Wits University professor, with the help of various partners, launches the Rhisotope Project that will use nuclear isotopes to deter rhino poaching.
World rhino was celebrated on September 22. Rhinos are in serious danger due to continuous poaching. This year alone, almost 800 rhinos have been slaughtered for their horns in South Africa. Wits Vuvuzela takes a look at some of the methods currently being used by various organisations to save the rhino from extinction.
- Anti-poaching patrols
This is the most commonly used method of conservation. Rangers drive and walk around reserves policing fence lines and serving as the first line of defence for the rhino.
Robin Cook, MSc. Candidate in Ecology at the University of the Witwatersrand says the only challenge with this method is that there is a continuous stream of poachers entering the parks and so it feels as if it is a never ending battle that the anti-poaching rangers have to deal with.
Established in 1992, the Protrack Anti- Poaching unit was one of the first anti-poaching units in South Africa. Volunteers undergo an anti-poaching course that allows them to provide specialist rural security services to farms.
2) De-Horning Rhino
Rhino’s horns are removed to stop poachers from killing them for their horn. This method has been met with mixed responses.
Sceptics feel that this technique removes the animals’ main characterising feature and poachers still kill the animals even when they’ve been dehorned. According to Save the Rhino, this is often attributed to the stub of horn that is left after removal. If the horn is cut too close to the germinal layer, this could damage the horn base and lead to deformed horn re-growth. Although poaching is made less profitable by dehorning, poachers will still kill for a horn stub due to its high value.
Dr Joseph Okori of the WWF says the horns usually grow back at about 3-4 inches every year, which means there is regrowth every 3-4 years, which means dehorning again and again.
While there have been success stories in both Namibia and South Africa. From 1989, Namibia started dehorning rhino to protect them from poachers. This project was successful as none of the dehorned rhino were poached. In Mpumalanga, South Africa, (excluding Kruger NP) out of the 33 rhinos killed from 2009-11, only one was a dehorned rhino.
3) Treating rhino horn
With this method the rhino horn is treated with a visible pink dye that is meant to deter poachers.
Cook explains that a compound made up of ectoparasiticides and indelible dye that contaminates the horn and renders it useless for ornamental or medicinal use is injected into the horn. The dye can also be detected by airport scanners, even when the horn has been grounded into a powder.
However, research by the SANParks shows that the poison may not infiltrate into the entire horn, and therefore the horn may still be usable in the market. Also human ethical and legal risks are involved when it comes to treating the horn while consequences on the welfare and health of the animal remains uncertain with this method.
4) High tech and Innovative Systems
Technology has is also being used in efforts to save the rhino. Drones, high tech fencing and various other gadgets are helping to beef up security for the animals.
Cook says, “It provides conservation management with a new tool for anti poaching as drones can see far more than what humans on foot can.”
Helicopters and sniffer dogs are included in the technologically advanced methods of conservation. Although these gadets are are quite expensive . In 2014, SANParks had received an initial grant funding of R254.8 million to establish air mobility capacity and purchase a helicopter in the Kruger National Park. This year they received a second helicopter to assist in the anti poaching effort.
5) Rhino trophy hunting
Due to the high expenses incurred in rhino conservation efforts, rhino hunting is used as a method to pay for the care of other rhinos. One rhino must die for others to live.
“It is a touchy subject, as many people are anti-hunting, especially when it is a rhino considering just how many are being poached.” Says Cook.
This method has the potential to ensure that reserves with an abundance of rhino can secure funds to back conservation efforts.
“We believe that there is no single solution to the poaching crisis in and a range of related activities are needed right along the illegal trade chain.” Says Mxhalisa.
The WWF has developed a National Rhino Programme which focuses its efforts on boosting rhino numbers, benefiting communities around rhino reserves, breaking illegal trade networks, building bridges and working together across borders and bursting the bubble of demand in Asia.
It might not be long until rhinos are extinct. Kirsty Brebner from the Endangered Wildlife Trust gave an Eco talk at Wits on Thursday, highlighting the critical state in which rhinos are in.
According to Brebner the Western Black and Vietnamese rhinos are already extinct, “There should be a global horror,” she said.
“If you look at some of the costs, rhinos alone, assuming R350 000 per animal, which might be a little bit conservative, and considering the time since 2008 we’ve lost nearly 4 000 rhinos.
“That amounts to R1.35 billion in national assets. Can you imagine if somebody stole R1.35 billion diamonds, or gold? It would be an absolute national outcry,” Brebner said.
Brebner says that a project that was once called “Rhinos in Distress” is now called “Rhinos in Crisis”.
“Poachers have moved south and now they have our population in their rifle sights,” said Brebner.
Brebner gave specific numbers concerning rhino poaching, “Black rhino numbers were estimated to be about 100 000 in Africa in the early 1950’s, and we’ve probably got 4000 or 5000 left, 39% of those are in South Africa. The really major black rhino range states are Zimbabwe, Kenya and Namibia.
“The numbers [of rhinos poached] have escalated since then with a record of 1 215 animals killed and that’s a conservative estimate.”
When speaking about government involvement in this crisis, Brebner said: “The figures of this year are not available, the Department of Environmental Affairs, in their wisdom, have decided to stop issuing statements of statistics and are only going to do so every three or four months.”
The history of rhino poaching
In addressing the reasons behind the spike in rhino poaching Brebner said: “Well unfortunately rhinos have always been a subject of mythology and terrible persecution for their horns, for this strange atomical horn, that really is nothing more than what’s made up of your finger nails or hair.”
Brebner went on to describe the history of rhino poaching, rhino horns were used in traditional Chinese medicine for approximately 2000 years and it was used mainly to reduce fevers.
Contrary to popular belief she said there has been very little use of rhino horn as an aphrodisiac.
“But unfortunately because of the hype that the western media have had over rhino horn as an aphrodisiac, they’ve actually created a new market with that hype,” she said.
Action being taken to curb poaching
Brebner spoke about community involvement in the rhino poaching business, “Communities have generally been marginalized from conservation, for many years it really became a ‘them’ and ‘us’ situation, they were outside the fences and they considered what was inside the fences as something not to do with them.
“Communities are absolutely critical. Firstly they are the first to know when poachers come into the villages, they are the first to know when people suddenly have a lot of money, and people suddenly buy 4×4’s when they had a bicycle before.”
What we’ve done with communities is empowered their leaders to raise awareness and impart knowledge on the plight of the rhino, Brebner said.
As organised crime comes into communities, so does the moral and social decay that happens as people get large amounts of ill-gotten money.