The first time I saw a rhino I was 12, in a game reserve in South Africa. I will never forget the excitement I felt walking behind our guide through the bush, looking out for a 1400kg near-sighted relic of a prehistoric time.
I was excited, but also a little scared. What if we startled the rhino and it charged us? Being run down by a rhino would probably be similar to being run over by an Oslo tram – it takes as long to get up speed, but once it does, it’s hard to stop! But I was nervous for no reason. We did see a rhino on the walk, very calmly grazing as we stood quietly and watched it. That first encounter with a rhino left me permanently in awe of these magnificent animals.
Rhino conservation successes
In 2010 I was lucky enough to have another opportunity see rhinos in the wild, this time the more rare black rhino, on a walk in North-West Namibia in late 2010. Twenty years ago it wasn’t easy to spot rhinos in this area because rampant poaching had reduced the numbers to an all-time low. However, because of the success of Namibia’s community based natural resource management programme, which enables local communities to obtain rights to manage and to benefit from sustainable wildlife management, there has been an incredible recovery of wildlife in Namibia, including of black rhinos. Communities now have a vested interest in making sure their wildlife is sustainably managed and to protect it against poaching. In the past they may have turned a blind eye to someone poaching, or done it themselves, but not anymore. Namibia now has the largest number of black rhinos in the world.
The largest white rhino I ever saw was in the Hluhluwe-Mfolozi Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa – it looked the size of a minivan! Hluhluwe-Mfolozi is the site of the southern white rhino resurgence which began with Operation Rhino in the 1960s. Prior to that, southern white rhinos were on the brink of extinction, but a team of dedicated conservationists lead by the inspiring Dr Ian Player managed to reverse this and in the early 2000s there were approximately 20 000 southern white rhinos.
Resurgence in rhino poaching
Despite these incredible conservation successes in southern Africa, the survival of rhinos is once again uncertain. The northern white rhino sub-species is already considered extinct and if the current poaching continues we may have no rhinos left in the wild within a decade or two. In South Africa, the stronghold of African rhinos, there has been a 3000% increase in rhino poaching between 2007 and 2012: from 13 in 2007 to 448 last year. This year, South Africa has already lost 339 rhinos to poaching.
The increasing demand for rhino horn in Asia, mainly Vietnam and China, is mainly the cause of this increase in poaching. Rhino horn is used in those countries for traditional remedies, such as a “cure” for cancer, or as a health tonic, despite it having no proven medicinal value. The trade in rhino horn for such purposes is illegal in terms of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which is signed by 175 countries including Norway, China and Vietnam. In 1993 the Chinese government also banned the use of rhino horn (or parts of any other endangered species), in traditional medicine. Even so, massive amounts of poached rhino horn are still making its way illegally into Vietnam and China.
Suffering brutal deaths
Despite their size and large, dangerous looking horns, rhinos are not fearsome creatures. They are usually very calm and don’t charge unless they feel threatened. But they die violent, brutal deaths at the hands of poachers. Poachers stalk them at night, they shoot at them, often injuring them but not (yet) killing them. Baby rhinos, squealing in terror as the poachers hack the horns off their often still-living but mortally wounded mothers, are also butchered if they get in the way of the poachers. If the babies are not killed, they are left to fend for themselves, often becoming prey for hyenas. Poachers increasingly hack off not only the visible part of the horn of the rhinos, but also dig deep into the rhinos’ faces, carving out as much of the remaining horn as possible. They leave the rhinos dead or brutally maimed and dying. And all this just to meet an increasing demand for a substance that is made up of the same material as your fingernails – and which has the same ‘medicinal’ value.
It’s not only rhinos that are dying for this greed: people are dying too. The poor people employed as poachers by the rich criminals trying to get the horn, and the game guards and rangers putting their lives on the line every night desperately trying to protect the rhinos. Both groups treated with equal disregard by the criminal syndicates behind this illegal trade, and not thought of by the rich consumers as they sip their “health” tonics made up of powered rhino horn.
A global movement to stop this deadly and illegal trade
To crush this deadly and illegal trade in rhino horn and other endangered wildlife we need a global movement that builds on the rhino successes of the 1960s in South Africa and 1990s in Namibia. WWF is working to do this through on the ground activities and by lobbying government officials, in countries where the wildlife is poached and countries which are allowing the illegal import of rhino horn and other illegal wildlife, to improve their law enforcement operations to end this trade. And we need you to help us end this illegal trade.