CAPE TOWN, South Africa, January 14, 2013 – Record rhino poaching death statistics released by the South African government Friday reveal a grim picture – 668 rhinos lost their lives to poachers in 2012 – up from 14 rhinos killed by poachers in 2005.

Conservation scientists report that corrupt game industry insiders are now poaching rhinos alongside other criminal groups – all well organized, well financed and highly mobile.

rhino horns

Rhino horns taken from a carcass (Photo by Earl Ammann courtesy TRAFFIC)

The 668 rhinos killed across South Africa in 2012 is an increase of nearly 50 percent from the 448 rhinos poachers killed in 2011. Five more rhinos were killed by poachers just since the beginning of this year.

A 2012 report by the international wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, calls these rhino killings “an unprecedented conservation crisis for South Africa,” which until recently has had a stellar rhino conservation record.

TRAFFIC is a strategic alliance of the global conservation group WWF and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, which maintains the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The methods used in the most recent rhino killings show a new, very worrying dimension, says the TRAFFIC report, “The South Africa – Viet Nam Rhino Horn Trade Nexus,” co-authored by Dr. Jo Shaw, rhino co-ordinator with the South Africa chapter of WWF, and Tom Milliken of TRAFFIC,

“Typically, rhinos are killed by shooting with guns, usually AK-47 assault rifles. More recently, however, a growing number of rhinos have been killed by a single shot from a high-calibre weapon characteristically only used by wildlife industry professionals or, less frequently, have been darted with immobilization drugs and had their horns removed,” Shaw and Milliken report.

“The use of such equipment, and other evidence that has even suggested the presence of helicopters at crime scenes, represents a completely “new face” in terms of rhino poaching,” they write.

“Such developments underscore the emergence of corrupt game industry insiders into rhino poaching. Rogue game ranch owners, professional hunters, game capture operators, pilots and wildlife veterinarians have all entered the rhino poaching crisis and become active players,” write Shaw and Milliken.

“This is a unique and devastating development in South Africa, severely tarnishing the image of a key stakeholder in the rhino equation even if the majority of private rhino owners and wildlife industry personnel remain committed to protecting rhinos and supporting rhino conservation.”

A majority of the 2012 rhino deaths, 425, happened in Kruger National Park, South Africa’s premier safari destination, the new government statistics show. Poaching incidents in this park rose sharply from 252 in 2011.

In the TRAFFIC report, Show and Milliken write, “…the complicity of South African national and provincial officials undertaking or enabling illegal trade has been documented.”

“In terms of killing rhinos, four government rangers were arrested in Kruger National Park in 2012 and, at the Atherstone Nature Reserve in Limpopo, the reserve manager committed suicide after allegedly being implicated in five rhino deaths. Provincial administrators have repeatedly turned a blind eye to “pseudo-hunting,” especially in North West and Limpopo provinces, and allowed rhino hunts to transpire that violate TOPS [Threatened or Protected Species] regulations,” the TRAFFIC report states.”

rhinos

A White Rhino, Ceratotherium simum simum, cow and calf (Photo by Martin Harvey courtesy WWF-Canon)

“The most shocking aspect of the illegal trade in rhino horn has been the poaching of live rhinos on a brutal scale. For 16 years, between 1990 and 2005, rhino poaching losses in South Africa averaged 14 animals each year.”

“In 2008, this figure rose to 83 and, by 2009, the number had reached 122 rhinos. In 2010, poaching escalated dramatically throughout the year, nearly tripling the toll and reaching 333 rhinos killed. In 2011, the total again climbed to a new annual record of 448 rhinos lost,” they report. Last year, 668 rhinos were killed across South Africa.

Arrests of suspected poachers and smugglers in South Africa also increased in 2012, with 267 people now facing charges related to rhino crimes.

In November, a Thai man was sentenced to a record 40 years in prison for conspiring to smuggle rhino horns to Asia.

Rhino horns are believed to have medicinal properties and are seen as highly desirable status symbols in some Asian countries, notably Vietnam, whose native rhinos have recently been pushed into extinction.

While rhino horn is composed entirely of keratin, the same substance as hair and nails, and no medicinal value has been proven, the increased commercial value placed on rhino horn has drawn well-organized, well-financed and highly-mobile criminal groups into rhino poaching.

“Vietnam must curtail the nation’s rhino horn habit, which is fueling a poaching crisis in South Africa,” said Sabri Zain, TRAFFIC’s director of advocacy.

“Viet Nam appears to be the only country in the world where rhino horn is popularly gaining a reputation as an aphrodisiac,” the TRAFFIC report states, adding that the use of ground powdered rhino horn by wealthy Vietnamese to detoxify after drinking too much alcohol is “probably the most common routine usage promoted in the marketplace today.”

“Rhinos are being illegally killed, their horns hacked off and the animals left to bleed to death, all for the frivolous use of their horns as a hangover cure,” said Zain.

grinding bowl

Vietnamese man drinks from a rhino horn grinding bowl (Photo by Earl Ammann courtesty TRAFFIC)

In December, Vietnam and South Africa signed an agreement aimed at bolstering law enforcement and tackling illegal wildlife trade, including rhino horn trafficking.

The agreement paves the way for improved intelligence information sharing and joint efforts by the two nations to crack down on the criminal syndicates behind the smuggling networks.

“Whilst we commend South Africa and Vietnam for signing a Memorandum of Understanding regarding biodiversity conservation, we now need to see a joint Rhino Plan of Action being implemented, leading to more of these rhino horn seizures,” said Dr. Jo Shaw, rhino co-ordinator with the South Africa chapter of WWF.
“There is also an urgent need to work closely with countries which are transit routes for illicit rhino horn, specifically Mozambique,” said Dr. Shaw.

Two Vietnamese men were detained in separate incidents earlier this month in Vietnam and Thailand for smuggling rhino horns, which were believed to have been exported from Mozambique.

Both Mozambique and Vietnam have been given failing grades by WWF’s Wildlife Crime Scorecard for failing to enforce laws meant to protect rhinos.

The TRAFFIC report explains that all animals alive today of the southern subspecies of White Rhinoceros Ceratotherium simum simum originate from a remnant population of 20 to 50 animals that have been protected in South Africa’s Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve since 1895.

South Africa now conserves 18,800 White Rhinos, which represents nearly 95 percent of Africa’s total White Rhino population.

“The remarkable recovery of the Southern White Rhino via Natal Parks Board’s “Operation Rhino,” which pioneered wildlife translocation and other important management strategies, remains one of the world’s greatest conservation triumphs,” write Shaw and Milliken.

The report credits the country’s private sector who account for a growing proportion of the national White Rhino population. Estimates from 2010 indicate that approximately 25 percent of all White Rhinos in South Africa are privately owned.

The Southern White Rhino is now listed in the IUCN Red List’s Near Threatened category and, although conservation dependent, the subspecies is no longer regarded as a threatened or endangered species.

But Africa’s other rhino species, the Black Rhinoceros Diceros bicornis, has been nearly wiped out. The estimated 100,000 Black Rhinos in Africa in 1960, before the first catastrophic rhino poaching crisis, were reduced to just 2,410 animals by 1995, the report explains.

Since then, numbers have more than doubled to 4,880 animals in 2010, but this species is still listed as Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List.

In South Africa, Black Rhino numbers have shown a steady increase since the 1980s. South Africa now conserves an estimated 1,915 Black Rhinos – more than any other range state – and nearly 40 percent of all wild Black Rhinos alive today. Again, the private sector has played a major role in Black Rhino conservation, holding approximately 22 percent of South Africa’s current population.

“But the country’s superlative conservation record of more than a century is under threat,” write Shaw and Milliken.

They recommend that South Africa ensure that those arrested for rhino crimes are prosecuted and punished.