22 September 2012 marked the third Annual World Rhino Day. Many of you may have heard about it, but some of you may not have. One thing for sure is that we have all heard about the plight of the rhino at some point. Having grown up in South Africa during the ’80s and ’90s, I hold rhino conservation very close to my heart. At least once a week the news would break that a poacher ring had been dismantled by force.
During the late ’80s, rhino poaching worldwide had reached an all-time high. The overall population dropped from 70,000 animals surviving in the wild in 1970 to just 29,000 in 1992. The black rhino population in particular has dropped by 96 per cent since 1900. This alarming trend in poaching was not caused by a need for meat or hides or anything of any real use. The decline of this majestic beast is caused by one thing – the superstitious belief of certain cultures, that ingesting medicine made from their horns will relieve fevers and convulsions. This, of course, is a complete falsehood, as rhino horns are nothing more than keratin, which is essentially the same stuff your hair and nails are made from. If it did actually cure these maladies, sufferers could find a far cheaper source at the local barber. The horns are also prized in Yemen as dagger handles and are a sign of prosperity.
The rise in poaching led to the creation of sophisticated anti-poaching units in South Africa and Kenya. Often these units were run by ex-special forces operatives who had served in Angola or on the South West African border. They were well versed in bush warfare and eventually succeeded in all but destroying the rhino poaching industry in Southern Africa. In Kenya, under the command of Richard Leakey, these anti-poaching units were ordered to shoot poachers on sight, a tactic that made most people think twice about getting into or continuing the poaching game.
From the mid ’90s until around 2007, rhino populations started to rise again, with the white rhino population growing at around 9.5 per cent a year and the black rhino at 6 per cent a year. The current populations of rhino worldwide are now estimated as follows:
White rhino - 20,165
Black rhino - 4,880
Greater one-horned rhino - 2,850
Sumatran rhino - 200
Javan rhino - 50
Sadly the battle has not been won, not by a long shot. In recent years complacency in the areas of rhino conservation due to their increasing population and various regime changes mean that poaching is on the rise and it is worse and more blatant than ever before. There are no longer elite anti-poaching squads or laws to shoot on sight. In the last 255 days, 381 rhino have been killed in South Africa alone. The tactics used by the poachers are advanced and suggest that they are well funded.
They use helicopters and state-of-the-art weaponry to fly into reserves in broad daylight in order to down the beast with a burst of AK47 fire and then proceed to cut its face off with a chainsaw or angle grinder while it is still alive, often in front of its young, which are left traumatised and sometimes starve to death. I cannot apologise for the graphic description of their slow and painful death, as it is the reality of this cruel practice and people should know about it in order to do something to help.
Governments in Africa lack the funds and initiative and are often too corrupt to pursue the criminals who engage in this slaughter of these beautiful animals, and it is up to us to make sure that they are conserved for their own peace and for future generations to enjoy. You can find out more about World Rhino Day and how you can help at http://www.savetherhino.org/ and http://www.worldrhinoday.org/.