Saving the horn of Africa

Saving the horn of Africa

The rhino is under threat from illegal poachers, but rangers in South Africa are fighting back

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Lawrence Munro takes to the sky to catch poachers
Lawrence Munro takes to the sky to catch poachers
Photo: Chris Lau

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Zama Ncube protects wildlife on the reserve, including rhino, warthogs, and giraffes
Zama Ncube protects wildlife on the reserve, including rhino, warthogs, and giraffes
Photo: Chris Lau

Rhino horns are worth more than their weight in gold on the black market, commanding as much as HK$500,000 per kg. Sadly, it's a prize that criminal groups will risk almost anything to get their hands on.

Criminals send poachers to hunt down the rhino - which are an endangered species - in South Africa. In the past, they were equipped with GPS, night-vision goggles and AK-47s. The rhino didn't stand a chance.

Now the poachers are even more sophisticated. They use dart guns and tranquilisers to avoid detection from police and park rangers. These poachers are also violent. They've been known to bury grenades underneath the dead body of a rhino to kill anyone who goes to investigate.

"It's a war," says Lawrence Munro, a ranger and air surveillance officer who has dedicated the past 15 years to fighting poachers in South Africa.

"People die. We've killed a number of [poachers] and we've also lost officers. For any step the law enforcement authorities take, the criminals will take a counter-step. It goes on forever."

Last year an average of three rhino were murdered every day in South Africa. The death toll has increased by 35 to 50 per cent every year since 2011. At the last count, as few as 25,000 rhino live in the wild. The International Union for Conservation of Nature warned that deaths will exceed births in 2014, and the rhino population could dip below 10,000 by 2020.

Hong Kong is a smuggling hub for illegal rhino horns. Customs has seized 180 kg of rhino horns over the past four years from South Africa. Many of these horns are on their way to Vietnam and other countries in Asia, where the keratin-based horn is believed to cure everything from hangovers and fever to cancer. There is, however, no scientific evidence for these claims.

Last month, 33 pieces of seized rhino horn, along with some carved ivory items, were returned to South Africa to be used in court as evidence. Hopefully this will lead to the successful prosecution of poachers and smugglers.

Before that, Young Post visited South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal province, one of the major anti-poaching battlegrounds and home to a black rhino breeding project. We wanted to find out what it will take to stop the killing.

The game reserves in KwaZulu-Natal are three times the size of Hong Kong, so it's hard for rangers to keep track of the rhino and hunt down the poachers. A pair of eyes in the sky is useful.

Munro heads an air surveillance unit named Zululand Anti-Poaching Wing, or ZAP-Wing for short, which was established in 2011 by a group of wildlife reserves. With a fleet of four helicopters and light planes, along with five pilots, the unit patrols the region from the air. When needed, it quickly transports extra firearms and officers to help rangers on the ground catch the poachers.

"We offer a technological advantage to the rangers that historically they haven't had before," says Munro. "There's a good synergy there. [Air patrol] gives them confidence … It's all about co-ordination and relationships. Although we wear different uniforms, we all speak the same rhino language."

By far the most common scenario is that poachers shoot the rhino dead and hack its horn off with an axe. But the recent trend of using veterinary drugs to kill rhino in KwaZulu-Natal has concerned Munro. "You cannot legally buy the drugs unless you're a vet. That's why it's worrying," he says. "It's clear to us there are [vets] who are becoming corrupt and will be making a lot of money due to the risk-reward ratio. If they were found out they [would] go to jail and never be able to practise again."

Although South Africa is arresting more poachers each year, more rhino are also being killed. Munro says the rangers can catch only those poachers doing the dirty work on the ground, not the masterminds behind the operation. "We won't make any [major] change in the long-term," he says.

Munro says that the global community has to step up to tackle the criminal network, corruption and end-users in countries such as Vietnam, which power the trade.

However, the conservation group Wildlife ACT Fund has a different approach: education.

"The poachers don't come straight into the reserve: they collect information or hire a guide from the surrounding villages," says Zama Ncube, the group's rhino-tracking expert who works at Somkhanda Community Game Reserve.

"If they offer a high price to find the rhino, it would be hard to resist - people are hungry."

Half the people of KwaZulu-Natal live in poverty, with an average household making only HK$47,000 each year, reports the Association for Rural Advance. About 45 per cent don't have a job and there's also a shortage of schools.

To prevent locals from helping the poachers, the Wildlife ACT Fund has started to teach villagers in Somkhanda to appreciate wildlife. It has trained some as eco-tourism guides. It also took students from nine schools on a field trip to learn from experts such as Ncube about how the ecosystem works, the relationships between animals, and why nature reserves are important.

"In the past, the kids [wanted to join] the police or [become a] doctor," says Wishwell Mabuya, a former school principal who is now a conservationist at Wildlife ACT Fund. "Now they know rangers, tour guides and conservationists make a reasonable living and can do [some] good for nature, too."

Ncube doesn't agree with the suggestion made by some people that legalising the trade of rhino horns is the best way to solve the problem. Some people believe flooding the market with horns that are legally harvested will destroy the profits of the illegal crime groups.

Other people suggest injecting the horns with poison, or removing the horn all together. However, these tactics won't bring an end to the trade, says Ncube. Instead, the world needs to turn its attention to the root of the problem - the consumers of rhino horn in Asia.

In 2011, Ncube and three rangers invited conservationists from Vietnam and China to trek 300km through the heartland of the black and white rhino to raise awareness of the animal's plight. No one took up the invitation.

Munro believes future generations may never see a rhino living in the wild. He says the rhino's only chance is if consumers in Asia understand the damage their demand is doing.

"Rhino poaching is causing human suffering and animal suffering, too," says Munro. "It's causing political instability. [It is all because of] greed. I would urge people not to deal with rhino horns."

Young Post travelled to South Africa courtesy of Panda Safari and South African Airways

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Saving the horn of Africa

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