Unless the current trajectory of rhino poaching is considerably reversed, the current positive growth in the rhino population is going to turn negative by 2013.
The horrors of the assault on South Africa's rhino population reached a new level this week when a rhino grave, containing the carcasses of 17 rhinos, was discovered in the Letaba Ranch provincial park, a reserve run by the Limpopo provincial government (see http://www.savetherhino.org/eTargetSRINM/site/568/default.aspx
One of the most worrying aspects of the poaching crisis in South Africa is that the rate of poaching has increased dramatically even during 2010. In fact, this year has been so horrible for conservation in South Africa, with approximately 270 rhinos killed thus far. From January-October overall, the daily rate of rhino poaching is 0.82 animals per day. However, if you look just at the period since 1 September, the daily rate is 1.24 animals per day. While law enforcement officials have made many high-profile arrests, the demand for rhino horn is insatiable, which means that the emergence of new poachers is a constant threat. Unless the current trajectory of rhino poaching is considerably reversed, the current positive growth in the rhino population is going to turn negative by 2013.
Preventing poaching is only one half of the problem. How do we reduce the demand for rhino horn?
Some say that we, the conservation community, should try to change attitudes in China, Vietnamand other user countries: explain that rhino horn does not actually work as medicine, or encourage a younger generation that using Traditional Chinese Medicine is old-fashioned, and that they are better off using Western medicine. But with limited resources, large populations and centuries of tradition, we could end up spending large sums and have no impact.
Others are calling for the legalisation of the trade in rhino horn. The problem for rhino managers at the moment whether in charge of the country's National Parks or Game Reserves, or those with wildlife on private or community land is that rhinos are incredibly expensive to protect, and may even now be seen as liabilities. Being able to sell horn, whether from stockpiles of horn (from natural mortalities, dehorning operations or recovered from poachers) would, they argue, generate income for the wildlife industry. There may be merit in this, but we simply do not yet know enough to make an informed decision on whether rhino horn trade would be a good thing. Would supply be able to keep up with demand? How would the market be able to differentiate between legal sources of horn and illegal ones? What are the mechanisms and institutions that would ensure that revenues from rhino horn trade would be reinvested in rhino conservation? There is a lot of work to be done before any legalization proposals can be assessed seriously.
The African Rhino Specialist Group is meeting 4-11 March 2011, and we expect coordinated and costed proposals to tackle rhino poaching at international level to emerge out of those discussions. Meanwhile, we continue to support rhino conservation programmes in Kenya,Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa (as well as in India and Indonesia).