching in South Africa has skyrocketed year on year, culminating in a total of 448 rhinos killed in 2011. The face of rhino poaching has also changed, with trusted wildlife industry professionals adding to the ranks of the more traditional poaching demographic. Unfortunately, there is no indication that the rhino poaching crisis is coming under control, as rhino deaths continue apace despite the government responses to combat poaching, including the deployment of Army personnel along the border between Kruger National Park and Mozambique.

Response

The South African Department of Environmental Affairs has made several legislative changes in response to the threats to rhinos. In July 2008, a National Moratorium was placed on rhino horn sales to try and prevent domestic sales of rhino horn from entering the illegal international market. Stricter regulations on the marking of rhino horn and on trophy hunting of white rhinos were introduced in 2009 to try and clamp down on leakage of rhino horn from South Africa and draft amendments to combat identified loopholes were produced in September 2011.

South African citizens and private owners of rhinos are also developing a range of increasingly innovative approaches to make rhinos less attractive to poachers, including dehorning as well as newer ideas such as introducing dye or even poison into rhino horns. However, these methods have limited applicability and huge cost implications for utilization on the largest and most important populations for conservation. Furthermore, the sad death of a white rhino during the demonstration of the horn dyeing technique at the Rhino and Lion Park in Johannesburg in January 2012 highlights the risks inherent in any activities requiring immobilization.

There is a huge groundswell of public concern and support to combat rhino poaching in South Africa. However, with over 150 organizations now actively involved in their own efforts to address this problem, there is concern over lack of integration and duplication of effort, when what is needed is a strategic response.

What next?

In January 2012, the Portfolio Committee on Water and Environmental Affairs called a Parliamentary Hearing in Cape Town to discuss rhino poaching. The meeting was attended by a range of government and provincial representatives as well as NGOs and concerned individuals. There were several common threads, including the need for better communication and collaboration between government departments and improved permitting and database systems for live rhinos and rhino horn stockpiles. Although there have been a number of recent breakthroughs, there is also a need for increased number of arrests, prosecutions and stiffer sentencing, preferably mandatory imprisonment for rhino crimes. Many of the participants expressed concerns about capacity shortages and constraints to achieve the above and combat the poaching threat. However, the issue of whether to legalise international trade in rhino horn took centre stage.

Some were against any form of sustainable utilization of wildlife, including sale of any rhinos by National Parks, and called for all rhino horn stockpiles to be destroyed or proposed the donation of rhino horn stockpiles in South Africa to Asia. Others, including the private sector but also state representatives such as EKZNW, wanted the government to push for the opening of international trade in rhino horn. The debate about whether legalizing international trade in rhino horn could be part of the solution to rhino poaching in South Africa is growing in intensity and becoming increasingly emotional and polarized between strong pro- and anti-factions. Whether the South Africa government will decide that it can convince the international community at CITES and submit a proposal for legal trade for the next Conference of the Parties in Bangkok in March 2013 remains to be seen. However, such debates should not detract from what is the most immediate issue at hand – stemming the increasing tide of illegal killing of rhinos in the world.

Graph credit TRAFFIC

(21) Comments

  • Roy Villanis
    13 November 2012, 08:40

    http://mg.co.za/article/2012-11-08-rhino-butchers-caught-on-film/
    This tragic 'kill for fun' MUST be stopped.
    Harry Claassens runs his organisation http://harryclaassenssafaris.com/ which promotes safari holidays to hunt 'trophy species' including Rhino, Giraffe, Zebra and Elephant. Please help raise awareness of this and bring due shame and legal judgement on the perpetrators of this.
    Thank you.

  • Justin
    17 December 2012, 18:04

    Help me hunt a poacher:
    http://www.rhinodrone.co.za
    and
    http://www.facebook.com/RhinoDrone

  • edlin naidoo
    19 July 2013, 12:02

    Hi there

    My daughter made this clip to help save rhinos.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wgLSRDEtE9s

    Regards

    Edlin

    082 997 4390 ( south Africa )

  • ryan
    22 August 2013, 12:06

    i design car stickers for a living and i have noticed that car stickers are becoming more trendy and vogue among south african motorists,so i have designed cute rubber rhino shaped car stickers,to raise more awareness on anti rhino poaching and am looking for anti rhino poaching organisations/individuals who might be interested i could make more stickers for them if they want
    my number is0832187223

  • Anonymous commenter
    05 September 2013, 00:18

    Me and my partner are doing poaching in rhinos and some of the information is just gutting.......

  • zanele
    18 September 2013, 10:03

    I'm doing my second year in nature conservation and I think its just sad that our future generations may not see what a Rhino looked like. More awareness should be raised...

  • Anonymous commenter
    28 September 2013, 15:58

    Sometimes I feel why do people do these things and the fact that that these poor animals may become extinct upsets me

  • Anonymous commenter
    12 October 2013, 13:00

    When you cant sleep at night with full moon, when you fear to open your newspaper or email, this is what effect it has on me. Now what about the rhino, what pain does it go through. Please God, let this stop

  • Anonymous commenter
    27 January 2014, 21:00

    We should definitely save the rhinos!!! I love rhinos!!! My favorite player from the LA Rhinos is Kobe Bryant!! Basketball is my fav!! GO L.A. RHINOS!!! WOO KOBE NUMBA 1!!

  • Ky Pulvermacher
    01 February 2014, 15:51

    Is it too costly to use drones to track the poacher's movements? More public awareness is needed both here and worldwide, especially in Asia? People need to be educated! Rhino horn does not cure cancer.

  • Tayquannegh J'Colberg
    03 February 2014, 20:21

    Anonymous commenter from January 27, 2014. Kobe Bryant does not play for the L.A. rhinos, he def plays for the Wisconsin Wombats, so plz get your facts straight before you sound stupid. #KobeFoLyf

  • Martin Meyer
    09 February 2014, 17:12

    Something that concerns me is that we very seldom see where all the donated money is going from all these organisations.

  • Save the Rhino
    12 February 2014, 14:14

    Hi Martin
    You can read more about how Save the Rhino's fundraising is used on the grants section of our website http://www.savetherhino.org/grants

  • Anonymous save
    23 March 2014, 18:48

    save the rhinos and elephants peeps!

  • Lorna
    27 April 2014, 11:04

    Would it not be better to put all the stock piles of ivory from various countries into the market for sale. Surely this would stop the employing of poaches to butcher animals for their horns.

  • Shania
    01 May 2014, 13:17

    Okay, so Rhino horns consist of mainly hair and keratin, the same material that your fingernails are made of. A Rhino horn technically is not a horn. Horns are connected to an animal by blood vessels, and antlers are not. The Rhino horn is more like an antler because if it is cut off it doesn't cause extreme pain or excessive bleeding. So in response to the crisis in South Africa, I think that if people were more educated on that they would know that they don't necessarily have to kill the Rhino to acquire it's "horn".

  • Anonymous commenter
    08 May 2014, 18:22

    wow rhino horns are really consist of hair and keratin.I am doing a debate at school for orals about rhinos.Thanks for the info!

  • brunn kramer
    03 July 2014, 17:16

    Hi,I am a Fine Arts student and did several paintings on Rhino poaching,its my way of motivating my fellow peers to take interest in this shamefull topic if anyone like,you can check out my pictures on my facebook...my number is 0724441840

  • Richard
    23 July 2014, 01:58

    2 ideas that could help...dogs able to sniff out horn and ivory at transports points internationally. A campaign (in countries who are driving demand ) to "shame" for lack of a better word in much the same way fur has become les socially acceptable

  • Nigel Perera
    25 July 2014, 13:36

    This is such a sad & terrible tragedy, as the years go by it just keeps getting worse. These beautiful wild animals don't deserve to be treated like this. It is just absolutely disgusting. I reckon they will all be wiped in the next few months/years to come,but if the South African Government can keep with their current ongoing laws and give the poachers what they deserve. A lot more security is needed around National Parks and Wildlife Conservation facilities where many rhinos maybe grazing around & this can be a good target for these sick minded people. I could probably go and on, but I will say this: Please everyone, get behind this worthy cause and join to help put and end to illegal rhino poaching.

  • Doug
    01 October 2014, 10:27

    its seems most of the rhino poaching is done in the Kruger National Park.
    I feel the answer is to set up one or two small army bases in the park, of the tourist track so that response to these attacks can be immediate.
    1 it will deter these poachers
    2 give our paid defense force members something constructive to do.
    Doug

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