The demise of the Rhino in Africa. Picture and text Tony Mills
Thandi, along with two other Rhinos, were peacefully grazing at dawn when the blast of a rifle reverberated around the reserve. Three more shots echoed as the projectiles ensured that their target was met. The animals felt a stinging in their flanks as the anesthetic began to take effect on the nervous system, the “spinning sensation” causing them to topple over. From the shelter of the tree line, figures silently emerged. They surrounded the semi-conscious animals, maneuvering them into a position which would make the horns easily accessible for the impending massacre. The sounds of a chain saw shattered the silence and pangas swished as they slashed at the horns, gauging huge notches, some well below the base. Time was of the essence for these poachers and scant concern was given to the barbaric and brutal aspects of the removal of the horn or the trauma it would cause. Once their ghoulish task had been completed, the poachers melted away into the darkness, their grisly load causing the sand to become damp with blood as the rhinos were left - still forms lying on their sides barely breathing. One wonders how could they, the poachers, not be affected by the sight of the severely disfigured animals which they left bleeding, at the mercy of the elements to suffer, and most probably die? When a planned surgical anesthetic takes place, an antidote is administered to bring the animal back to consciousness and their recovery is monitored. Poachers give no consideration to this procedure, these horrific attacks typifying the ruthless actions of the illegal rhino horn traders.
Whilst one might be forgiven for thinking that the use of the drug M99, is a more humane method for the anesthetising of the animals before removing the horn, sadly the reverse applies as, while the rhino are sedated, they are aware of the activity around them and are able to experience pain, albeit to a lesser degree but sufficient to traumatise them. When animals are left lying on their side, continual movement causes retinal damage to the eye facing the ground, as the eyes remain open during the effect of the drug on the animal and the removal of the horn.
In this specific tragic case, it was a number of hours later that the severely injured rhinos were found, and the rescue operation swung into action. Veterinarian Dr. William Fowlds, no stranger to the sight of the senseless butchery before him, quietly set about attempting to save the two remaining survivors, Thandi and Thembo. This episode of the rescue has been well documented, but suffice to say that the unstinting efforts of Dr. Fowlds and his team, saved both Thandi and Themba. Sadly, Themba drowned 24 days later in a nearby dam, having not being able to clamber out due to the steep sides. This sad event was a highly emotional day at Kariega Private Reserve, leaving Dr. Fowlds emotionally and physically drained. As it turned out, all the efforts to save Thandi were not in vain as, in January 2015, two years after the carnage, she miraculously produced a healthy calf.
Unfortunately, not all the stories of these continued brutal attacks, (1215 rhinos were illegally killed for their horns in 2014,) have had a successful conclusion. Eight straight years of an ever-increasing slaughter, 21% up on 2013, or viewed in a different light, one rhino killed every 8 hours, makes it imperative that these unacceptable records be reduced dramatically if the rhino species is to be saved from extinction. As I write, 49 Rhino have already been killed for their horns in 2015; many more will be slaughtered by the time this article goes to press.
The worlds rhino population has been brought to virtual extinction due to man’s insatiable appetite for the horn. They have been prized for centuries for their supposed healing properties as an aphrodisiac and for the beautiful translucent colours which appear when carving is done on a knife handle. They are highly treasured in the Yemen, the carved handles being used for the Jambiya, a curved dagger given to Yemeni boys at the age of 12, as a sign of manhood. Thankfully, the imports of the rhino horn were banned in the Yemen in 1982. At last, science is stepping in to dispel the myths surrounding the rhino horn which comprises totally of the protein Keratin, the chief component found in finger nails, hair and animal hooves. There is nothing scientifically or medically evident to suggest that that the rhino horn has any curative properties which support the claims of the suppliers of Chinese traditional medicines.
With the ingrained beliefs, which are centuries old, there is of course the possible placebo effect in isolated cases. These are the conclusions of Universities around the world including, the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Ecologist Raj Amin of the Zoological Society of London and his team, have managed to finger print horn samples, through the dietary levels present in the keratin, giving an indication of the animal population they came from, enabling forensics to be applied in law enforcement. On the curative properties of rhino horn, Dr Raj Amin comments “you may as well chew your fingernails.”
In the Eastern Cape, the poachers appear more high tech and better equipped than their counterparts to the North, in the Kruger National Park, who are armed mainly with high-powered hunting rifles and AK47’s. The AK47’s seem to be used in counter attack when confronted by the Reserve’s anti-poaching units. This brings up the question of the cost to human life. Previously, a game ranger’s function was to carry out conservation duties, Park maintenance and to advise tourists about the rules and regulations pertaining to the area. These days, many rangers are doubling as anti-poaching units who put their lives at risk daily in the line of duty. There can be as many as 3 to 4 contacts per day with poachers, often resulting in fire fights which puts extreme pressure on the ranger and his family. On the other hand, the poachers, often from Mozambique, because of the dismal economic conditions, are easily recruited and because of their lowly status in the feeding chain, are considered as cannon fodder by their superiors further up on the chain of command. There was a report from uMkhunze Reserve that on Christmas day, while most people were enjoying a Christmas luncheon at home, in the Reserve, with temperatures hovering at 42c, a pair of rangers on routine patrol encountered 3 rhino horn poachers. Back up was called for and field officers of the uMkhunze Anti-Poaching unit, responding to the call, made contact with the poachers and a firefight ensued. The rangers, in self-defense, returned the fire, fatally wounding one of the suspects. That evening, two of the three rangers involved in the fire fight, spent the night in jail for having defended themselves and performing their duty, under extremely difficult conditions. These anti-poaching units are to be commended for working under such trying conditions. Sporting Rifle magazine, with their readers, donated 15,400 GB pounds to support rhino conservation in uMkhunzi Reserve, which went into purchasing solar powered geysers and to providing hot water to the isolated picket camps. A real morale booster for the field officers and well deserved too.
South African Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, said in a recent press briefing, that steps were being made to curb this scourge of rhino horn poaching. Nothing startling new emerged from the statement with the possible exception of closer cooperation with the Mozambican authorities in signing an agreement to that effect. Other issues were addressed such as working more closely with Interpol and other countries around the world to cooperate more closely in monitoring the movement of the horn. https://www.environment.gov.za/media/releases 10th February 2015
There is no easy solution to this problem. Education has been one of the options, preferably by high profile celebrities, to dispute the so-called curative and aphrodisiac properties of rhino horn. These discussions usually take place in the countries where the demand for the horn is high. Poisoning the horn raised too many moral dilemmas, where such actions were considered tantamount to murder should any fatalities occur. (What about the rhino being slaughtered by real bullets?). The actual treatment of the horn in this fashion has also been questioned, as to how much poison the horn can absorb if any, to effectively achieve the desired result of the end user being reluctant to play Russian roulette by ingesting it, or the reduction of demand for the product. At the time of writing the issue seems to have gone into limbo, due to the fact that poison cannot be absorbed into the horn. Even knowing that the horn has been poisoned, It would be made into a cup, the cup rates high on the status list in the ever-increasing disposable incomes in Vietnam.
The Xaysavang Syndicate was classic example of what lengths they would to go to obtain trophy rhino horn permits ’legally” Chumlong Lemtongthai, a senior director of Xaysavang Trading and Export, along with other members of the syndicate, were arrested in 2011, at a house in Bedford View, Johannesburg. He was charged with 23 counts of obtaining rhino hunting permits under false pretences. These permits were to be used by young Thai women, many of whom had been trafficked to South Africa as sex workers, to become “Sham” hunters. In exchange for their passports to obtain the documentation required for the permits, the girls were rewarded with an amount of R5000.00 each and a trip to “hunt” rhino. The owner of the canned hunting outfit stood to make around ZAR16 million by providing in excess of 40“trophy” horns to the Laotian syndicate, to be distributed to the highly lucrative markets of Thailand,Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Korea. Conditions of the permit expressly insist that each trophy has to have been shot by the permit holder. The young Thai “Ladies”, so petite, could barely lift the hunting rifles never the less shoot them, were posed next to the kill for photographs. At the time of the rhinos being shot by professional hunters, the huntresses were miles away in the bush, only to be summonsed when the kill was over. The initial sentence passed on Chumlong was forty years, but was reduced twice on appeals to a mere slap on the wrist
Closing off the huge gaps along the border of Mozambique sounds good, until one takes into account the massive area that would have to be policed and the manpower which would have to be recruited. Add to that scenario, the offers of bribes to officials look the other way. Do not overlook the fact this is a multimillion dollar racket, controlled by the most ruthless individuals and syndicates one could possibly imagine, which would have the made Mafia in their heyday look like a girl guides picnic. One of the solutions bandied about was to legalise trade in Rhino horn. This would mean CITES lifting the ban on Rhino horn, which would need a 2/3 vote of approval worldwide, a daunting task to say the least. It would only need a few votes from non-rhino countries to veto the ban to negate any success in the lifting the ban. Planned dehorning has also been an option. Care would have to be taken in seeing that all of the rhinos on the reserve were dehorned at the same time, or there would be the danger of the alpha male not being able to defend himself should a young bull decide to challenge him. The alpha male would certainly be killed. Trophy hunting was another option, which would attract many hunters worldwide. The rhino which would be chosen as trophy status, would be old non breeding specimens accounting for a tiny percentage of the rhino population. The revenue from these permits would provide funding which could be ploughed back into the conservation of species. Over the past eight years, some 400,000 hectares of traditional rhino range has been lost as rhino were either decimated, or relocated for various reasons, mostly financial, as the costs of trying to protect their investment spirals out of control.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel? If all the conservationist and protagonists agree to disagree and group together to work on viable solutions to reduce the slaughter, the sooner the scourge will slow down.