A growing black-market demand for rhino horns is driving a profitable new wave of high-tech poaching that threatens the fight to save the rhinoceros from extinction.
The heart of the crisis lies in South Africa, where nearly one rhinoceros per day was lost to poaching this year alone.
Conservationists fear the issue could run over into other regions, pushed by a surge in the demand for the horn in Asia, most notably in Vietnam, where it is used as a traditional medicine and can sell for tens of thousands of dollars for a single horn.
More than 70 percent of the world’s remaining rhinos are in South Africa. This year, the kill count stands at 316, up from 122 last year, and a jump from less than 10 each year two decades ago, according to Joseph Okori, African rhino coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
“It has been a disastrous year for rhino conservation,” Okori told AFP.
Okori blamed the rise in poaching on “well-organized syndicates” that use helicopters, night-vision equipment, tranquilizers and silencers to hunt their prey at night. The syndicates in South Africa “operate on very high-tech. They are very well-coordinated,” he said. “This is not normal poaching.”
Experts estimate there are around 25,000 rhinos left in the world, with three species in Asia and two in Africa. Hunting and deforestation has already pushed the Asian rhinos to the brink of extinction. The International Union for Conservation and Nature (IUCN) lists both Javan and Sumatran rhinos as critically endangered and Indian rhinos as vulnerable.
Conservationists have fought to restore Africa’s black and white rhino species, both devastated by hunting in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Thanks to the creation of national parks and efforts to curtail poaching, the southern white rhino, once thought to be extinct, now numbers 17,500 and continues to grow. Black rhinos — population 4,200 — are also continuing to rise.
But the resurgence now faces a huge setback as a new wave of poaching arises.
While the rhino horn trade is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the use of rhino horn in Asian medicines has continued to feed the demand. Just recently, one rhino horn fetched an astounding 70,000 dollars, according to CITES.
Wildlife monitoring group Traffic, which has studied the medicinal use of rhino horn powder, says the substance is used as a fever-reducer in traditional Chinese medicine. In Vietnam, a recent report said the belief that rhino horn can cure cancer has emerged.
Traffic’s director for east and southern Africa, Tom Milliken, said that belief is helping drive the current surge in poaching for the Vietnam black-market. “Vietnam suddenly emerged in the mid-2000s as a new market,” he told AFP.
“In my view it is the largest rhino horn market in the world today and really stands behind this trade,” he said.
Milliken led a group of South African officials to Vietnam in October to meet with his colleagues there on measures to halt the trade on rhino horns, but no agreements have been reached as of yet.
South African officials are meanwhile targeting the supply side. The government launched a National Wildlife Crime Investigation Unit in October to crack down on poaching.
Parks and reserves have also begun a range of inventive measures to fight poaching, including dying the horns, tracking them with micro-chips and cutting them off before poachers can get to them.
But Milliken fears the crackdown in South Africa will only displace the problem to other regions. “That’s the whole history of the rhino horn trade to Asia,” he said.
“There’s unlimited consumer demand driving this, and if it’s not contained at source, it historically has swept from one country to another,” he added.
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