Are We Winning or Losing the War Against Rhino Extinction?

Since poaching rhino horns became a well organised international trade several years ago, its tempo and drive has resembled a military operation. Current figures show that two to three African rhinos are poached in various locales across Africa every day. This has been the statistical norm for five years now. Elsewhere, particularly the Sumatran (Indonesian) and other vulnerable subspecies remain on the cusp of extinction. The war being waged for the horns of the Black and White African rhinoceros, however, gives rise to the bulk of statistics.

In South Africa and various other responsive regions across the continent, numbers are rising in some private and state reserves. Thanks to some innovative and intense responses from government and private foundations, this is a war where the good guys are making headway, yet the situation remains fraught. A new film starring actress Shannon Elizabeth, has outlined the nature of the illegal trade in rhino horn, while giving a clear glimpse of future challenges. Stroop: Journey into the Rhino Horn War lays bare the alarmingly established trade in poached rhino horn, documenting the illicit product’s journey from the African veld to the murky trafficking backrooms of China and Vietnam.

Success comes in spite of poaching pressure

Despite some initially dire statistics – where often smaller, private reserves around South Africa were completely cleaned out of resident rhino in targeted attacks – the effort to conserve rhinos has had some notable successes. A decade ago, approximately 20,800 rhinos were roaming the earth. Today, overall rhino numbers have gone up to around 29,500 – a substantial increase in population numbers.

Loss of genetic diversity – with the Northern White rhino subspecies declared functionally extinct in 2018 – remains a large concern for future population stability. The simple numerical impact of over ten years of intense, organised poaching, has also made for a desperate backdrop to rhino survival. It does often seem, however, particularly in South Africa, where the government together with polished conservation organisations have worked in tandem to safeguard rhinos, that the good guys can win.

South Africa has brought Southern White rhino numbers up from a mere 100 individuals circa 1920, to around 20,000 today. Similar success stories dot this landscape, with the Indian and Nepalese authorities also presiding over the rise of Greater One-horned, or Indian rhino numbers. From as few as 200 individuals, that species numbers around 3,550 animals today. In South Africa, statistics show that the larger reserves like Kruger National Park – in reality, a transnational park sharing a massive conservation area with neighbouring Mozambique – offer poachers the most opportunity. Where land is expansive and outposts distant, poachers operate with greater impunity.

Stroop: Journey into the Rhino Horn War has been praised as the first top-to-bottom, comprehensive recording of the rhino horn trade in all of its grisly reality. Both a shocking expose for many removed from the African bush, as well as an alarm call for the future, the film has galvanised further public support for rhino conservation. Rhinos across Africa are often subject to VIP treatment from armed guards, who trail individuals day and night in order to protect them. Stroop makes it plain that in this dire reality, that kind of paramilitary conservation simply has to intensify.

The film opened the Rotterdam Wildlife Film Festival in October 2018, and both as a documentary and expose, has won rave reviews wherever it’s been screened. Perhaps most revealing for some viewers, the movie clearly shows how middlemen and other traders in Asia play on the limited prospects or existing poverty of the poachers who do the killing. A complex, nuanced trade, the film reveals why it is so difficult to tackle rhino poaching from a single entry point.

Is the fight for rhinos’ survival succeeding?

“iJob ijob” is a common refrain in South Africa, and it essentially denotes resignation. One’s job is one’s job and whatever one must do to make money is just the way it is. Very often, removed from an educated understanding of the implications of poaching as well as any of the financial benefits of conservation, local illegal hunters are dazzled by the thousands of dollars paid for rhino horns. Far removed from Asian middlemen halfway across the world, locals do the dirty work, pass on horns to furtive, interloper agents, who then ship the horns along various routes to their Asian destinations.

The reality of rhino poaching is a complex and sometimes heartbreaking story of mixed players in the game. Successfully addressing the various actors in the rhino horn war necessitates social overtures, persistent education and criminal prosecution. Future conservation needs to be a diverse, intense and intelligent drive if rhinos are to keep recovering in numbers. The rise of a massive Asian middle class has brought the desires of traditional medicine to the forefront of trade, resulting in the current constant war on the world’s rhinoceros.

The future survival of all rhino species hinges largely on two main approaches. It will take state of the art, military grade protection of rhinos on the ground, along with an intensive educational drive directed at consumer countries, notably China and Vietnam, as well as towards the local communities from where poachers are drawn. Only the slow changing of mindsets can enable a future where the currently intense pressure on rhinos can be relieved.

If a statistical gain is indicative of “winning” the war, then it’s fair to say that the good guys are on top right now. That rosy pronunciation, however, comes against the backdrop of consistently intense poaching pressure and an unabated demand from Asia. A great challenge too is the constant need for funding when, in Africa at least, authorities often have diverse pressing social situations to address. The current situation of organisations pushing for the maximum government contribution, while topping up from private coffers as needed, seems set to remain the model for rhino survival going forward.