In 2011, the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared the Western Black Rhino extinct. It’s a shocking testament to the severity of poaching in Africa, and one that threatens to make the continent’s big five the big four. But why exactly are these animals so highly sought after? The College of Graduate Studies in conjunction with the Institute for Science and Technology (ISTE) held a symposium on the rhino horn and poaching, on 15 May 2013, to discuss that question.
ISTE’s Prof David Mogari set the tone for the seminar, explaining that rhinos have as much of a right to live as human beings. He said questions were raised as to what role people and human beings could play in the preservation of this animal and why it should be discussed at the symposium. Currently, there are 19 000 white rhinos remaining in South Africa and just 1 900 black rhinos.
The primary reasons for the staggering number of rhinos being poached are their horns, which many Asian countries believe contain miraculous healing properties. In traditional Chinese medicine, the horn, which is shaved or ground into a powder and dissolved in boiling water, is used to treat fever, rheumatism, gout, and other disorders. But are there any merits to these claims? Prof Harrison Atagana, Director: ISTE, explained that, as a biologist, he was extremely interested in finding out how the horn affected people. “In its powder form, the horn is described as being able to do anything. Yemen is the oldest place using rhino horn and they use it to make a dagger handle which they believe possesses magical properties,” he says.
Atagana made reference to a study by the University of Hong Kong to debunk the horn myth. The experiment tried to cure a rat’s fever, which did eventually abate. However the amount to actually cure the rat was far too much and was actually more than half the its weight. “What we are looking at here is human obsession and the attributes that people allocate to the rhino horn are not true,” Atagana says.
Despite debunking that myth, poaching remains a serious concern. According to South African National Parks (SANParks), 668 rhinos were killed last year, with the figure for 2013 currently standing at 273. SANParks estimates that around 850 rhinos will be killed this year but are convinced that there’s no cause for alarm just yet.
Dr Hector Magome, Chief Scientist at SANParks, clarified that in 2010 the size of the Kruger National Park, which houses the largest number of rhinos, was starting to limit their numbers in any case. He elaborated that poaching became a serious problem in 2008. “That year 83 rhinos were killed with illegal traders and farmers selling horns. International trade regulations do not cover local trade, so we placed a moratorium on free rhino horn,” he says. SANParks has been blamed for the increase in killings, with observers citing that the moratorium has only served to fuel poaching.
However, Magome is convinced that their conservation efforts will turn the situation around. Government has committed around one billion rand to anti-poaching measures, but challenges remain, such as the sheer size of the Kruger, poachers who ply their trade at night, and law enforcement efforts that target the people at the bottom of the poaching chain and not the top. Even though many conservationists are extremely anxious about the plight of the rhino, Magome says the situation has not yet reached critical mass. “If we lose more than a thousand this year then it’s a problem. People who say the rhino will be extinct at the current rate are lying, but it’s true that rhinos elicit that sort of emotion,” he says.
While Atagana and Magome looked at the issue from the perspective of rhinos during the symposium, Prof Moses Montesh from the Department of Police Studies considered how poachers and syndicates operate. Montesh visited Kruger National Park and Mozambique, where rhinos have been hunted to the point of extinction. He detailed South Africa’s past involvement in poaching, which used the sale of ivory and rhino horns to fund wars against Angola, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Expanding on poachers, Montesh says there is currently a power struggle among the various groups. “Poachers are young and extremely prepared and there are 15 groups currently operating at Kruger. They ambush each other to take horns and this is also happening elsewhere in South Africa,” he says.
*Written by Rajiv Kamal