Legal trade and military-style protection may help, but ultimately elephants and rhinos will not survive with their ecological function intact unless demand and price falls
From NatureUp : Astonishing numbers of elephants and rhinos are being poached across Africa. Between 25,000 and 40,000 elephants are likely to be illegally killed there this year. South Africa, home to about 80% of the continent’s rhinoceroses, is projected to lose between 900 and 1,000 of those primeval beasts to poachers by Christmas, up from a mere 13 in 2007.
Governments and conservation organisations are struggling to contain the rising carnage, a result of increasing demand for rhino horn and ivory in Asia, especially in China, Vietnam and Thailand.
I recently wrote about some proposed solutions to the problem for two US-based environmental magazines, Ensia and Yale e360. Although I’ve followed the poaching issue for years, researching these articles has heightened my sense of it being, to use an appropriate metaphor, a“blind-men-and-an-elephant” problem.
Stopping the onslaught of poachers is a daunting, complicated task. It requires understanding the economics of the illegal wildlife trade, the methods of the criminals engaging in it, the psychology of those buying its products and the biology of the animals being killed.
Many experts that I’ve interviewed understand only part of the problem and the solutions they propose are strongly coloured by personal expertise. Unsurprisingly, economists often put forward market-based solutions, legislators push more laws, police want better law enforcement, soldiers say they need more drones and guns, politicians think more speeches and treaties are useful, and conservationists with no deep experience in any of these fields tend to favour whichever solutions they’re most exposed to.
Most of those trying to save elephants and rhinos are intensely emotionally invested in their struggle. I can relate to them, because every time I encounter wild elephants I’m amazed by their power, their intelligence and their sense of fun. Rhinos are perhaps the nearest living thing we have to dinosaurs. The thought of the next generation not being able to experience these pachyderms is heartbreaking. We’ve recently lost the Western black rhino and the Vietnamese subspecies of Javan rhino to poachers, so the fear of further extinctions is not at all irrational.
But this desperate emotional investment combined with many individuals’ limited exposure to aspects of the poaching problem has led, in my opinion, to an unhelpful amount of conflict among conservationists and the decision-makers whose actions will decide the future of elephants and rhinos.
Opposing views have become strongly entrenched, and instead of acknowledging that there can be disagreement among honest people about the solutions to wildlife crime, many activists are quick to demonise those with differing ideas. Instead of asking more questions and together exploring the possible implications of various courses of action (because no one can, in my opinion, cover enough mental ground to take it all in alone) many pay lip service to the complexity of the issue and refuse to engage meaningfully with the “‘opposition” who, as it happens, want to save elephants and rhinos just as much as they do.
One extremely divisive potential solution that I explore in my Ensia articleis to re-legalise the international trade in rhino horn, which has been largely banned since 1976. South African state and private stockpiles contain over 18 tonnes of horn recovered from dead animals and de-horning operations, which could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars if it were allowed to be sold at today’s black market prices. The only people currently making money from the rhino horn trade are criminals, and it’s extraordinarily frustrating to some rhino custodians that they could fund conservation by selling these stockpiles if they were allowed to sell them.
Another potential solution is to adopt military equipment and tactics in the fight against poachers. This is the first-used option of many wildlife managers, and understandably so. Poachers don’t drop in with jasmine garlands in their hair to politely present you with tea and a plate of home-baked cookies; they’re often blooded, hard men with military training and increasingly sophisticated weapons who are a threat not just to animals but to people. I’d want my own squad of hard men with guns if I managed a wildlife reserve.
Military-style solutions to poaching are popular because there are many examples that when looked at in isolation seem to confirm their success, albeit success that comes at a high price in dollars and human lives. (Military-grade equipment costs millions, and poachers and game rangers are regularly killed in firefights.)
Game rangers training at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya. Photograph: Adam Welz
For example, when I visited the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in late 2011, they’d lost five of their famous rhinos that year to poachers. In response, they’d recently employed a just-retired British soldier to train a new anti-poaching squad equipped with Heckler and Koch assault rifles. Ol Pejeta lost no rhinos to poachers in 2012, and has lost only one so far this year.
But poaching in Kenya as a whole has gone up since 2011. The rhino and elephant slaughterers may be avoiding Ol Pejeta, but they’re hitting less well-protected areas of the country. As I explain in my Yale e360 article, researchers of the illegal drug trade call this the “balloon effect”. If you push down drug production in one area — for example by destroying coca crops in one part of Colombia — it pops up elsewhere. It’s simply proved impossible to control illegal activity across large, remote areas when a lucrative market for that activity’s products — eg cocaine — persists. Despite the US having spent billions on enforcement and interdiction operations in Latin America as part of the “war on drugs”, drug production remains high and murderous drug smuggling gangs remain extremely powerful. As many observers point out, the same criminals who smuggle drugs also often smuggle illegal wildlife products.
Some people have already started breeding rhino and regularly harvesting their horns in anticipation of legal trade. (The horn contains no nerves, so cutting it off is painless, and it grows back over a few years. No equivalent procedure is practical for elephants.) Their idea is to ensure the future of rhinos by create a profitable business supplying horn over the long term, which would pay for their expensive security and incentivise more people to breed them.
This might work. If legal horn farming turns out to be profitable, we might end up with many more rhinos than we have today. I’m concerned about what sort of rhinos those will be, though, because the most economical way to keep them for horn harvesting purposes is in dense concentrations, a bit like cattle in paddocks, where it’s cheaper to manage and guard them compared to when they’re free-ranging in large, wild areas.
Initiating a legal trade in rhino horn or ivory will not automatically remove the incentive to poach rhinos and elephants. A black market in these commodities is likely to persist if retail prices remain high, and there is no shortage of poor people in Africa who will risk their lives for the prospect of earning a life-changing amount of cash by shooting one animal, especially when the chances of being caught are low. This means that even those rhino custodians who aren’t involved in the horn trade and who aren’t managing their animals for maximum profit may be forced to confine their rhinos to small “intensive protection zones”, because it’s near-impossible to protect wide-ranging animals across massive, rugged areas like the large national parks and wilderness areas of Africa.
If the only practical way that we can protect animals is to confine them to small areas, the only sorts of rhinos and elephants we’ll have will be ecologically useless ones. They’ll look like the beasts we know, but they’ll no longer be able to fulfill their vital roles in the forests, savannas and drylands. Africa will have “paper pachyderms” to complement its many “paper parks“, those national parks which exist on maps but serve no real conservation purpose because they’re not managed and have been destroyed by settlers, miners and hunters.
Rhinos and elephants are ecosystem engineers, which means that Africa’s iconic ecosystems look and work the way they do because these animals have helped shape them over millions of years. Elephants and black rhinos maintain savannas by knocking down trees and munching bushes. White rhinos create “grazing lawns” for other herbivores to feed on. Elephants spread the seeds of forest trees and dig waterholes in dry river beds that countless other animals rely on to get through the dry season. All megaherbivores transport vital nutrients through landscapes. If wide-ranging elephants and rhinos are removed from Africa, its ecosystems will change fundamentally.
I’m not sure how large numbers of ecologically functional rhinos and elephants will survive unless the demand for and the price that users are prepared to pay for their products comes down drastically, which is why I’ve come to believe that persuading people not to buy rhino horn and new ivory, so-called “demand reduction”, is ultimately the most relevant part of the multi-faceted struggle to save these magnificent animals and the grand, diverse ecosystems that they’re part of. YouTube movies, social media campaigns and thousands of people talking to their friends might not be as sexy as machine gun-toting, drone-flying anti-poaching armies, but I think they’re worth far more investment and attention than they’re currently receiving.
I know that by saying this I’m opening myself up to attack. I’ve already been accused of being seduced by an organisation called WildAid that believes strongly in demand reduction and been lambasted on social media for writing about legal trade, which, apparently, is so wrong an idea that it shouldn’t even be mentioned in public. I’ve also been told that writers like me shouldn’t have opinions on the things they write about, even though I try to be clear about when I’m reporting as neutrally as possible on issues and when I’m delivering opinions on them.
If you, dear reader, are inclined to join the mud-slinging parade, please consider the following: I’m open to the possibility that my view of the potential and importance of demand reduction is because I’m a biased “blind man” who has spent a large chunk of his life working in the media, and none in law enforcement, the military or commerce. I might not have understood significant parts of the poaching problem, so I’m not claiming to have the answer. I’m not even advocating the removal of emotion from the debate.
What I am saying is that I’m not sure how large, ecologically functional populations of rhinos and elephants will survive across their historic ranges in Africa (and Asia) if the price of and demand for newly harvested rhino horn and ivory remain high. I remain curious about solutions to the poaching problem and am open to changing my mind in the face of new information and argument. I hope you are, too.
A real wildlife problem gets a solution that just might work!…. Radical scheme will inject horns with parasiticides and pink dye in bid to safeguard rhino numbers. The Guardian reports
A game reserve in South Africa has taken the radical step of poisoning rhino horns so that people risk becoming “seriously ill” if they consume them.
Sabi Sand said it had injected a mix of parasiticides and indelible pink dye into more than 100 rhinos’ horns over the past 18 months to combat international poaching syndicates. More than 200 rhinos have been poached so far this year in South Africa, driven by demand in the far east, where horn ground into powder is seen as a delicacy or traditional medicine.
“Consumers of the powdered horn in Asia risk becoming seriously ill from ingesting a so-called medicinal product, which is now contaminated with a non-lethal chemical package,” said Andrew Parker, chief executive of the Sabi Sand Wildtuin Association, a group of private landowners in Mpumalanga province.
The “toxification” process involves tranquilising a rhino, drilling a hole in its horn then injecting the dye and parasiticides generally used to control ticks on animals such as horses, cattle and sheep; it is toxic to humans. “It’ll make [people] very ill – nausea, stomach ache, diarrhoea – it won’t kill them,” Parker continued. “It will be very visible, so it would take a very stupid consumer to consume this.”
Asked if he had any moral qualms about harming potentially naive consumers, Parker replied: “The practice is legal. The chemicals are available over the counter. We are advertising it, doing a media run now and putting up signs on our fences. If somebody does consume it, they won’t die and hopefully word will spread that you shouldn’t take rhino horn.”
The dye can be detected by airport scanners as well as when the horn is ground into a powder.
Up to 1,000 rhinos will die this year, Parker said, so bold action was necessary. “Despite all the interventions by police, the body count has continued to climb. Everything we’ve tried has not been working and for poachers it has become a low-risk, high-reward ratio. By contaminating the horn, you reduce the reward and the horn becomes a valueless product.
“If the poacher hacks off the horn, he’ll immediately see it’s contaminated. We’re saying to the poachers: ‘Don’t bother coming to Sabi Sand. You’re wasting your time.'”
But the scheme got a mixed reception from Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network. Tom Milliken, its rhino programme coordinator, said it could act as a deterrent in areas where it is highly publicised but “is impractical in situations involving free-ranging animals in large areas, places like Kruger national park with 20,000 sq km. Thus, like dehorning, it probably has the effect of displacing poaching intensity to other areas, not stopping it altogether.”
Milliken, author of a report on rhino-horn consumption in Vietnam, also expressed concerns about the end-user market: “One wonders if unscrupulous dealers in these markets will not simply employ some means to ‘bleach’ them to back to a ‘normal’ appearance and continue raking in high profits.”
“These dealers are already perpetuating fraud on so many levels in the interest of windfall profits, so it’s hard to imagine that they will suddenly be bothered about putting potentially toxic horns into circulation. The prospect of human suffering deters few criminals and that’s what we are dealing with here.”
South Africa National Parks has backed the initiative but spokesman Ike Phaahla admitted that it would be “virtually impossible” to apply the process to all the rhinos in national parks because of lack of resources.
The government said this week that 203 rhinos have been killed by poachers so far this year, including 145 in Kruger park. Sixty suspected poachers have been arrested.
- Innovation And Toxic Hope (raxacollective.wordpress.com)
- Wildlife Managers Are Poisoning Rhino Horns to Stop People From Eating Them (blogs.smithsonianmag.com)
- Mozambican rhino poacher jailed for 15 years (thezimbabwean.co.uk)
- Rhino horn worth $2.75 million stolen from ranch (wildlifenews.co.uk)
- South African minister backs legalisation of rhino horn trade (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
India Monday lost its ninth rhino to poaching so far this year within the northern state of Assam. ENN reports
The greater-one horned, or Indian rhino, was found shot dead with its horn removed in Kaziranga National Park. Seven other rhinos have already been killed in the park during 2013, and an additional rhino was poached last month in Manas National Park.
Officials are concerned about the increasing use of sophisticated weapons by poachers. Many of the Assam’s rhinos have been gunned down by Kalashnikov rifles. The state has approximately 2,500 rhinos remaining after losing 21 to poachers last year.
The use of high-powered weapons enables poachers to kill the rhinos quickly, cut off their horns and flee before the forest guards can get to the scene.
The proximity of Assam to India’s porous international borders with neighbours such as Bangladesh and Myanmar is believed to contribute to availability of arms and also enables poaching gangs access international criminal syndicates engaging in wildlife smuggling.
The primary destination for rhino horns is Viet Nam, where new medical and social uses have emerged in recent years. According to a recent TRAFFIC report, consumers in Viet Nam are willing to pay extremely high prices for medicines made with rhino horn in the mistaken belief that it can cure a number of diseases.
Rising illicit demand for rhino horn has pushed poaching of African rhinos to crisis levels. Poaching statistics released recently by the South African government reveal that a record 668 rhinos were killed across the country in 2012, an increase of nearly 50 per cent from the 448 rhinos lost to poachers in 2011.
- Kaziranga National Park begins promised rhino survey (wildlifenews.co.uk)
- Poachers already killed 15 rare rhinos in northeast Indian preserve in 2013 (rawstory.com)
- Poachers kill rare rhinos in India’s remote northeast (dawn.com)
- Poachers kill rare rhinos in India’s remote northeast (terradaily.com)
- Assam national park fails to protect rare rhinos from poachers (thetimes.co.uk)
- Horn Please! Rhino on the horizon (thehindu.com)
- Poaching to Cause Fall in Rhino Population within Two Years (scienceworldreport.com)
Good news to fight a bad problem…. South African farmer plans to put 30 drones in the air to help combat poachers. Anything to stop those who wish to slaughter these super-creatures is good ! The Guardian reports
He is now seeking clearance from local civil aviation authorities to put 30 of the drones in South African skies.
Radical solutions are needed, he argues, at the end of a year which has seen a record of more than 650 rhinos slaughtered for their horns to meet demand from the Far East.
Vivier believes the true figure may be closer to 1,000, a significant dent in a population of around 20,000. “We’re now eating into our capital of rhino,” he said. “From here they are heading rapidly towards extinction. Despite all our efforts, we’re just historians recording the demise of a species. We don’t have the numbers on the ground to see people and stop them killing the animals.”
Around 400 rhinos have been killed this year in the world-famous Kruger national park, which spans 2m hectares – impossible for a limited number of rangers to guard effectively. Vivier estimates it as the equivalent of a town with one policeman for every 100,000 houses, “all with the doors and windows and open and rhino horn inside”.
He continued: “We need to change the rules of the game. We need technology. The only thing that can see these people before they do the dirty deed is surveillance drones.”
The answer, he believes, is the unmanned Arcturus T-20, which, with a 17ft wingspan, can fly for 16 hours without refuelling at a height of 15,000 feet. Its lack of noise and infrared camera would be invaluable for spotting poachers at night. “It can tell whether a man is carrying a shovel or firearm and whether he has his finger on the trigger or not,” said Vivier, 65. “We can see the poacher but he can’t see us. We’re good at arresting them when we know where they are. Otherwise it’s a needle in a haystack.”
Vivier has spent two years in talks with civil aviation officials and is hopeful that he will soon get the green light for a six-month trial. He proposes 10 of the drones for Kruger park, and a further 20 for other vulnerable reserves in South Africa.
He estimates that each drone would cost roughly $300,000 (£184,445) to keep in the air for two years, making a total of around $9m (£5.53m).
“The drones are economical to fly and will get us information at a very low cost. We need this technology to put us in a position to catch the guys. We need to do it before they kill rhino. The drone is, in my opinion, the only solution. It is highly sophisticated and can see things no other technology can.”
After the worst rhino poaching year on record in South Africa, air technology is seen as a crucial preventative step. Earlier this month, a reconnaissance plane with surveillance equipment including thermal imaging began patrolling over Kruger park.
But Vivier believes such alternatives lack the Calfornia-built Arcturus T-20’s capability. “The smaller ones are like using a bucket to put out a fire at the Empire State building. We need fire engines. We’re now an inferno. If we don’t wake up and do something, the world will lose the rhino.”
He appealed for the US, UK or other countries to help raise the necessary funds. “The company making the drone has to be paid and we don’t have the money. We need the best technology because the criminals are sharp. We’ve had approval from the US state department and we’re trying to work with them. It’s a world problem and the rest of the world needs to help us.”
Vivier is among a group of rhino farmers who believe that legalising the trade in horn would thwart the black market and reduce poaching. Several conservation groups disagree and call for measures that will reduce demand in countries such as Vietnam, where horn is seen as a delicacy with health benefits.
Ike Phaahla, a spokesman for South African National Parks, welcomed moves to put eyes in the sky. “In the past three months that is a strategy we have decided to use,” he said. “We are able to use the intelligence to intercept the poachers, although you can’t have a silver bullet for this kind of thing.”
- Saving the rhino with surveillance drones (bfreenews.com)
- Google Pays for Drones To Bust African Rhino Poachers (slate.com)
- Record 618 South African Rhinos Poached for Horns in 2012, so far (newswatch.nationalgeographic.com)
- Poachers’ trade in rhino horn is ‘pushing species into decline’ (independent.co.uk)
- Rhinoceros may become a forgotten species if unchecked poaching continues in South Africa (vancouversun.com)
- South Africa To Use Aircraft Against Rhino Poachers (preciousjules1985.wordpress.com)
The Asian appetite for animal products is creating demand which, rumours have it, threaten zoos. What, if anything, can be done to reduce the demand?
What do YOU think? Comment below or at twitter.com/#!/LearnFromNature
From The Independent
After a rumour that it could cure cancer, the horn is now worth more than $40,000 a kilo, and gangs have been breaking into museums and auction rooms in Britain and Europe to steal trophy rhinoceros heads. The fear is zoos – and live rhinos – may be next.
In an unprecedented alert, all 15 British zoos and wildlife and safari parks which hold rhinos – they have 85 animals between them – have been warned by the National Wildlife Crime Unit to tighten security and report anything suspicious to the police at once.
Concern is growing that criminals will try to break into a British zoo at night, kill or tranquillise rhinos, and cut off the horns. The potential profits might be very tempting, as a single big horn could weigh more than 5kg and be worth more than $200,000.
In the past four years rhino poaching has exploded in Africa – South Africa especially – going from a total of 13 animals killed for their horn in South Africa in 2007 to 448 in 2011, the highest number ever recorded. Twelve have already been killed in South Africa this year.
The head of Biaza (the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariaums), Miranda Stevenson, said she was “horrified” at the threat, but that, while security made it difficult to get into zoos, “it isn’t impossible. Rhinos are big animals and in good weather most zoos will leave them out at night.”
A source from a big zoo in southern England said: “We are aware of the warning but our security is pretty tight. We have keepers living on site and they make night patrols.”
Detectives first became aware of the threat to zoos after a man was caught trying to smuggle a rhino horn out of Britain to Asia – which turned out to have come from an animal which had died of natural causes in Colchester Zoo.
Powdered rhino horn has long been used as an ingredient in traditional Asian medicine, where it is reputed to lessen fevers.
However, an urban myth about a senior Vietnamese politician who reputedly had his cancer cured by rhino horn swept across Asia in 2008, even though the politician has never been identified or come forward.
Andrew McVey, Species Programme Manager at WWF-UK, said, “A lot of effort is going into addressing the poaching, but we have not been as successful as we would like to be,” he said.
The knock-on effects have involved almost 50 targeted burglaries of museums holding rhino heads in Britain and the Continent.
In February, the mounted head of a black rhino was taken from Sworders Fine Art Auctioneers in Stansted Mountfitchet, Essex, and in May a similar head was taken from the Educational Museum in Haslemere, Surrey.
- Medical myth is dooming the rhino to extinction (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
- South Africa boosts rhino wardens (bbc.co.uk)
- Rhino Crisis Round Up: Hope for Asian Rhinos & More (planetsave.com)
- South Africa: 448 Rhinos Killed in 2011 [Warning: Graphic] (planetsave.com)
- Rhino Poaching Hits New Record High in South Africa (treehugger.com)
- Rhino horn price spike drives record poaching (go.theregister.com)
- Rhino poaching soars, horns worth more than gold (msnbc.msn.com)
- Desperation shows after black year for rhinos (earthtimes.org)