By Melanie Gosling
Cape Town - The number of rhino killed in South Africa to feed the rocketing multibillion-dollar illegal horn trade has reached 1 020 to date – a figure already higher than the 1 004 killed last year.
This is more than three rhino killed in the country every day.
The bulk of the deaths – 672 – were in the Kruger National Park, home to the largest population of rhino in the world.
Experts say if current poaching trends continue for the remainder of the year, another 200 rhino could fall to poachers’ guns, bringing the total death toll to a possible 1 220. But they say there is some comfort in the fact that this year’s rhino deaths are unlikely to see a 50 percent increase on last year, which has been the pattern in the past two years.
The number of arrests in connection with rhino poaching to date is 344, not much of an increase from last year’s 343 – but double the 165 arrests made in 2010.
Jo Shaw, manager of WWF-SA’s rhino programme, said the latest statistics were disheartening, particularly as the trend indicated that the country was on track to lose another 200 this year.
“But if there is any cold comfort in this, it is that the rate of increase this year on last year is not as high as it has been. The previous two years have seen a 50 percent increase year on year. But that said, we are still on track to lose another 200 this year, so we certainly have not got to a good news point yet.”
The government and NGOs have said the battle against the illegal rhino horn trade has no one solution and would not be easy to halt, particularly given the sophisticated international criminal syndicates’ involvement and the fact that the fashion for using rhino horn in Vietnam shows no sign of abating. It is used particularly by Vietnam’s nouveau riche businessmen, who, according to research by the WWF, buy it as a sign of status, and to impress colleagues and associates.
David Newton, regional director of Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring network run jointly by the WWF and International Union for Conservation of Nature, said the organisation had prepared itself for a 10-year battle.
“That’s the time span we’re looking at to fight this battle, our view of how long it will take. We’ve prepared ourselves for the long haul. No one thought it would be easy to overcome. South Africa is fighting only one part of the problem, but there are other initiatives all over the world, such as trying to reduce demand. Changing hearts and minds doesn’t happen overnight,” Newton said.
“We’re trying to get the receiving countries – Vietnam and China – to up their game. There is a lot other governments can do. Vietnam needs to be a lot more proactive in its law enforcement.”
Traffic and the WWF had staff in Hong Kong working on the rhino-poaching issues on several fronts. It had launched advertising campaigns to try to convince wealthy businessmen that “real success” came from their own achievements, not from buying rhino horn.
Would the rhino population, still increasing in South Africa, be able to survive the poaching onslaught for another decade – the time NGOs believe it will take to crush demand and break the illegal trade.
“The people who do the number-crunching on rhino populations say it’s coming very close to the tipping point. The populations are still there, but it’s coming very close to the rhino’s reproduction rates. As soon as the killing exceeds reproduction, we’re in trouble,” Newton said.
On the home front, South Africa had stepped up its anti-poaching programme. The Department of Environmental Affairs said the government was implementing an integrated strategic approach, which included interventions aimed at disrupting crime syndicates. The combined action of SANParks, the police, SANDF, provincial conservation and security officials had resulted in an increased number of arrests.
Environment Minister Edna Molewa said: “Poaching has continued to escalate, while various multi-faceted interventions are being implemented by South Africa. We are concerned that poaching is part of a multibillion-dollar worldwide illicit wildlife trade. Addressing the scourge is not simple.”
An “intensive protection zone” in Kruger had been created, and the anti-poaching team was working with new technology and extensive intelligence gathering.