2004: “Is rhino poaching under control in Africa?”

2004: “Is rhino poaching under control in Africa?”

– Taz Watson

Whilst flipping through an old African Geographic from 2004, I noticed an article written entitled “Is rhino poaching under control in Africa?”  Of course I was going to read it. I found this fascinating – an article written almost a decade ago about the very issue that we are battling right now.

Baby RunThe article talks about the poaching devastation that erupted in the 1970’s and 80’s, which resulted in the near obliteration of black and white rhino populations in Africa. Remarkably, these populations managed to rise considerably from then to 2004, proving that the conservation efforts during that period were valuable and effective. This, however, was to be a short-lived success. Here we are again, the third poaching crisis that South Africa has seen, but the worst one yet. We will be lucky if we come out of this one like we did in the past.

It stunned me when I read that thirty-six rhinos were killed in a period of a year (between 2002 and 2003). What was remarkable was how low this figure seemed to me. Thirty-six rhinos killed is thirty-six rhinos too many. However, it is only half way through 2013 and we have already seen well over 500 rhinos brutally slaughtered for their horns. How did this problem escalate so quickly, and why did we not stop it before it turned into a fully-fledged war?

Poachers will go to extreme lengths to get their hands on this lucrative ‘trophy’. With their outstanding bush-skills, many of these poachers move unhindered and undetected through the bush, making them extremely difficult to catch. Additionally, many of the poachers will see more money from this one-time act than they might ordinarily see in their entire lives. Additionally, there is so little at risk and so much to gain. The temptation is just too large.

A major problem in the war on rhino poaching is that it is not just the poachers on ground level that we need to deter and prosecute; it’s far more complex than that. The web of criminal activity is so intricate and so dense that it will take a lot more than just ground-level protection to win this war. We are dealing with highly organized international crime syndicates.  These are the same people that are dealing in drugs, arms smuggling, and human trafficking. They have a whole criminal economy – wildlife and rhino horn has merely become a commodity that gets plugged into this economy. Our war is thus a lot larger than just the rhino horn trade. Furthermore, recent intelligence has shown that the rhino horn trade is funding global terrorism. There is very clear evidence of this in Mozambique and Asian terrorist groups. In Julian Rademeyer’s book, Killing for Profit, he quotes Blondie Laetham, who was at the forefront of Zimbabwe’s rhino wars for thirty years. He explains, “killing poachers doesn’t achieve anything. There are so many poor guys out there and criminal elements that are prepared to take the risk to make quick bucks. No matter how many of them you shoot or arrest, you’ll never stop it. The only way is to cull the market. You have got to get the guys at the top,” (p22).

Unfortunately it is not just rhino that we are at war with. Whole, live animals and animal products (skins, horns, scales, teeth, bones etc.) are being stolen from the wild and illegally shipped all over the world. Our reptiles, amphibians, insects and plant populations are at equal risk of becoming extinct. It has become so bad, that the wildlife trade is now believed to be equal to the drug trade. It has a higher reward, with a much lower risk. In the drug trade your chances of getting caught are much higher and, as it is seen as a much more serious crime, the penalties are huge. For wildlife trading, the rewards are huge and the risks are minimal. It’s therefore understandable why this illegal trade has suddenly skyrocketed. Again, the temptation is just too great.


Africa Geographic, April 2004. P32. Is rhino poaching under control in Africa?

Julian Rademeyer, 2012. Killing for Profit. (Cape Town: Zebra Press).

6 thoughts on “2004: “Is rhino poaching under control in Africa?”

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