The Black Rhinoceros

Poaching – The Rhinoceros Wars

Ironically, the curse of the rhinoceros has been its nasal horn, with which the powerful beasts can defend themselves against attackers, even lions, but not against human greed.

Status seeking, superstition and unscrupulous avarice have brought all species of rhinoceros to the brink of extinction during this century. Great efforts are required to protect and conserve those rhinoceroses still living in freedom.

In the past 25 years alone the three Asian rhinoceros species have been hunted almost to extinction. While the population of the Indian rhinoceros has been able to recover, one subspecies of the Javan rhinoceros is already extinct. The hook-lipped rhinoceros is also facing complete extinction. With their numbers greatly thinned in the past by hunting, probably the last hook-lipped rhinoceros in South Africa was shot and killed in 1853. The hook-lipped rhinoceros was also hunted to extinction in the steppes of sub-Saharan Africa by the end of the 19th century. The West African rhinoceros (D. b. longipes) is listed by the IUCN as “threatened by extinction, possibly already extinct”. In 2003 there were an estimated five animals, but by 2006 not a single specimen of this subspecies could be found, and it was concluded that the subspecies is “in all probability” extinct. In South Africa in 2001 only 50 specimens of D. b. bicornis were counted, with 71 in 2003, whereas in Namibia in 2003 the population was reckoned to be 1238.

During the 1960s the East African (D. b. michaeli) and South-central African subspecies (D. b. minor) were hunted to extinction in large areas of their natural habitats by increasing poaching. The IUCN listed the hook-lipped rhinoceros as a vulnerable species at the time: the species was later reclassified as endangered, and finally as critically endangered. Despite these measures it became more and more rare during a period in which protective measures for other species were beginning to take effect.

In 1970 there were an estimated 65,000 hook-lipped rhinoceroses, and by 1980 there were only 15,000 left: by 1990 this number had sunk to 3,000, and in 1995 the population was estimated to have been reduced by hunting to 2,500 individual animals. In the Central African Republic in 1980 there was a healthy population of 3,000 animals, which were hunted to extinction within just a few years. In Kenya poachers have destroyed 90% of the rhinoceros population.

The two species had already been hunted to the brink of extinction in the 20th century for their valuable horns. In 1993 they were placed under the protection of the Washington Convention, which outlawed all trade in products derived from rhinoceros horn. Intensive breeding programmes and conservation projects, above all in South Africa, as well as the discovery of rhino tourism as a lucrative business, have contributed to the successful propagation of the species. Not all rhinoceroses, however, live in state-owned national parks: some animals are kept in private reservations where they are bred for export, small safari parks and even for trophy hunting. But in recent years the battle against poachers has taken on a new dimension.

Up until recently, a full-grown rhinoceros was worth up to €60,000. Today the value has sunk to €30,000 because the risk of losing the animal to poachers has increased so dramatically.
On the Chinese black market on the other hand, a rhino horn of average size weighing roughly 7kg, can fetch up to €350,000. Even in Europe poachers hunt out rhinoceros horns – in museums. There have already been more than 10 cases in German-speaking countries, as well as thefts in France, Italy, Portugal and Great Britain. To date there have been no attacks on rhinoceroses in zoos, but zoos are aware of the dangers and have intensified their security measures.

Almost all poached rhinoceros horns are smuggled through the Sudan. In Arabian countries, particularly in Yemen and Oman, a horn sheath for a dagger is a status symbol. In the past only rich Sheiks would have been able to afford these curved daggers, but the oil trade has made many Yemeni wealthy enough to buy “real daggers”. In traditional Asian medicine powdered rhinoceros horn is supposed to possess healing qualities, and is particularly popular as an antipyretic. Contrary to popular opinion it is not – with a few exceptions in Indian traditional healing methods and in Chinese medicine – used as a medicine to increase male potency. But it is bad luck for the rhinoceroses that the number of people able to afford such expensive “medicine” is constantly increasing.

Following intensive protection and breeding programmes there were once again around 4,800 hook-lipped rhinoceroses registered in Africa in 2010 (for example in the Addo Elephant Park, Kruger National Park, Etoscha National Park, Hwange National Park, Mana Pools, South Luangwa, Tsavo National Park and the Serengeti).

One specific problem facing efforts to protect the rhinoceroses are the animals’ needs for living space. Like many other large game animals, a rhinoceros population which is large enough to ensure its own survival can only be kept in extensive parks and conservation areas. This is incompatible with the continued inconsiderate exploitation of the land and consequent transformation of natural habitats by humans. Tourism also plays an increasingly significant role here, as it channels money into countries and thereby often makes it more attractive to define new conservation areas and extend or combine existing ones rather than to use the land for other purposes, or to simply shoot the animals. To this end, the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park was recently founded in southern Africa, which combines the Krüger National Park (South Africa) with the Gonarezhou Park (Zimbabwe) and two parks in Mozambique, the Limpopo and Banhine National Parks, in a single, trans-border park covering 100,000 km².

But it was in precisely this park that an alarming rise in poaching has been observed in recent years. According to a report presented by an alliance of natural conservation groups at a recent conference of the UN endangered species treaty CITES, more rhinoceroses have been poached in 2011 and 2012 than in the 15 previous years (report download:

South Africa in particular has become the site for a merciless and extremely efficient hunt for rhinoceroses. At least one rhinoceros is killed every day by poachers in South Africa. While there were “only” 13 cases of poaching in South Africa in 2007, the amount increased annually to 83, then 122, and then, in 210, to 330: in 2011 there were 448 cases of poaching and in 2012 455, maybe even 668 rhinoceroses, according to the latest reports. In 2013 five dead animals have already been found.

The history of the rhinoceros reaches back more than 14 million years. But if the current trend continues then the remaining 18,000 hook- and square-lipped rhinoceroses in Africa will not survive for long. Park owners resort to increasingly radical measures to protect the animals: they remove the animals’ horns, a procedure which is not painful for the animals as horns, like fingernails, are not formed of living cells. But this method also failed to produce the desired results: poachers who found a rhinoceros without a horn shoot it anyway. For a time some hook-lipped rhinoceroses were even provided with armed guards around the clock, and in South Africa a debate has broken out about the latest suggestion to combat poaching: a farmer and a veterinarian together developed a poison which makes the consumption of rhinoceros horn lethal for humans, but otherwise has no effect on the rhino. The debate centres on the issue of whether murder can be used to fight murder.

The poaching gangs are perfectly equipped: they track the rhinoceroses from kilometres away using state of the art night vision gear, and high tech crossbows and small, light helicopters allow them to approach their prey almost silently. The poachers are usually active at night. Once they have located a rhinoceros it is a matter of minutes before the saws get to work on the animal’s flesh. What remains is a massive corpse, the head lying with its gaping wound in a pool of blood. The often poorly-equipped gamekeepers are helpless in the face of this technical superiority. As a consequence of the recent years’ escalation, the army in South Africa is now involved in the war against poachers.