The rise of rhino poaching within South Africa

In 2006 there were 36 rhinos poached within South Africa. This is important, as South Africa has the vast majority of remaining Southern White Rhinos living within its borders (over 90%). In 2007 only 13 were killed, and it was thought that the poaching problems for the rhino was largely over. Unfortunately was is not the case, 2007 was a success in terms of limiting rhino poaching but it did not last.

Below is a graph of the deaths from rhino poaching since 2006.

Image source: WWF

Black rhino was extinct within Kruger by 1945. Great efforts between 1971 and 1989 81 animals were reintroduced, and they did well, with a population of around 300. However you do not go into an area the size of Wales hoping to run into an animal if there are only 300 (even if they are large) and so in recent times the poaching has been for white rhino horn.

Rhino horn is made of keratin, which is the same substance that fingernails is made of. Indeed if there was any medicinal benefit, we would be able to generate the same effect by eating our fingernails.

While there was some history for medicinal rhino horn in China there was none in Vietnam: there is no way of excusing this demand in Vietnam as it being part of their culture. The demand for rhino horn appears to be be traceable to a rumour that swept Vietnam in the mid-2000s that imbibing rhino horn powder had cured a Vietnamese politician’s cancer. While there is no evidence of this story (or any further detail) this has not shaken the belief. Part of the problem appears to come down to something simple: Vietnam’s economy was suddenly doing well, and created a wealthy middle class who wanted to be seen to have money and to spend it on the right things. While the belief in China and elsewhere has largely been educated away, this has not occurred for people in Vietnam. As a result the price people will pay for rhino horn has not fallen, which means that there is still a huge incentive to risk years in prison to get some.

Thankfully due to the size of the white rhino population in the Kruger, the rhino population is not loosing 5% a year (roughly 5% have been killed each year over the last 5 years, but this is roughly the number born each year). It must be remembered that the rhino population was decimated in the 1970s and 1980s so numbers are still recovering. Having said this, the white rhino is not currently in danger. At some point it may be attempted to introduce Southern White Rhinos into places where until recently the Northern White Rhino roamed. These species are significantly split genetically, however Southern White Rhinos have similar behaviour patterns so it is likely that they would fill the same niche in Sudan and elsewhere as the Northern White Rhino did.

Black Rhinos are in a different position. There were thought to be around 400,000 Black Rhino in 1900, this had fallen to 65,000 by the 1970s and 2400 by mid 1990s. While they now number is now between 5000 and 5500, this is still only just over 1% of their historic population. Coupled with their solitary nature, and their habit of browsing from bushes and trees rather than grazing, they are seen far less often.

Sadly, the news in Asia is not much better, with the greater one horned Rhino numbering around 3500. The Sumatran rhino is only thought to number 100 and the Javan rhino 61-63.

The only way to permanently protect the Rhino is to remove the demand. Work is going on to educate the Vietnamese people, in the expectation that will reduce the number of people wanting rhino horn, so reducing the price that can be got, and so making it less worth risking danger and years in prison.

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