Finding Ways to Conserve Rhinos

I’m driving north on the N6 from South Africa’s Eastern Cape, where I did a story on a survivor of rhino poaching and her new calf.

The survivor’s story of hope presents a chance to smile in the otherwise miserable situation for South African rhinos, which are getting wiped out faster than they can recover.

The Johannesburg leg of my research is almost in reach. Often it’s Johannesburg where a local poacher, Vietnamese rhino horn courier or sham hunter might wind up in court or jail.

From the N6 that slices like a sharp knife through vast grassy farmlands I finally reach Johannesburg’s conveyor belt of motorways, exits and onramps, with about 15ks to go to the inner city.

My trusty GPS steers me through names like NI, MI, R346. The electronic voice then directs me into more homely streets like Menton Rd and Fourth Lane, but it doesn’t feel like home, because at the traffic lights young black beggars walk down the white lines.

My car windows go up, the doors lock centrally. Valuables get slewed away.  It’s dark.

At the first intersection a young man carries a sign saying, “I keep this crossway spotless and free of crime.”

The guy at the next turn is flat-out poverty stricken, the next guy is juggling. He has rags on his body and flowers painted on his chin.

They all come to my closed window asking for money.

Warnings to take care have been pretty regular. Electric fences and locked gates and doors are evidence of bad experiences and fear.

“Don’t walk down the streets at night.”

It’s a country with a lot of crime, with severity varying in different areas from petty to violent.

Rhinos also would do well to heed the warnings if only they could understand.

“Don’t walk in the open at night, especially when the moon is bright.”

Full moons are high alerts for the game reserves.

The syndicates take advantage of low wages to recruit staff in the game reserves and national parks to supply them with information of the whereabouts of rhinos. They take advantage of poverty to recruit men from neighbouring townships or sometimes local gang members to be the foot soldiers or couriers.

It’s like a war. Forty poachers were killed last year and spies are everywhere. Trust in the rhino conservation game is as rare as survivors of poaching because the horn commands such a huge price. Talk isn’t cheap.

Stakeholders don’t share much information because they don’t know who in the authorities they can trust, let alone in their own organisations.

The syndicates are always approaching people. Recruiting.

Wildlife is farmed in South Africa. There is big money involved. Wild animals are bred and auctioned.

Huge disparities exist. The gap between the classes is vast. The middle class and the poor live in distinctly different classes of dwellings. Big houses in the city with impressive security contrast with houses in nearby townships that are makeshift with bricks holding down their roofs instead of comprising their walls. Other townships are orderly rows of small boxes. On the Wild Coast south of Durban many communities seem to grow out of the grass. The small highways carry more walkers than cars. White and black cultures and beliefs deviate from each other strongly.

In my interviews one guy says, “South Africa can’t even get on top of murder and rape, so what chance has rhino poaching got.”

It’s not as dangerous as it sounds but you have to be careful.

It’s a fascinating country full of extremes. Its history of controversy isn’t over.

The times here have created a perfect storm for the rhino horn trade with Vietnam:

Since the end of Apartheid in ‘94 South Africa’s exceptional conservation record has taken a battering because of the reduction in wildlife enforcement and increased corruption;

After decades of recovering, while the rest of Africa’s rhino population was getting decimated, SA rhino populations are strong again, so rhinos are relatively easy for poachers to find and kill compared to anywhere else in Africa;

The rhino horn trade tends to follow pockets of new wealth and Vietnam is an emerging tiger economy with an aspirational demand;

South Africa’s borders are massive, making border protection difficult. Plus more corruption and less enforcement in neighbouring countries provide easy opportunities for smugglers;

Kruger National Park, the world’s stronghold for Southern White Rhino, spans three countries and is so vast that nobody will hear a gunshot;

China is building a lot of infrastructure in Africa and there’s an influx of Chinese workers creating a new conduit for rhino horn between Africa and Asia.

So what can be done? The approach needs to be multifaceted and the polarisation between the conservation stakeholders and the syndicates and the consumers in Vietnam needs to soften to allow for dialogue.

Investigators talk of catching the kingpins but they have to catch them red-handed. NGOs and the government talk about demand reduction campaigns. Game Reserves pay anti-poaching teams and dehorn their rhinos. The Private Rhino Owners Association is meeting to discuss legalising the trade to take away the moral hazard and secure their investments. Prosecutors are calling for better Vietnamese translation services. The list goes on…

The Southern White Rhino species have survived crises before. In the 60s, one of the ancients of South African rhino conservation, Ian Player, pioneered techniques to translocate rhino, saving them from the very brink. China successfully clamped down on demand for horn in the 80s. Unsustainable horn use in Yemen slipped off the radar because the country was torn by conflict.

What worked then might or might not work again, but there’s hope and there’s symbols of hope in the rhino poaching survivor and her calf.

At the moment the solution is lost out there somewhere in all the vastness of Kruger, the sea of struggling humanity that surrounds it, the unreachable syndicate kingpins and the infinite mystery of Vietnam.

Somewhere a road forward exists, a trusty GPS to guide the effort, to bring the right people together so the rhinos can survive this crisis.


Photo by Mic Smith. A rhino calf in the Eastern Cape. The game reserve will cut the horn off as a safe guard against poaching.


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