By Geoffrey York
When a discreet “invitation to bid” advertisement appeared in a South African newspaper this month, it was a shocking admission of defeat by one of the world’s most famous wildlife reserves.
Unable to protect its rhinos from ruthless gangs of poachers, Kruger Park has decided to auction as many as 500 animals to the highest bidder – in “batches of 20 or more,” as the advertisement said. Rhinos are already being darted, captured and relocated to an “intensive protection zone” at a secret location inside the park, while others will be sold to private game farms that can offer greater security.
Poaching has skyrocketed in recent years, feeding an apparently insatiable demand for rhino horn in Asia, primarily in Vietnam. Poachers in South Africa killed more than 1,000 rhinos last year, a dramatic rise from barely a dozen in 2007, and the death toll this year seems likely to rise again, with more than 820 already killed.
On the streets of Vietnam, rhino horn can sell for $65,000 (U.S.) a kilogram, making it more valuable than gold. Kruger Park, a huge South African national park as big as Israel, has suffered the greatest losses to poachers. More than 530 of its estimated 9,000 rhinos have been killed by poachers this year alone.
Elsewhere in Africa and Asia, rhino populations are even more severely endangered. When the body of a northern white rhino named Suni was discovered in Kenya last Friday, it meant that only six of that endangered species were still alive. As recently as 1960, there were 2,000 northern white rhinos.
The cause of Suni’s death was unknown, although it did not appear to be poaching. But after decades of poaching of the rare species, 34-year-old Suni was one of just two breeding males still alive in the world.
“Consequently the species now stands at the brink of complete extinction, a sorry testament to the greed of the human race,” said a statement by the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, where Suni had lived.
Kenya is famed as the home of many of Africa’s greatest wildlife reserves, but the poaching of elephants and rhinos there has soared. Last year, 59 rhinos were killed by poachers in the country.
South Africa is the home of the world’s biggest rhino population, and many of Kenya’s rhinos are descended from rhinos that were translocated from South Africa. But its most celebrated reserve, Kruger Park, is located on the border with Mozambique, making it vulnerable to gangs of poachers who cross the border from South Africa’s impoverished neighbour, where trafficking routes to Asia have been established. About 15 poaching gangs are believed to enter the park every day in search of rhinos.
Some parts of Kruger have become almost a war zone, with frequent gun battles between poachers and rangers, often resulting in deaths. Over the past four days alone, 14 suspected poachers have been arrested there, bringing the total number of arrests to 113 in the park this year. On Saturday, one suspected poacher was killed and another was seriously wounded after they were discovered by police and park rangers, supported by a military aircraft.
Earlier arrests have revealed that some poaching syndicates have powerful connections to the upper levels of South African society. Among the alleged members of one syndicate were a police officer, a businessman, a pilot and an attorney.
Despite intensifying efforts to arrest poachers, the crisis is unlikely to end as long as the global trafficking rings are fuelled by Asian demand. Rhino horn has become a fashionable item in Vietnam, where affluent consumers flaunt it as a cure for cancer or even as a treatment for hangovers. Vietnam’s economic boom has created a fast-growing middle class, who see rhino horn as a status symbol.
In South Africa, some lobbyists want to legalize the sale of rhino horn, seeing legalization as a way to regulate the market and drive out criminal gangs. South Africa’s environment minister, Edna Molewa, has announced that she will study the legalization option, with a report due by March.
Critics suggest, however, that the government is motivated more by the potential $100-million bonanza if it is able to sell the 1,500 kilograms of rhino horn in its stockpiles. There are also concerns that legalization would reduce the price of rhino horn, fuelling demand from a whole new class of Asian consumers.
The alternative strategy is to reduce demand with education campaigns in key countries such as Vietnam. Over the past year, conservationists have paid for an advertising campaign on billboards and buses in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. A recent poll found a 25 per cent reduction in the number of Vietnamese who believe rhino horn has medicinal value.