Is the Fight Against Rhino Poaching Futile?

The plight of South Africa's rhinos is still a major point of interest in the country. It is heartbreaking that South Africa is responsible for the majority of Africa's rhinos, many having been hunted to extinction in other nations. This has largely been the result of quick action from the private and public sector in rescuing them. But despite this, it does not seem that South Africa is winning the battle against rhino poaching.

A heartbreaking story in the media recently was the attack of the Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage in northern KwaZulu-Natal in February. Five poachers cut the horns off two of the rhinos - who would soon have been returned to the wild - while they were still alive. They were mutilated to such an extent that one, Gugu, died and the other, Impi, had to be euthanised.  The staff at the orphanage were also brutalised, and while donations have flooded in for the orphanage, the story is very disheartening, especially if allegations of an inside job are to be believed.

There are happy stories. Aquila Private Game Reserve's Saving Private Rhino project welcomed its first rhino orphan just over a week ago. Now seven weeks old, the fiery little orphan's mom died from an infection on a farm in Mpumalanga and conservationist Divan Grobler took on the care of the rhino for the 17-hour drive down to the Western Cape, after spending 10 days gaining the baby's trust.

Grobler seems to be a bit of a celebrity after hand-rearing another abandoned calf, Osita, and along with 10-year-old Hunter Mitchell - who raised more than R100,000 to care for Osita - the pair make a formidable example of how normal people can make a difference in the world, especially for our beleaguered rhinos.

The orphanage at the Aquila Animal Rescue Centre is the first of its kind in the Western Cape and has the added benefits of being without snares, bush meat poachers, and opportunistic poachers with weapons coming from Mozambique that plague more northern reserves. Once the orphans are rehabilitated, there are plenty of safe reserves in the area who will certainly be willing to take them on.

I have to commend people who try against all odds to turn the tide of human destruction. Despite the obvious danger in caring for rhinos, there are people who will do anything they can to help, even risking their own lives.

But I can't help but wonder if all their hard work is futile?

Surely we need the support of government in the fight against poaching and eventual extinction. At the beginning of February, the Department of Environmental Affairs announced it would allow rhino horn to be traded domestically and a tourist visiting SA could export a maximum of two rhino horns for their own purposes. While private rhino owners are purportedly pleased with the move because they can be rid of their stockpiles of rhino horn, the Humane Society International/Africa's executive director Audrey Delsink did not agree it was the correct move, telling TimesLive the regulation would open loopholes for rhino horn laundering, and endorsement of legal rhino horn trading - "...which has significant enforcement challenges and poor capacity" - would only serve to create weak spots in our already holey system.

One company is working on creating a 3D-printed rhino horn that is based on the genetics of actual rhino horns. Although originally these 'fake' rhino horns would be available in powder form and in products as powder, it was decided that they would only be dispersed into the lifestyle goods market, such as for sculptures, chopsticks, and other decorative items. But will this stop the slow road to extinction for the rhino? Conservationists do not think so. Save the Rhino International said in a statement that it would neither reduce demand for the product nor dispel the fictions surrounding its use and would normalise the use of rhino horn. It also added that over 90% of rhino horns that were currently circulating the market were fake already, and this has not stopped poaching.

TRAFFIC, an organisation aimed at monitoring the wildlife trade, told traveller24 in 2016 that the sale of legal ivory stockpiles in 2008 actually increased the black market for the resource by 66%. Instead of curbing the slaughter of elephants, around 100,000 were killed between 2011 and 2014 because it was just that much more simple to sell 'illegal' ivory in the guise of 'legal' ivory. Of course, these kinds of loopholes are easily taken advantage of by the corrupt and corruptible.

It would appear that outwardly governments of both supply and demand countries are vehemently against wildlife and wildlife product trafficking, but neither is willing to accept their part in the issue. The supply country - South Africa for rhino horn - demands that the demand country - China or Vietnam - educate their populations on the myths of rhino horns' medicinal qualities, while the demand country expects the supply country to more seriously enforce law, capture perpetrators, and deal with the supply issue from the source. It is clear that this divided view is, however, not doing anything to help the wild animals who are the source of trafficked goods.

Certain African countries have made significant headway in the battle against animal trafficking, but this is because leadership is just as committed to protecting the resources as the rangers who are protecting the animals on a daily basis.

Perhaps this outright disrespect of animals, commodification of animals, ownership of animals comes from a more sinister place in the scheme of things: what if our spirit is declining along with the animals with whom we share this world? Imagine that everything was in balance - the fecundity of the planet and the proliferation of species was balanced in such a way that humanity could feel truly linked to the Mother Earth. And the more animals we kill - after all, we've lost 50% of the world's wildlife in the last 50 years - the less we feel like the caregivers of the world we were meant to be? We're losing that connection - can you imagine what it will be like when there is no one but us on Earth? It would be desert. Literally. Whatever the truth, it does not appear that any poachers are willing to stop, any customers are willing to stop buying, and hardly anyone at all is willing to look beyond their own selfish needs.

Further reading: 

Poaching Crisis in South Africa
WWF: Wildlife Trafficking report [PDF]
Two Nations Show Good News, Bad News for Africa's Elephants
Synthetic Rhino Horn: Will It Save the Rhino?
Can Fake Rhino Horn Stop the Poaching of a Species at Risk?

{Image credits:
Lead: By Yathin S Krishnappa - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
Second: By IkiwanerEdited by jjron - tilt correction - Own work, GFDL 1.2, Link}


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