Approximately 5,000 black rhinos exist in the wild, making them one of the most critically endangered species on the planet.
BY JENNIFER LADD | PHOTOS BY JOEL ALVES
Every critically endangered animal in the world has its own story of habitat loss, human interference and the effects of climate change, but the African rhino story is one marked by the darkness of humankind. It’s one I’ve witnessed firsthand as a veterinarian working with wildlife organizations in South Africa.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, approximately 5,000 black rhinos exist in the wild, making them one of the most critically endangered species on the planet. Their relative, the southern white rhino is near threatened with numbers estimated around 20,000, while the last male northern white rhino died in March—only two females remain in the world.
The rhino horn, a keratin protrusion not unlike a human fingernail, is an ever- growing part of a rhino’s silhouette. It’s value is in its surmised, and disproved, Eastern medicinal properties—from strengthening male vitality to treating fevers and convulsions—and as a status symbol for the wealthy.
Its harvest and sale has grown into a global crisis compounded by corruption; products from the underground trade often being funneled from Africa into illegal markets in China and Vietnam. In 2014, the value of rhino horn was estimated at $60,000 per kilogram, meaning that a single horn can be valued up to $240,000. Its value per kilogram exceeds that of gold or cocaine.
South Africa is home to 80 percent of the African rhino population, and seems to be the epicenter of the poaching crisis, although the practice is spreading throughout the continent. The harvest and sale of rhino horns has been illegal in South Africa since a national moratorium was enacted in 2008, but the crisis has still intensified.
As Asian markets primarily drive the demand for rhino horn, syndicates mobilize the collection and trade, and African poachers on the ground are seeing more money in a day than they can expect to see in a lifetime, according to Dr. Joel Alves, a South African veterinarian with Wildlife Vets. Although the poaching rate slowed slightly between 2015 and 2017 the rates remain unsustainable if we hope to save these populations.
"If you have a population worrying about … the most basic of human needs, how can we expect them to worry about conservation?"
Several tactics have been used to reduce poaching, some with more positive effects than others. Globally, teaching potential consumers about the lack of scientific proof of medicinal value can help to decrease sales. This does not, however, impact purchases of rhino horn as a status symbol or for their investment potential. On the ground, it’s about demonstrating the value of the living animals on the landscape for the sake of biodiversity—or at least the economic benefits from ecotourism.
“The under-privileged, impoverished population needs to see a benefit to keeping rhinos alive,” Alves said. “You can only do that, with massive effect, in the younger generations. … Communities need to see the economical value of wildlife directly.”
Alves says the conservation of rhinos depends on providing basic human necessities for the communities that coexist in the animals’ habitat, such as job creation, school and infrastructure construction, health care, and safe drinking water.
“If you have a population worrying about … the most basic of human needs, how can we expect them to worry about conservation?” he said.
The practice of safe dehorning has become a common management strategy to deter poachers. Utilizing wildlife veterinarians to safely sedate rhinos, their horns are removed as low as possible without cutting into the blood supply. It’s a painless procedure, and not unlike trimming a dog’s toenails. Each horn is then micro chipped, cataloged and stored under tight security.
Although this seems to deter most poachers, the small amount of horn left behind during this process is still valuable enough to attract poachers, and some rhinos lose their lives over a few inches of horn.
John Hume, an owner of more than 1,500 rhinos in South Africa, has attempted to overturn the 2008 moratorium on rhino horn sales. According to National Geographic magazine, in 2017, Hume had acquired a 6-ton stockpile of horns, all removed in an attempt to ward off poachers from targeting his animals. His security budget, which includes the practice of safe dehorning, currently exceeds $170,000 monthly.
Hume believes that by flooding the market with his stockpile of rhino horn, the price and value can be driven down globally. This is a highly controversial approach to the crisis, and many believe there is a fine line between apparent conservation and further corruption.
The planet’s biodiversity is fundamental to ecological balance and global health, and removing one link in the chain can have catastrophic ecological effects that still aren’t fully understood.
Other conservation tactics include increased anti-poaching training on game reserves. Heightened security, improved surveillance, and tactical training are thought to serve as deterrents to poachers. Since 2014, Kruger National Park has experienced a 24-percent reduction in poaching by using a combination of these strategies, although it seems to have simply shifted the problem to other, less equipped regions of South Africa.
In addition, tactically trained game rangers are an effective deterrent, but once a horn is removed and leaves a game reserve jurisdiction, it becomes a shared responsibility between national, provincial and private sectors, which can be difficult. This can be further complicated by corruption spread throughout many levels of government.
According to South Africa’s National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act, captured poachers can face conviction for a variety of charges. Fines range from a minimum of $11,000 to three times the animal’s value, and up to five years in prison. Although stiffer fines and longer prison sentences have been handed to some poachers and traffickers, many believe this is still an inadequate deterrent.
“A poacher works on a risk/rewards basis,” Alves said. “The risk of poaching is apparently minimal if the chances of capture and jail are small. Yet the rewards are absolutely astronomical to them.” Many in the conservation community believe rangers should be given the authority to shoot to kill. “The risk needs to be greater,” Alves added. “Poachers need to know that not only may they be captured, but [that they] could very well be killed.”
This is a conservation crisis seen through both a macro and micro lens. On a global scale, we are rushing a species to its extinction due to greed, misguided understanding, and a general lack of humanity. On a more intimate scale, the devastation is palpable. In 2015, Alves was working in KwaZulu-Natal Game Reserves when two rhinos were reported killed on World Rhino Day, which is observed on September 22. Two dead rhinos became seven, all poached in a single day, and a total of 18 perished within the week.
“A massacre of rhinos ironically started on a day that was supposed to celebrate them,” Alves said. “It was one of the worst weeks in the history of the KwaZulu-Natal parks and essentially marked the beginning of what, to this day, is still a massive increase in poaching in the KZN parks.”
In 2011, I aided in the rescue of an orphaned rhino calf whose mother had been poached. The site was grim when we arrived. The fully-grown female lay where she fell, surrounded by her own blood. Indications pointed to a slow death through blood loss, and an ill-placed gunshot wound.
Once we found the young rhino calf tucked under a bush frightened, alone and hungry, we discovered he was blind—a condition not uncommon to severe trauma.
Another young rhino I helped rescue in 2013 would grow with a bullet lodged in his pelvis, the same bullet that had slain his mother while he was standing next to her. He was later killed for a few inches of horn within the security of a rehabilitation center.
The planet’s biodiversity is fundamental to ecological balance and global health, and removing one link in the chain can have catastrophic ecological effects that still aren’t fully understood. Humans have an unrivaled capacity to save, modify or destroy resources and species diversity—the path we take will determine what’s left of this magnificent Earth for future generations.
While nearly 10,000 miles lie between South Africa and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, as citizens of the world, responsibility falls on us all to help tip the scales toward protection and conservation of our global diversity.
A veterinarian with a primary interest in wildlife conservation, Jennifer Ladd’s writing is inspired by her many adventures abroad, from rehabilitating chimpanzees in Zambia and studying parasites in elephant seals, to dehorning rhinos is South Africa. Most comfortable as a nomad, she’s planted roots in Big Sky, where she and her daughter Riley are planning their next adventures.