National Geographic Society Newsroom

South Africa Regroups in War on Rhino Horn Poachers

The audience sat in stunned silence on hearing the announcement that, with five months to go, South Africa’s rhino-poaching toll for 2013 had already shot well past the 500 mark. The occasion was a meeting in Johannesburg where stakeholders were taking stock of strategies to put a brake on the killing spree. With 536 rhinos...

The audience sat in stunned silence on hearing the announcement that, with five months to go, South Africa’s rhino-poaching toll for 2013 had already shot well past the 500 mark. The occasion was a meeting in Johannesburg where stakeholders were taking stock of strategies to put a brake on the killing spree.

With 536 rhinos killed in the country by the end of July, it seemed highly likely that conservationists’ worst fear would come true. This is that the death toll for the year will surpass 2012’s shocking 668 and head for 1,000.

This would mean that humankind might for the second time in less than a century be threatening to wipe out this iconic animal that walked the planet for many millennia before us. The last time the rhino was headed for extinction was during the first half of the previous century. Then it was thanks only to the desperate efforts of a few park rangers that it got saved from mindless hunting.

At the rate it is going, say conservationists, the death rate will in three years’ time start exceeding births, and that would put South Africa’s white rhino population of about 20,000 in decline and pose an even more immediate threat to the endangered black rhino of which there are hardly more than 2,000 left in the country.

Yet, grim as the news was, the impression from the Johannesburg meeting was that good progress was being made with the development of a comprehensive strategy for tackling the scourge on many fronts. It was even tentatively suggested that the rate of killing could start being turned round within a year or so.

The initiative is being co-ordinated by central government’s Department of Environmental Affairs, whose deputy director general of biodiversity and conservation, Fundisile Mketeni, told the Johannesburg meeting: “We in government understand the rising anger at what is happening to our rhinos. But let us look at intervention holistically. We are in this thing together. Let us take hands.”

The audience was made up of police and military top brass, government officials, delegates from South African National Parks (SANParks) and provincial park agencies, private reserve and game ranch owners, environmentalists and a number of non-governmental organizations concerned with conservation.

The main theme was how to develop a cohesive strategy against the rhino poachers and their crime-syndicate bosses who recruit them from mainly poor communities and who smuggle the horn for the most part to Far Eastern destinations where it is taken in powder form under the age-old but sadly mistaken belief that it has curative and even stimulative qualities.

Discussions were centered on a report submitted to the Ministry of Environmental Affairs late last year by Mavuso Msimang, a former SANParks chief executive, who was appointed by government last year to gather views through public hearings and workshops on how best to tackle the problem of rhino poaching. His main conclusion, too, was that there was no “silver bullet” and that the only way of countering the menace was through a multi-pronged strategy.

Mketeni said he and his department agreed there was no single solution, whether it be more effective law enforcement, or reopening legal trade in rhino horn (which is being proposed as a way of undercutting the illegal trade and generating funds for rhino conservation). It had to be a comprehensive approach, he stressed.

From everything said, it is clear that law enforcement remains the main thrust of the operation. There has indeed been a steady improvement in the rate of arrests and convictions. This is put down in large part to better intelligence-gathering, more help from the public and more efficient detect-and-arrest operations by the National Wildlife Crime Reaction Unit set up last year to coordinate operations between the police’s organized crime unit, the environmental crime agencies of national and provincial park services, the prosecuting authorities, and the customs and excise and revenue services.

A DNA bank developed at the University of Pretoria’s Onderstepoort veterinary faculty has proved of growing help in linking suspects to the dead animals, securing convictions.

As helpful has been a better understanding on the part of judicial officers of the complexities and the seriousness of the crime. It has seen tougher sentences being meted out, the most notable being the 40 years in prison given last year to Thai citizen Chumlong Lemtongthai for using prostitutes to pose as hunters so that he could sell rhino horn acquired under the guise of being legally obtained trophies to fake-medicine peddlers in the Far East.

Environmentalists hope such sentences will start serving as a deterrent to would-be poachers. They are also working at getting the judiciary to impose jail sentences rather than fines, which the criminals mostly have no trouble paying from the handsome proceeds of their crime.

To back up the wide-ranging campaign, the government is setting up a national rhino fund to help cover its spiraling cost. The idea is to ensure that public funds and donations made by the private sector get used in a more controlled way.

The aim is to set up a register of all rhino-protection organizations. So many have sprung up on the back of public sentiment that there has been growing concern that some of the money collected through can-shaking at shop fronts and other means is ending up in people’s own pockets.

The permitting system for legal hunts is also being tightened. The power to issue such permits resorts with South Africa’s nine provinces. The different and lax applications of the regulations have been leading to much abuse, as in the Lemtongthai case.
To try to overcome this by centralizing the permitting system would set off a constitutional wrangle because of central government’s intrusion into provincial competencies. To get around the problem, a law has just been passed that provides for the creation of a national database that will include a register of all professional hunters and hunting operators. Permit abuses could result in them being scratched from the register and losing their operating licenses.

Much of the discussion at the Johannesburg meeting was dominated by the controversial and sometimes emotional issue of whether to reopen legal trade in rhino horn. The idea is that the horn should come from the existing government and private stockpiles obtained mainly from natural deaths, confiscated booty and dehorning. Some argued it would bring better understanding of the market and allow better control of it. Others wanted to know how one may discourage a habit by feeding it.

Keith Lockwood, an economist and econometric modeling specialist, sounded a cautionary note. He agreed that part of the strategy should be to reduce demand for rhino horn such as through public information and education campaigns in countries like China and Vietnam, with which South Africa has concluded memorandums of understanding. But neither this nor legal trade was without complexities, he warned.

With the increased wealth of people in those countries being the major reason for the upsurge in demand for rhino horn, it would be a mistake to believe the market could be shrunk by educating consumers about the fallacy of its medicinal qualities. Research showed that the market was actually growing. It showed that for every one person using rhino horn, there were five who would have liked to use it if they had the means to get it.

Lockwood said care would need to be taken about how stockpiles of horn got released through legal trade. The syndicate bosses behind the poaching and smuggling were business people. A sudden drop in price as a result of stockpiles getting released too quickly could make the syndicates kill more rhinos to make up for lost revenue. Or, if opportunities got closed to them in one country, they would turn their business to other countries. They would even turn to other animals if it became too difficult to supply rhino horn.
“We need to move away from simplistic, dogmatic and idealistic solutions. Trade needs to be part of a bigger strategy. We need to look at protecting our biodiversity as a whole,” he warned.

Of all aspects of the anti-poaching campaign though, it is going to be what happens in Kruger National Park, home to nearly half South Africa’s rhino population, that will determine its success or otherwise. It is in that 20,000-square-kilometer (7,722-square-mile) stretch of mostly savannah that the deadliest battle is being fought to keep the criminals at bay.

Of the 536 rhinos killed in South Africa during the first seven months of 2013, no fewer than 334 perished in the country’s flagship park. This despite a drastic tightening of security, involving the deployment of police and military units and the use of drones and helicopters to assist a growing corps of combat-trained rangers who do day and night patrols of the park’s worst affected areas.

There is now hope of turning the situation around.

The worst problem has been that of poachers coming across the park’s 375-kilometer (233-mile) border with Mozambique to carry out their raids. It is a vast territory to patrol and the dense vegetation offers them good cover. More and more often encounters with the park’s security forces have been turning into shootouts in which mostly poachers died, though a ranger, too, was seriously wounded in one such skirmish recently.

Most irritating to Major General Johan Jooste, a military veteran from southern Africa’s bush-war era who heads up the park’s combined security forces, has been the ability of the poachers to escape by fleeing back across the border. Some, he says, will actually wave mockingly at their pursuers once back on Mozambique soil.

They might not be able to do so much longer. The two governments and their security agencies seem finally prepared to co-operate in getting at the criminals. They have even been talking about reviving the principle of “hot pursuit”, which will allow the park’s security personnel to go after poachers even when they cross the border.

On its part, Mozambique is preparing to pass legislation to turn wildlife offenses from misdemeanors into full-blown felonies. The view has been that its lax laws have been heavily responsible for drawing the big international crime syndicates to rhino-poaching operations inside its borders and to using Maputo harbor and airport as smuggling exits.

Much will depend on how quickly and how well the two sides’ security forces get to co-operate. Big-time criminals and much money are involved, and corruption runs deep on both sides. And there is considerable mistrust, even antagonism, that needs to be overcome before they can together start putting the poachers and their bosses on the back foot.

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Leon Marshall
Nat Geo News Watch contributing editor Leon Marshall is an environmental writer in South Africa. A leading political journalist and executive editor for Africa’s largest newspaper group for years, he has won several awards, including a 2004 Reuters-IUCN Media Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. Leon has covered climate change from a global and African perspective, having attended conferences on the issue in many parts of the world. He has written extensively on the ambitious transfrontier-parks program of the sub-continent and is now writing a book on the subject.