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Rhinos still being poached for their horns

Last year I reported on the slaughter of South Africa’s rhino population at the hands of poachers. I now want to give everyone an update on what has happened in the interim.

Sadly, rhino poaching in South Africa is far from a thing of the past, and in spite of the best efforts of the country’s national parks authority and private game reserves, these magnificent animals are still at huge risk.

With an estimated 23,000 rhinos left on planet Earth, South Africa, which is home to 90% of this global population, last year lost more than 1% of it in under one year (2010), with deaths at the hands of poachers occurring on virtually a daily basis.

These shocking statistics gave rise to an emergency Rhino Summit held in Pretoria at the end of 2010 which was tasked with finding solutions to the problem. The summit came hot on the heels of the high-profile arrest of 11 members of a suspected poaching syndicate in Limpopo, which included two wildlife veterinarians and a local game farmer, who was released on a record-breaking R1-million bail.

The sharp escalation in rhino poaching is directly related to an increase in demand for rhino horn in Asia where it is believed to have medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. In Vietnam and China in particular, demand spiked following claims that a Vietnamese government minister suffering from cancer was “cured” by using the rhino horn. Throughout Asia the horn is believed to cure a range of ailments, from penile dysfunction to cancer.

Trade in rhino horn is prohibited by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and yet it is still widely available in Asian traditional medicine stores, hospitals and even online sites. There has been a lack of political will among governments in Africa to take on the far east in respect of the smuggling of rhino horn and other illegal wildlife products like ivory.

Governments across Africa have come under fire for failing to apply adequate political pressure to the Asian countries which are the ultimate destination for the vast majority of poached horn, and specifically for failing to order a moratorium on rhino hunting in South Africa, which is still very much “legal”. The number of rhinos legally hunted in South Africa from January to October 2010 was 101,  and the overwhelming majority of applications to hunt rhino are from Vietnamese hunters.

Two years ago, Vu Moc Anh, a member of the Vietnamese diplomatic corps, was secretly filmed outside Vietnam’s embassy in Pretoria openly dealing in illegal rhino horn. The film was broadcasted on the SABC’s environmental programme 50/50 and caused Mrs Vu to be recalled to Vietnam. CITES admits that Mrs Vu is neither the first, nor the last diplomat to be implicated in rhino poaching.

The WWF and other wildlife agencies place Vietnam and China at the top of the list of culprits when it comes to the current demand for horn, with Vietnam increasingly implicated as the main driver of the trade in Asia. Last year, 119 arrests of suspected poachers were made, 45 of these in the Kruger Park.

Although a number of arrests have been made since the start of 2011, the slaughter of rhinos is still going on unabated. More than 71 rhinos were poached in South Africa by the start of April 2011, with an estimated additional 50 deaths expected to be added to that list to date.

If these figures continue in this way, there is a very real possibility that the safaris of the future will include the “Big Four” as opposed to the “Big Five”. 🙁

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