The China Syndrome

(This article was originally published in The Horn, autumn 2014. Author: Save the Rhino Trust)

For many years, the last detected case of a Namibian illegally hunted desert-adapted black rhino occurred in 1994 in the north-west of the country. Two suspects were arrested and spent a couple of years in prison. Since then, with help from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET), Save the Rhino Trust (SRT) and local communities, the rhino population in the Kunene and Erongo Regions of Namibia has grown and dispersed over the species’ entire range.

 In September 2011, this encouraging scenario changed when a young male rhino was found in a snare deliberately set for a rhino. The illegal poachers had done their homework, possibly having observed the movement of the mother and calf for a while, then setting the snare on the game trail the animals were using to and from the natural spring. Fortunately a second snare, set for the female rhino, was removed before it could do any harm by a joint SRT and Community Game Guard patrol.

This incident was followed by the shocking illegal hunting of a cow and six-month-old calf around Christmas 2012. The female rhino had been shot once, her horns surgically removed, indicating that the suspect had done this before. The six-month old female calf spent nearly five days with its mother before help arrived, and unfortunately she died due to severe dehydration during the transport to safety. With a bit of luck and help from the local community, the culprit was arrested with the horns, and the bullet point retrieved was matched to the rifle confiscated. On 20 August 2014, the poacher was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for the illegal hunt of a protected game species, without the option of a fine; fined N$ 10,000 or three years for possession; N$ 7,000 or one year for illegal possession of a firearm; and a further N$ 1,000 or six months for the illegal possession of ammunition.

In 2013 Namibia experienced a sharp increase in the illegal hunting of rhino and possession of horns, losing two white rhino (the female was pregnant) on privately owned land, one desert black rhino on a privately owned rhino custodian farm and one black rhino in the north-west of Namibia. In two cases, nine suspects have been arrested and one set of horns was recovered.

Namibia has lost 14 rhinos within the first nine months of 2014: 12 desert black rhino on communal custodian land and two white rhino on privately owned land, Another three desert-black rhino have been wounded, but were successfully treated by a MET veterinarian and translocated to safety. Though no suspects have been arrested so far, two sets of horns have been secured. Customs and Airport Police successfully intercepted 14 horns from seven individual desert black rhino and one white rhino, packed in two suitcases destined for Hong Kong. Three Chinese nationals were arrested and are still in custody. Another Chinese national was arrested during a sting operation trying to obtain rhino horn on the black market. All the Chinese nationals were denied bail by the state, and remain in custody.

In all cases, there has been good co-operation and strong will by government agencies, supporting NGOs and the private sector to try to stop, or at least minimise, the crime syndicates targeting Namibia’s wildlife.