By Mic Smith
Two adult rhinos and a calf lie under a tree 50 meters off the road. It's a nice sighting for me in the midday heat of Kruger National Park in South Africa — my second of rhinos in two days. On the eastern horizon behind their sleeping forms lies a dark blue line; the Lembobo Mountains mark the border between South Africa and Mozambique. Those deadly hills produce poaching teams from Mozambican villages quicker than Kruger's rhino antipoaching teams can catch them. The teams are put together from queues of poor Mozambican men lining up for the rhino horn money that is flooding in from international syndicates based primarily in Vietnam and China. More poachers are probably mobilizing up there for incursions tonight. But the rhinos' enemies come not only from the east. Just as many come from the South African townships on Kruger's western border. SANParks, South Africa's national parks agency, estimates that 15 rhino poaching teams operate in Kruger every night. It's been a full moon so poaching activity has been hectic. The eyes of Lembobo watch.
The rhinos' ears flick with every fly. The adult female stands. Her horn makes a silhouette against the straw-coloured haze. She wanders away, turning back and fourth like a dog to urinate. It gushes for a long time. Then she treads back to the shade and flops down in the dust, but her rest is fitful.
While I watch, a dozen cars stop to see what I'm looking at. A mix: Afrikaners, blacks, foreigners, Asians, young and old, cheap cars and expensive. A few linger but there's little to see. Only rhino ears flicking. I look at some cars with suspicion. After 30 minutes of waiting I get my photo opportunity — all three rhinos stand, start grazing. Click, click, click. The male comes forward and seems to look at the three cars, including mine, watching, click, but I know he's too blind to see us. Then he turns away, click, to the Lembobo Mountains and they fade into the veldt together.
I've observed at least 20 people stop to look and photograph. It's nothing special to see rhinos here because Kruger has the biggest population of southern white rhinos in the world — between 8,400 and 9,600 animals, according to a 2013 SANParks census. Southern white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum simum) are the only rhinos not listed by the IUCN as endangered. They are "near threatened." But if one of those 20 people were a spotter for a rhino-horn syndicate, this little group could all be dead tomorrow.
South Africa is in the eye of a global rhino-poaching cyclone, with 393 animals slaughtered in the first third of 2015 — an 18 percent increase compared to 2014. At the dead center of the storm is Kruger, where poachers killed 290 between January and April this year. Things have gotten so bad that conservation groups are moving rhinos out of the country to safer havens in Botswana.
The poaching crisis is driven by demand for rhino horn in China and to a greater extent Vietnam. Rhino horn was an ancient remedy in traditional Chinese medicine. It apparently did have some medicinal capacity to reduce fever and treat poison, but less than that of other herbal cures. Rareness was highly valued, however, so what rhino horn lacked in efficacy it made up for with mystique. Today, thanks to the media, internet, and new riches and exploding human populations in Vietnam and China, the medicinal uses of rhino horn are much more varied and untested than under traditional systems. Among all the uses that have emerged in Vietnam in the last 10 years — hangover cure, men's potency aid, general health elixir, gift, and status symbol — the use that appears to have boosted demand the most was the cancer cure.
The chances of a cancer patient getting lifesaving treatment in a developing country like Vietnam are about the same as being given the right of way on a Saigon roundabout. Bad. So snake-oil dealers came up with the rhino-horn cancer cure. An unfounded rumour of a Hanoi politician who cured his tumors with rhino horn went viral. In 2011 I went to Ho Chi Minh City's biggest cancer hospital and saw the desperate gamble cancer sufferers were making. Rural village people who literally didn't have enough money to buy a pencil for their children's schooling were paying rhino-horn dealers outside the hospital roughly $200 for a small cube of horn, more money than they'd see in a year. Often it wasn't even real horn.
The price of horn in Vietnam is somewhere between $25,000 and $45,000 per kilogram, and sometimes it hits the much-cited price of $65,000, according to Annette Hübschle-Finch, a researcher in Illegal markets & transnational organised crime at the University of Cape Town. She came up with those numbers based on 2013 interviews she conducted with rhino-horn consumers, doctors, and traders in Vietnam, as well as Asian smugglers and intermediaries in South Africa and Mozambique. Nebulous the price of rhino horn may be, but by any measure it's high—high enough to motivate a brisk, no-holds-barred black-market international trade.
The syndicates don't see poaching as the only source of rhino horn. For centuries trophy hunters have been decimating rhino populations throughout Africa. Thousands of trophies hang on walls in the U.S. and Europe, and in recent years, rhino horns sitting in museums, auction houses, antique shops, or taxidermists' studios have been targeted by organised crime groups.
Another way the syndicates in Vietnam and China have been getting the horn is through "pseudo hunts." These began around 2003, when a Vietnamese who'd never hunted before paid a South African hunting outfitter a bit extra to organize a trophy hunt for rhino, as per usual, and also to assist in the killing, which is decidedly not usual. Professional hunters caught on to the sweet deals the Vietnamese were offering and began pushing their services. The pseudo hunt junket had a sniff of legality about it, but it was dodgy on many levels, a key one being that it is illegal to resell trophies or horns, which the Vietnamese were pretty clearly doing. By the time the South Africans stopped giving hunting permits to Vietnamese, it was too late. Rhino money fever had taken hold, triggering one of the worst poaching crises South Africa has ever seen. Poaching statistics rose steadily from 83 rhinos in 2008 to 1,215 in 2014.
Climate of suspicion
A few hours after the rhino sighting, I meet a rhino antipoacher in a hotel café outside the main Skukuza Gate of Kruger National Park. He is in his 40s and has spent most of his working life with African game, but he's been protecting exclusively rhino for about five years. He doesn't want to be named or photographed, but doesn't give a reason. I'm used to it. A lot of sources don't want to be named. Some of them explain by saying "I work undercover" or "I've got a family." Others say "I'll lose my job. That's how these people operate."
I tell the antipoacher that the head of another South African national park told me he only trusts 50 percent of his staff. The antipoacher replies sharply that he trusts zero percent of the guys he works with. A close colleague in antipoaching had destroyed all his trust in his own industry by moonlighting as a rhino poacher. "I still don't know if it was greed or manipulation [by the syndicates\," he says. Since then, the better they are, the harder they work, the less he trusts them.
If you work in the rhino field, betraying your position doesn't have to involve anything as extreme as pulling the trigger. People secretly abuse their responsibilities in other ways, the antipoacher says. "There's huge intel coming from within the parks [to the syndicates\ whether it's private reserves, Kruger or whatever. It's massive. They can't get away with what they're getting away with without intel — inside information. Whether it's people working there or people driving around. It's massive… They are losing three to four rhino a day in Kruger National Park," he tells me. Poaching activities have doubled in the park this week. "That's tactical. They send in five teams and see what comes out," the antipoacher says.
"As much as we've got informants outside [in the syndicates\, we've got informants in our own ranks," one SANParks guy who didn't want to be named told me. He knew that National Park staff had been approached by syndicate members. "I'll guarantee you 90 percent of the time it's [intel\ coming from inside… We do believe this rot has set in right to the senior-most levels."
Poaching organizers contact insiders. They give mobile phones to park staff, from rangers to anti-poachers to kitchen staff, and say if you hear any information about rhino just text us and we'll pay you more money than you earn in a month. According to the rumors, the rates paid for information vary between 1,000 ($82) to 10,000 rand ($825). That's good money considering the going rate of $10,000 paid to a team of three poachers for one rhino horn. "You are always going to get community members who will bend for a bit of money," the antipoaching guy says.
Before coming to Kruger, I'd been in Eastern Cape Province, 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) to the south. For 10 days I'd talked to rhino stakeholders about how the province was changing from a sanctuary from rhino poaching to a new hotspot. Many rhino owners suspected insider involvement in poaching and were cautious about sharing information with anyone.
One game reserve owner who didn't want to be named was as terrified as he was disgusted by the syndicates. A syndicate member had phoned him and he felt intimidated. He seemed paranoid when I contacted him. "You're an idiot if you think I'm going to talk to you on the phone. Who are you? I don't know who you are," he barked at me. He'd been called several times by a Vietnamese syndicate member, who brazenly asked him to supply horn. The rhino owner said everyone else had been contacted but they wouldn't admit it. He'd seen him at cafes; he knew who the Vietnamese man was, and everyone else did too, he said. He'd started off really passionate about cooperating with the police to get the man, but it had been a waste of time and he no longer cared or wanted to know anything about rhinos.
"Nobody's told me anything about this," I said.
"It's just exposing ourselves to danger, it's not worth it. Did they give you the bleeding heart story?"
"Yes that's the only story they gave me."
"They're not telling you anything. Everyone was told: 'Keep your nose out'… The people who are doing it have no scruples… People get murdered... It's very organised. It's going to carry on and nobody can stop it."
After that phone call I felt like I'd been clapped in a pillory and pelted with rotten tomatoes. I reflected on the interviews I'd done in the Eastern Cape. He was right. More....