We are in the middle of a tough stretch for African rhinos. Organized crime syndicates have killed more than 800 African rhinos in the past three years - 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 2011 to assess the status of rhinos across the continent and to identify strategies to combat the poaching crisis.
So far in 2012, South Africa alone lost more than 250 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 4,840 (from 4,240 in 2007), 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.
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.
We are helping to support a number of recent initiatives 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 engaging with the authorities in 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 begun a new project with partners in Zimbabwe and South Africa to adequately equip and train rhino protection staff in a number of protected areas that need a little boost to make their teams more effective.
IRF has identified security experts in South Africa to improve anti-poaching operations in eleven highly threatened rhino habitats in South Africa and Zimbabwe. We have appointed a South African project manager (recommended by the African Rhino Specialist Group) and have contracted a local South African organization, Rhino Action Group, to implement the project there. A number of trainings have already been completed. Our longtime partner, the Lowveld Rhino Trust, will manage the project in Zimbabwe.
The hired security experts will assess the current operations in each protected area, and will then provide targeted training and basic equipment to rangers. Rangers will be trained in investigative techniques, intelligence gathering, evidence collection, communications, and rhino identification and monitoring, among other topics. They will 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 has already conducted training on rhino crime investigation and prosecution for law enforcement officials in several hard-hit provinces of Zimbabwe. Just six months 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.
We have contracted a local South African team to conduct assessments and provide trainings to rangers in five high-priority protected areas there. We anticipate they should be able to provide training to around 125 rangers during this initial effort. The first training took place in February 2012, and lasted 6 weeks. It’s a gruelling course, running 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for six weeks. The first course was a “training of trainers” course. We trained 8 – 10 senior parks staff so that they can help train more rangers throughout South Africa, spreading the training even further. Our security experts are currently revising the training syllabus for further implementation.
The remaining security assessments and trainings in South Africa will take place in mid-2012; we hope to start seeing an impact in the number of poachers caught and convicted by the end of 2012.
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 are moving rhinos from highly threatened areas, and consolidating them with larger populations in more secure areas. Our team in team in Zimbabwe will begin the security assessment/training process on the newly consolidated rhino habitats.