We are in the midst of an unprecedented poaching crisis in Africa. Last year. organized crime syndicates killed 745 African rhinos - just for their horns. With the most serious poaching upsurge in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya, Africa’s top rhino experts (including a number of IRF staff) met in South Africa in early 2013 to assess the status of rhinos across the continent and to identify strategies to combat the poaching crisis.
In 2012, South Africa alone lost 668 rhinos to poaching; in 2011, a total of 452 animals were lost. Most rhino horns leaving Africa are destined for Southeast Asian medicinal markets that are believed to be driving the poaching epidemic. In particular, Vietnamese nationals have been repeatedly implicated in rhino crimes in South Africa.
Although good biological management and anti-poaching efforts have led to modest population gains for both species of African rhino, we remain extremely concerned about the increasing involvement of organized criminal poaching networks. Unless the rapid escalation in poaching in recent years can be halted, African rhino numbers could once again start to decline.
But there is a bright spot! Black rhino numbers are up to 5,055 (from 4,840 in 2001), and white rhino populations have increased to 20,150 (up from 17,500 in 2007). Even though this is encouraging, we cannot let down our guard for a minute. This year may be the first year when rhino population growth is unable to keep pace with poaching.
Along with rhino experts from around the world and our fellow members of the IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group (AfRSG), IRF urges greater cooperation between wildlife investigators, police and prosecutors; magistrates and judges to be more sensitive to rhino issues; and assistance in developing new tools and technologies to detect and intercept rhino poachers and horn traffickers. While the number of arrests has increased there is an urgent need for improved conviction rates and increased penalties for rhino-related crimes in some countries.
A number of initiatives are underway to combat poaching. These include the establishment of a National Wildlife Crime Reaction Unit in South Africa, increasing protection throughout the rhinos’ range, DNA fingerprinting of rhino horn, regional information sharing and bi-lateral engagement with Vietnam. In addition, wildlife agencies are working closely with private and community rhino custodians, as well as support organizations, to protect rhinos.
One huge challenge is managing rhinos that live on private land, including control of rhino horn stockpiles and security. This is essential if we are going to face the poaching crisis head on and from every important angle.
Rhino protection staff in some protected areas (in which we do not currently have active programs) don’t even have basic equipment, such as binoculars, GPS units, cameras, fingerprint kits to gather scene-of-crime evidence against poachers, and other gear. With the funding raised through our Operation Stop Poaching Now campaign, IRF has funded security assessment, training and equipment for rangers in Zimbabwe and South Africa so that rhino protection staff in a number of protected areas that need a little boost can be more effective.
To-date, four training sessions have been held in in South Africa and Zimbabwe. We have appointed a South African project manager (recommended by the African Rhino Specialist Group) and contracted a local South African organization, Rhino Action Group, to implement the project there. Each training lasts 6 weeks. It’s a gruelling course, running 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for six weeks. Most courses are focusig on “training of trainers” so that the training can be utilized even further.
Security experts assess the current operations in each protected area, and provide targeted training and basic equipment to rangers. Rangers are trained in investigative techniques, intelligence gathering, evidence collection, communications, and rhino identification and monitoring, among other topics. They also receive scene-of-crime kits containing basic investigation equipment including a camera, metal detector, GPS, finger-printing materials, and sealable evidence bags.
One of our partners conducted training on rhino crime investigation and prosecution for law enforcement officials in several hard-hit provinces of Zimbabwe. Just one year after the training, we’ve seen a marked increase in successful convictions and more severe sentences, with nine poachers already sentenced to between 10 to 20 years in jail each. With provision of equipment, training and advocacy, the rate of poaching convictions in Zimbabwe has risen from just 3% two years ago to 22% today. With just a little more help, we believe we can make that rate much higher.
In Zimbabwe, the Lowveld Rhino Trust and other NGOs are working with the Zimbabwean government to further consolidate endangered black rhinos into areas where they can be protected. They move rhinos from highly threatened areas, and consolidating them with larger populations in more secure areas. More than 50 rangers have been through the security assessment/training process on the newly consolidated rhino habitats in the Lowveld.