Defending the Rhino

As demand for rhino horn soars, police and conservationists in South Africa pit technology against increasingly sophisticated poachers

Infamously fierce, rhinoceroses, pictured is a black rhino in Kenya, are victims of rumors that have driven the price of their horn to hundreds of dollars an ounce. (NHPA / Photoshot)
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The release process itself has also changed. In the macho game capture culture of the past, it was like a rodeo: A lot of vehicles gathered around to watch. Then someone opened the crate and the rhino came busting out, like a bull entering an arena. Sometimes it panicked and ran till it hit a fence. Other times it charged the vehicles, often as documentary cameras rolled. “It was good for television, but not so good for animals,” said Flamand. Game capture staff now practice “soft releases.” The rhino is sedated in its crate, and all the vehicles move away. Someone administers an antidote and backs away, leaving the rhino to wander out and explore its new neighborhood at leisure. “It’s very calm. It’s boring, which is fine.”

These new rhino habitats are like safe houses, and because of the renewed threat of poaching, they are high-tech safe houses at that. Caretakers often notch an animal’s ear to make it easier to identify, implant a microchip in its horn for radio frequency identification, camera-trap it, register it in a genetic database and otherwise monitor it by every available means short of a breathalyzer.

Early this year, Somkhanda Game Reserve, an hour or so up the road from Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, installed a system that requires implanting a GPS device the size of D-cell batteries in the horn of every rhino on the property. Receivers mounted on utility poles register not just an animal’s exact location but also every movement of its head, up and down, back and forth, side to side.

A movement that deviates suspiciously from the norm causes an alarm to pop up on a screen at a security company, and the company relays the animal’s location to field rangers back at Somkhanda. “It’s a heavy capital outlay,” said Simon Morgan of Wildlife ACT, which works with conservation groups on wildlife monitoring, “but when you look at the cost of rhinos, it’s worth it. We have made it publicly known that these devices are out there. At this stage, that’s enough to make poachers go elsewhere.”

A few months after the Vietnamese courier went to prison, police conducted a series of raids in Limpopo Province. Frightened by continued rhino poaching on their land, angry farmers had tipped off investigators to a helicopter they had seen flying low over their properties. Police traced the chopper and arrested Dawie Groenewald, a former police officer, and his wife, Sariette, who operated trophy hunting safaris and ran a game farm in the area. They were charged with being kingpins in a criminal ring that profited from contraband rhino horns and also with poaching rhinos on their neighbors’ game farms. But what shocked the community was the allegation that two local veterinarians, people they had trusted to care for their animals, had been helping to kill them instead. Rising prices for rhino horn, and the prospect of instant wealth, had apparently shattered a lifetime of ethical constraints.

Conservationists were shocked, too. One of the veterinarians had been a go-between for the Groenewalds when they purchased 36 rhinos from Kruger National Park in 2009. Investigators later turned up a mass grave with 20 rhino carcasses on the Groenewald farm. Hun­dreds of rhinos were allegedly killed by the conspirators. Thirteen people have been charged in the case so far, and the trial is scheduled for spring of 2012. In the meantime, Groenewald has received several new permits for hunting white rhinos.

Illegal trafficking in rhino horn does not seem to be confined to a single criminal syndicate or game farm. “A lot of people are gobsmacked by how pervasive that behavior is throughout the industry,” said Traffic’s Milliken. “People are just blinded by greed—your professional hunters, your veterinarians, the people who own these game ranches. We have never seen this level of private sector complicity with gangs supplying horn to Asia.”

Like Milliken, most conservationists believe trophy hunting can be a legitimate contributor to the conservation of rhinos. But they have also seen that hunting creates a moral gray zone. The system depends on harvesting a limited number of rhinos under permits issued by the government. But when the price is right, some trophy-hunting operators apparently find they can justify killing any rhino. Obtaining permits becomes a technicality. The South African government is debating a moratorium on rhino hunting.

For Milliken, the one hopeful sign is that the price for rhino horn seems to have spiked too quickly to be attribut­able to increased demand alone. That is, the current crisis may be a case of the madness of crowds—an economic bubble inflated by speculative buying in Asia. If so, like other bubbles, it will eventually go bust.

In the meantime, the rhinos continue to die. At Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, poachers last year killed 3 black rhinos and 12 whites. “We have estimated that what we are losing would basically overtake the birthrate in the next two years, and populations will start to drop down,” said San-Mari Ras, a district ranger. That is, the park may no longer have any seed stock to send to other new habitats.

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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