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The world’s last rhinos are in bad trouble – here’s why

We are at risk of losing rhinos forever. Image: Arno Meintjes / Flickr.

Helena Kriel and Don Pinnock, Daily Maverick | March 20, 2021

Read the original story here.

In the Kruger National Park, the heartland of state-owned rhinos, numbers have dropped by about 63% over 10 years, despite anti-poaching expenditure in the hundreds of millions of rand.

Private owners now own more than half of the rhinos in South Africa, but have had to ramp up their already expensive security costs to counter increased levels of poaching.

So, for many private owners, rhinos have become too costly and too stressful to keep and they could end up ditching them.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, rhinos have become a liability, their horns an Asian commodity. This could spell the beginning of the end for this ancient species in the wild.

Anticipating trouble?

“Baby coming in! Mother poached. Manyeleti Reserve.”

Sanctuary staff scramble like a fighter squadron. Manyeleti is a killing field. Rhinos there know they’re in the danger zone. They scan, anticipating trouble, jumpy, ears twitching, standing rump to rump because, invariably, there will be trouble. And when the moon is full, it comes.

The helicopter crests the hills, a steel dragonfly, coming closer. Dust swallows it whole as it lands. The doors open, the vet jumps out.

Through an opening a very small pink creature is visible. His eyes are blindfolded, his ears stopped up. He’s sedated and lies so still he could be dead, his hide baggy with his umbilical cord still attached.

The team’s ready. The baby is tilted into a blanket and they run with him. There’s a panga wound on his head. He’s fallen from warm amniotic fluid into this.

“We have to hope no blindness,” says the vet, “or brain injury.”

This is Manji and his journey has just begun.

These are the people saving young rhinos, one at a time, at great effort. After every poacher’s full moon the babies come, traumatised, victims of demand for horn that has become a commodity in Asia.

We watch a secret video tape of poachers being interviewed. They stare into the camera, balaclavas keeping their identities secret. They’re dressed in swanky designer gear and leather jackets. One sports a Rolex, another holds two iPhones: one for personal, the other for poaching updates. They let the filmmaker know they will poach the Kruger till there’s no longer a rhino left standing.

Until fairly recently, poaching used to be about survival. Now poachers have large houses and expensive cars. To impoverished communities they’re rock stars, and youngsters want to be like them. And they train, teenagers, beginning with a duiker and ending with a rhino.

For the team of three on the video it’s a poacher’s moon. They’ve burned a hyena’s tail for protection and walk quietly through the night’s silver light. They tread in single file, wearing shoes with soles sewn on backwards to fool the guards. Suddenly they stop. Ahead is a mother rhino followed by her young calf.

One of the team takes aim and shoots the cow through the heart using a high-powered modern weapon. The night explodes. The rhino staggers, falling forwards, keening, screaming. The calf runs back and forth.

The team closes in, hacking. They slash at the calf to get it out of the way. The mother’s horns come away with a rip of blood and mucous while she’s still alive.

The horn is zipped into a backpack and they run. The injured calf inches closer, then stands in confusion by its mother’s side, face slashed and bleeding.

Stomach-turning images show us what that looks like. On social media you find videos of poached mother rhinos lying on their backs, butchered, swollen udders ready to give sustenance. Their young calves stand alongside in terror and confusion.

But these images can’t impart the sentience of the animal – and the love: what else can you call it? Rhinos walk together and eat side by side. They sleep with their bodies touching. A mother rhino keeps her baby beside her for three years.

An orphaned baby rhino will suffer severe trauma after watching its mother being killed. It will need medication to keep it from stress-induced ulcers. Rhinos in rehabilitation turn the corner only when they find a new rhino to connect with. Connection for the rhino is everything. Is that anything different from how we humans feel?

Poaching hit Africa’s rhinos from 2005, but there are two opposing narratives about why that happened. Conservation NGOs say it was kicked off by Vietnamese criminal syndicates exploiting loopholes in South African legislation and their subsequent stimulation of demand for rhino horn in China and Vietnam. Private rhino owners insist it’s because South Africa banned domestic sales in 2007.

Either way, with millionaires in Vietnam growing by 150% in the last five years, rhino horn as a status symbol means guaranteed income for Asian criminal syndicates and poachers, with an estimated 10 to 15 teams working the Kruger Park daily. Called “grey gold”, rhino horn is now more expensive than heroin on the black market.

Rhinos in private hands are relatively safe for now. They are TB-free, they have DNA certification and less than 5% of poaching takes place there. At great cost, poaching numbers there are low. But as rhinos dwindle in Kruger, Botswana is increasingly being hit. When that supply runs out, poachers will set their sights on the last stocks available –the game reserves of private rhino owners.

Counting rhinos

In their various body forms, rhinos have been around for 55 million years. Some stood as high as a house and saw off giant hyenas and crocs half the length of soccer fields. With a thick hide and weaponised noses, adults defended their young like a military squad with fixed bayonets. Then we came along.

There are now only five species left and they’re hanging on by their toenails. Northern white rhino? Two females left, so they’re gone as a species. Sumatran rhinos? About 80 in Sumatra and Borneo. Then there are 80 Javans on the western tip of the island, where a tsunami could wipe them out. This leaves the southern white and black rhinos.

According to most authorities, there are now fewer than 20,000 rhinos left on Earth, down 2,000 from three years ago. If they were human that would be equivalent to a small town. South Africa is home to about 80% of them.

According to SANParks’ head of conservation services, Dr Luthando Dziba, by its 2019 count there were 3,549 white rhino and 268 black rhinos in Kruger Park, but the latest count is still being collated. Taking 2020 poaching figures into account, the numbers will be lower. Because Kruger had not posted numbers for some years, disclosing the drop from 10,700 in 2010 sent shockwaves through the environmental community. Deaths were exceeding births and the only way that story goes is down.

In Botswana, once a safe haven, it’s even worse. The Okavango Delta may have fewer than 20 rhinos, down from several hundred a few years ago.

Across all state and provincial parks in South Africa, there are an estimated 6,100 rhinos. According to the Private Rhino Owners Association, an additional 8,100 (60%) are in private facilities – about 2,500 on intensive farms, the rest in private game reserves of various sizes. At one end are large commercial farming operations. At the other are private tourism reserves who see rhinos as an essential component of their Big Five holding, or owners who just like having rhinos on their property.

The greatest number of rhinos in the world are now in private hands. We need to take a hard look at why they have them and what they plan to do with them.

Counting the costs

In South Africa, most poaching is in national parks and provincial reserves, and anti-poaching costs there have gone through the roof. From 2010 to 2020 the budget jumped from R74-million to R207-million, paid for by grants and tax revenues. But the huge investment into solving the problem has not brought down poaching, though incidents have declined because there are fewer rhinos to poach.

Kruger Park was always seen as a rhino heartland, but its geographical position between impoverished populations has made it the epicentre of poaching. Rangers within the park have also been arrested and charged with poaching. It’s clear the park will need a considerable shake-up and an urgent rethink. As a rhino sanctuary, Kruger must not fail. It would be a conservation and public relations disaster.

Private ownership took off in the early 1950s when Ian Player, then warden in the iMfolozi Game Reserve, pioneered methods and drugs to immobilise rhinos for translocation in order to disperse gene pools to different countries and venues. At the time there were only about 400 white rhinos in South Africa and their future as a species was uncertain.

Player launched Operation Rhino, with animals being moved around the world – an effort credited with saving the southern white rhino from extinction.

White rhino numbers over the following decades escalated to about 20,000, with large numbers in private hands. The private game reserves cared for and protected their crashes of rhinos at their own expense because of their Big Five tourism value, and the numbers grew. They were seen as conservation heroes.

But that was before the poaching tsunami hit. Anti-poaching costs have now become exorbitant. State parks are heavily subsidised by the government, some with NGO and international funder support. But private game reserves have to pay their own way through tourism, grants or from personal wealth. There’s no subsidy system deduction.

These owners now require costly Intensive Protection Zones (IPZs), 24-hour guards, trained anti-poaching dogs, mounted patrols and drones. Rhino speculators and farmers such as John Hume each have about 1,800 rhinos, but the average private rhino owner, according to Tertia Jooste of Rhino Connect, an organisation working with private rhino owners, has maybe between two and 20 rhinos. The cost of protecting a small family crash of up to 10 rhinos is between R30,000 to R40,000 a month. Until now it’s been working.

For owners there are four potential sources of income from rhinos: tourism, trophy hunting, selling the animals or selling their horns. All but hunting are presently roadblocked until tourist occupancies start to pick up again. And there’s a growing public opinion against trophy hunting internationally.

According to Pelham Jones of the Private Rhino Owners Association (PROA), rhino prices have dropped from an average of half a million rand to around R100,000 an animal. Added to this, Covid-19 lockdowns and international travel bans have taken their toll on tourism, further reducing income streams, putting some private rhino owners in deep trouble.

There’s another roadblock. Led by large commercial rhino farmers, many owners hitched their wagon to the one-trick pony of selling horn on the international market, which was banned in 1977 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites). Given increasing sensitivity to animal welfare and unclear trade economics in Convention meetings and a growing NGO lobby, that’s not likely to change any time soon.

According to Dr Adam Cruise, who has written extensively on the organisation in National Geographic and elsewhere, “given current moves on biodiversity and strengthening the restrictions on their own ivory market, the European Union is unlikely to back a lifting of restrictions. And neither China nor the US seems to have an appetite to open this issue.”

So hoping to fund rhino security and conservation through the sale of horns on the international market any time soon is simply magical thinking. But as costs rise and incomes dwindle, the Private Rhino Owners Association (PROA) and economists like Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes disagree.

There’s no doubt that as anti-poaching costs soar, owners with smaller numbers of rhinos are the ones hurting the most. Although the issue of selling horns had probably not been on their minds in the beginning, as the situation worsened horns in their vaults began looking like gold they cannot spend. To them, bans make no sense.

“In a perfect world, animals would be free,” says Johan Odendaal, MD of a privately owned Big Five game reserve in South Africa. “This isn’t a perfect world. Anyone who is against the rhino as a commodity is driving the species to extinction. The guy who wants to run a small farm cannot afford rhinos now. We are losing those guys.

“They say: ‘Take my rhinos, it’s too expensive to look after them.’ And then what do they do? Sell the farms? Get rid of the rhinos? Who will take them? I haven’t seen a rhino on auction for 18 months. There’s no longer a market for a living rhino. If wildlife doesn’t have a value, you will get rid of it. And they’ll go back to cattle farming.”

Carmela D’Arrigo, a small private rhino owner, struggles every month to meet her costs. She owns rhinos, she says, for the love of the animal.

“We have a close relationship with them. They all have names. They roam free in this place, which is 5,000 hectares. It costs upwards of R30,000 a month to protect them. With the threat of poaching, my phone is next to me constantly. It takes over your life.

“We struggle so much financially. We have to dehorn our rhinos for security, so we have horn sitting in vaults. Money for a horn would pay for their protection. But I wouldn’t even know where to start. And I’ve never believed in selling it.”

“If private rhino owners run out of money, what will they do?” asks wildlife vet Dr Johan Marais, founder of Saving the Survivors. “If John Hume, the biggest private rhino owner, decides tomorrow this is all too expensive and says ‘Here are my rhinos, you take them’, what then? Who will look after them? I don’t care if they’re like cows. We still have rhinos!” Hume claims he is on the verge of bankruptcy.

How does Marais feel about some of the rhino farmers being in it for the money? “If they’re protecting my heritage and I can see rhinos in 10 years’ time, I don’t care. I’ve always said: the future of conservation lies in private hands. They have massive costs, but they get it right. My question is simply this: Are there rhinos on your property? Are they breeding? If yes, support them.”

The aggressive drive to legalise horn sales, however, has put private owners on a collision course with global environmentalists, conservation NGOs and wildlife economists like the late Alejandro Nadel. According to the wildlife trade monitoring organisation Traffic: “Legal supply may legitimise or encourage rhino horn use and increase demand.”

Economist and former rhino-owner Colin Bell says selling horn doesn’t add up to a survival plan for rhinos, only for rhino farmers.

“Firstly, a legal trade in horn would stimulate demand and increase poaching, because poaching is cheaper than rearing a rhino. And, secondly, even if we dehorned all private rhinos and sold all stockpiles, demand would soon outstrip supply and lead to further poaching.

“Most of those rhinos are in private game reserves where viewing rhinos with horns is cherished by tourists. That leaves probably only 2,500 individual rhinos on farms that can be rounded up and anaesthetised every second year to have their horns shaved.

“At its peak in the 1970s and 1980s, poaching was supplying Asia between 45 and 70 tonnes of horn a year. We could never sustainably supply that level of demand legally from stocks, shavings and mortalities. Poaching won’t stop if we go the route of attempting to flood the market.”

So here’s the situation as it stands: The demand for rhino horn in Asia is almost limitless and possibly rising with increasing wealth in countries such as Vietnam and China.

Poaching syndicates are highly professional and have the power to manipulate the market and pay poachers.

State parks are unable to stem the poaching despite huge costs and, in some cases, because of internal corruption.

Private rhino owners can no longer sell rhinos at high prices because of the costs of protecting them, and the possibility of persuading Cites to open up international trade is remote. Some are on the brink of financial collapse.

Trade bans like those in 1993 for rhino horn and 1989 for ivory have worked in the past and can work again, as long as demand is not stimulated. Yet, as things stand, despite innovative demand-reduction campaigns by NGOs in Asia, poaching is not going down – largely because of the mixed messaging coming from diverse African stakeholders, the sophistication of syndicates and horn’s status symbol in destination countries.

Because of a fierce standoff between intensely anti-trade rhino range states, NGOs and pro-trade rhino farmers – the people who in coalition could best formulate a survival plan for rhinos – there’s no forward movement.

What is to be done? It’s crisis time for rhinos. Will they go extinct on our watch? Or is there a workable solution, a way forward?

And what of Manji, the day-old calf who arrived with umbilical cord and machete cuts gouged into his head? Rhinos weep, and during his first few weeks in the sanctuary he cried, unable to eat, listless and traumatised. In his loneliness, he befriended a tractor tyre. It took human love and 24/7 care to coax him through.

Now he’s a full-grown bull in a stronghold and flanked by the cows in his crash. He might not be in the savannah, but he’s within an electrified perimeter fence and is safe.

Yet every full moon his sanctuary gets the call: “Baby coming in!” and the staff leap into action.

Another traumatised baby rhino, a mother lying in the bush, face ripped apart. And in Asia someone is being gifted a piece of rhino horn as a show of status. Can they begin to know the suffering of that small offering?