By Scott C. Johnson
Heavily armed conservationists are fighting to save the world’s remaining rhinos. A dispatch from the front lines of South Africa's poaching wars.
SABI SANDS GAME RESERVE, South Africa — Conraad de Rosner steps into the shade of a large marula tree and stops. Signaling with his right hand, he whispers a low command -- "put" -- and Landa, a 4-year-old Weimaraner, and Anubis, a young German shepherd in training, obediently lie down, taking refuge from the African heat. De Rosner peers through the bushveld -- swales of sandy granite below thick bushes of silver-leafed terminalia and round-leafed teak -- toward an electric fence that rhinoceros poachers regularly try to breach. From the other side of the wire comes the sound of a chain saw and human voices. He leans into the noise and listens for a moment, holding his ears forward and monitoring the dogs' response to the nearby activity. The faraway men, it turns out, are just loggers. Satisfied, the conservationist cradles his elephant gun, a long, single-barreled Remington rifle that fires a 2-inch round, and moves off into the bush, the dogs bounding ahead.
South Africa is home to roughly 80 percent of the world's remaining rhinos, which number about 20,405 white rhinos and 5,055 black rhinos, according to conservation group Save the Rhino. But that population is in danger of imminent collapse due to a recent, dramatic increase in poaching. This is fueled by Asia's reinvigorated appetite for the animal's horn, prized for its alleged curative properties and mark of wealth; rampant corruption in South Africa; and soaring international prices on the black market. As a result, there is a multimillion-dollar global conservation war that stretches across southern Africa. And de Rosner is a mere foot soldier in the battle against these nighttime killers. "We do something -- they adapt. They do something -- we adapt," he says, squinting in the midday heat. "They're watching us as much as we're watching them."
De Rosner runs K9 Conservation, a company that exclusively targets the rhino poachers around the Singita Game Reserve, inside the Sabi Sands Game Reserve, a plot of private land that shares an open border with Kruger National Park. Nowhere in the world is the battle fiercer than in and around Kruger, 20,000 square kilometers of rough wilderness in the northeast corner of South Africa. About half the world's white rhinos are found here in this one park, while other subspecies are scattered in small pockets of Asia and East Africa or in private reserves, game farms, and zoos. And though not yet endangered, white rhinos are being poached so aggressively in South Africa today that most experts agree the species could face extinction in about 10 to 20 years if anti-poaching efforts don't succeed.
More than 1,000 animals were killed for their horns in 2013 -- that's about 4 percent of the population and roughly four times as many as those poached cumulatively between 1980 and 2007. This year, more than 400 had been brought down by June. Now, park rangers estimate, two to three rhino horns enter the black market each day. "The illegal wildlife trade is huge business," says Simon Morgan, director of Wildlife Act, a conservation NGO that works on protecting rhinos in South Africa. "But we are getting hammered on the rhino poaching. There are teams out there with radios and guns, and they're having hot contact on a daily basis. It's hectic."
De Rosner couldn't agree more. "Tourists come here and enjoy the beautiful bush and look at all the pretty animals," he says, "but what they don't know is that there is a full-blown insurgency going on here. This is a war to save a species from extinction."
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For millions of years, herds of rhinos roamed across Africa. The San, the original inhabitants of South Africa, created elegant rock paintings and engravings depicting rhinos as far back as 25,000 years ago. But over the past century, rhino numbers have risen and fallen as wars, insurgencies, hunting, and poaching have all taken their toll. Black rhinos, which once inhabited large swaths of north and central Africa, are critically endangered, and one subspecies, the western black rhinoceros, went extinct in 2011.
In the late 1950s, poaching and hunting had reduced South Africa's rhino population to just 437 animals -- all of which had been herded into one 72,000-acre site that was much too small to sustain an entire population. The number of white rhinos dipped into the low hundreds; these plodding, docile creatures roam in open spaces, which make them easy targets. But conservationist Ian Player set out to change that in the Umfolozi game reserve (now the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi) in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal province. His scheme was fairly straightforward: He shipped some rhinos abroad, including to the United States, and sent others to South Africa's own game farms, where they could mate all year in safe conditions. Against the odds, it worked. By the late 1960s, rhino numbers in South Africa had quadrupled to 1,800.
But in the 1970s and '80s, as insurgency and later civil war raged in Angola, soldiers got involved in the trade, decimating local rhino stocks again. And during the apartheid era, the South African National Defense Force was implicated in widespread poaching abuses. Farmers and game-park owners also took their share of the horns and sold them on the black market. Yet despite all this, about 14,000 rhinos populated the country in the early 2000s, and poaching seemed, more or less, to be under control.
All of this changed in 2003, when the South African government made a critical blunder: It allowed 10 legal rhino hunts to take place on private game farms throughout the country. As it happened, the hunting clientele was overwhelmingly Vietnamese. (The global economy was booming at that time, and Vietnam, like much of Asia, was experiencing the growth of its middle class; the horn that was said to cure all manner of ailments, from cholera to cancer, was the must-have luxury item of the day.) After the hunts, the South African government recorded the results and the subsequent export -- 11 trophies and horns, according to Julian Rademeyer, author of Killing for Profit, a book about the illegal rhino trade.
African horns increased in value, much like the continent's other natural resources, such as diamonds, coltan, and gold. Just a decade prior, a kilogram might have sold for a few thousand dollars. But now, 1 kilogram of the curving, magnificent horn, which, like the human fingernail, is made of a protein called keratin and which doctors say has no actual medicinal value, could fetch up to $100,000 on the international black market.
Thus, in 2008 -- when the global economy tanked, unleashing economic chaos into an already disorganized illegal market -- poaching reached a crisis point. The wealthy set in Asia demanded it; they used the horn as a drug, much like cocaine, and the product became almost fetishized. And the poor in Africa supplied it; in places like Zimbabwe, where inflation and unemployment were high, the illegal trade became an attractive career option. Up until 2008, the population had continued to grow and few were ever killed -- by the end of that year, 83 were dead.
Meanwhile, large international criminal syndicates began capitalizing on the economic desperation and increased desire for the horn by solidly staking their territory in parks and reserves throughout southern Africa. Consequently, the annual poaching figures have increased exponentially over the past six years. Experts argue that the intensity of the current poaching spree is such that the rhinos' death rate will start eclipsing their birth rate as soon as next year -- a critical juncture that would mark the beginning of species extinction if the killings continue unabated. More....