I just learned that yesterday was World Rhino Day, an annual initiative to raise awareness about Africa’s big poaching problem. National Geographic has a nice series of pictures and history, including a picture that’s clearly from a very different time of a zookeeper feeding peas to a rhino while it’s carrying a woman on its back.
Having just been to South Africa last month, where over 80% of the 26,000 rhinos in Africa live, I thought I’d share some of what we saw and learned. Previous posts on South Africa are here and here.
While I had known that poaching has historically been and continues to be a huge issue, I hadn’t appreciated the extent of it. Over 1,000 rhinos were poached in South Africa 2013, the largest number in recent history, and this year it looks like the number might be even higher. That’s almost 5% of the population poached, every year, and doesn’t include rhinos that die of old age and other natural causes.
I had also always assumed that poaching was most prevalent in less populated areas with few tourists and little infrastructure — somewhere deep in the bush away from conservation areas and managed parks/reserves. That couldn’t be more wrong. Most of the poaching happens in Kruger National Park, the largest and arguably most well-known and visited park in South Africa. Despite the fact that it’s only open from 6am-6pm, has a team of dedicated anti-poaching police, and that the entry/exit points appear regulated with only a handful of well guarded gates and frequent car searches, rhinos in Kruger aren’t well protected at all. About one per day is poached.
In some ways it seems the parks and reserves just need to do more of what they are doing — searches and dedicated anti-poaching patrol — and maybe be a bit more tactical about it. The first very small private reserve we visited had four rhinos as recently as a year ago. Now there are three — poachers cut through the fence in the middle of the night, killed one, and cut off his horns. We saw the bones, which the reserve kept in place to raise awareness.
Apparently at the time it was well-known that the anti-poaching police weren’t on duty from about midnight to the early morning, which in many ways defeats the purpose of having them for the other ~20 hours per day. Obviously more resources are needed. But making the hours and routes less predicable would seem to help. However, my understanding of the context is limited to a few conversations, so I’m hesitant to assume too much about which aspects of protection failed.
In the parks, our car was searched a few times, but not every time, despite the fact that we were stopped for five minutes or so at each entry or exit point. There didn’t seem to be any reason why the guards couldn’t have quickly looked in our trunk each time. Maybe they were profiling us as tourists, but they seemed more interested in finding out whether we had alcohol than guns. And given the recent arrest of some park employees for walking around with a hunting rifle, it sounds as though guns coming in and out of the park should be a focus.
At many of the parks, we did notice a culture of secrecy around the rhinos. We often asked rangers and guides how many rhinos were in parks we were visiting, and the most common answer was that they don’t disclose the information. Also, many of the parks had boards at the visitor areas where people can mark recent sightings of elusive animals such as lions, leopards, elephants, hyenas, wild dogs, etc. Rhinos would have been an obvious addition to that list, but we never saw their locations marked.
Maybe this already happens on a limited scale, or is more challenging than I appreciate, but it would seem to me that anti-poaching efforts could be improved with a bit of technology. I’ve read about parks using motion sensors. But what about adding some cameras along key roads, maybe even streaming them to the web, and crowd sourcing the monitoring. People from all over the world could check out various parts of the parks, and report anything that appears suspicious. There’s clearly a large global network of people who care. When we visited the Tembe Elephant Reserve, we learned that they have a very popular 24/7 webcam covering one of the watering holes, and there’s something similar in popular spots in Kruger. Why not take this exact model and replicate it a few hundred times over using satellite internet in different parks? I suppose there’s risk of poachers using the cameras to locate rhinos, but I think the added monitoring of the areas would more than compensate.
We also learned of some innovative approaches to reducing demand for rhino horns that have been tested on a limited basis and sound promising. One example is to inject poison and pink dye into the horns — a practice that doesn’t harm the rhinos, but would be apparent to poachers and would make anyone consuming the horn fairly sick. This sounds like a promising approach, but it would likely have to be expanded on a much larger basis before it could really reduce demand rather than shift poaching to different areas. Time will tell — hopefully it helps.
I’ve included some shots of some of the rhinos we saw below.
The first two are from Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park, where we saw about 15-20 different rhinos throughout our day-long self-drive. I didn’t notice at the time, but after reviewing the pictures closely, it’s clear this rhino has large wounds on both sides. It’s difficult to be sure, but they look like gunshot wounds (especially the one on its left in the first picture) suggesting he or she may have escaped an attempted poaching:
A couple others from the same park:
And here are a couple more from a reserve near Hluhluwe:
If you’re interested in donating to anti-poaching efforts, I found that savetherhino.org has a bunch of great programs across Africa, including one at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park.