Poaching and trade

Elephants in Okavango Delta, Botswana. © Yann Arthus-Bertrand

There is a sort of war being conducted against the rhinoceros in South Africa. While 13 rhinos were killed by poachers in the country in 2007, 83 were killed in 2008 and 122 in 2009. In 2011, 448 rhinos were illegally slaughtered; the 600 threshold was passed in 2012.



In the 1970s, when these animals were being hunted in vast numbers and threatened with extinction, trade in ivory and horn was banned by CITES. Rhino populations could begin to grow again, albeit at a modest pace. However, a new danger now looms over these majestic creatures. The illegal trafficking of rhinoceros’ horn on a vast scale has taken hold in South Africa. While 13 rhinos were killed in 2007, 83 were killed in 2008, 448 in 2011 and more than 600 in 2012. Poaching has not only assumed an unprecedented scale, it has also changed considerably. The amateurs and hobbyists of the previous century have been succeeded by mafia-like networks operating on an international scale. They are armed, act in bands, and are ready to fight if necessary. They travel at night, by helicopter, using night vision goggles and assault rifles or automatic weapons. “We are no longer in the days of the single poacher hunting for meat, with his trap, arrows or hunting rifle” explained Ken Maggs, a specialist in tracking poachers in South Africa. “Rhino poaching is carried out by well-organised criminal organisations with substantial international connections (smugglers, buyers, couriers, dealers, etc.). These organisations have considerable funds at their disposal to finance their illegal activities”, explained Ben Janse Van Rensburg, Chief of Enforcement Support for CITES.


Asian medicine attributes numerous varied properties to rhinoceros’ horn. Trading in them has been prohibited in China since 1993 to protect the animal, although new uses have created a growing demand in Asian countries, in particular in China and Vietnam. This has driven the price of horns to unprecedented levels. However, that is not the only reason for the increase in demand – speculation and various social uses have contributed to this. Regardless of the reason, with the rise in prices, poachers will take horns wherever they can find them. One large horn can now be traded for up to half a million dollars, and the price per kilo varies between 20,000 and 50,000 dollars: more than gold! Mafia-like poaching can be explained by the scale of the issues: according to the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC), trafficking in animals and plants represents between 7 and 10 billion dollars per year, not including illegal fishing (between 10 and 23 billion) and wood (7 billion). In monetary terms, it is only outstripped by trafficking in drugs, arms and human beings. The demand is such that specimens in museums and zoos around the world are now under threat, and that is not merely anecdotal. Horns have been stolen from museums in France, Germany, the UK, Italy, Austria and elsewhere. Museum guards keep non-stop watch over dusty trophies, the Thoiry zoological park has placed its three white rhinos under increased surveillance, and the Natural History Museum in Bern, Switzerland, has taken the initiative by itself cutting up its remaining horns.


Rhinoceros poaching is deplored in all countries where the animal is still present. South Africa, which is home to 73% of the world’s rhinoceros’ population – some 18,000 white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum) and almost 2000 black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) – is therefore the epicentre of the battle for their preservation. In Asia, fewer than 200 Sumatran rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) survive, and under 3,000 Indian rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis). On 25 October 2010, the last Javan rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus) in Vietnam was found dead, with its horn cut off. There are now only 40 of these animals left, in a park on the island of Java in Indonesia. In Africa, the black rhino is classified as “critically endangered” by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). Only 3,000 now remain across the world, after their number fell to around 2,000 – while there were 65,000 in the 1970s, when they were more numerous than white rhinos. This situation is all the more worrying since the measures introduced in African countries after the prohibition in 1977 by CITES of trading in rhinoceros’ horns were beginning to bear fruit. The populations of black rhinos had grown in recent years, increasing from 2,410 in 2004 to 4,240 in 2008. Several groups had been reintroduced in Malawi and Zambia, for example. As for the white rhino, there were only about 50 animals at the beginning of the 20th century, before it saw an extraordinary recovery due to the efforts of South African environmentalists. However, at the present rate, the last wild white rhinoceros could have disappeared in under fifty years.


The management of poaching in South Africa is crucial, as much die to the size of the rhinoceros populations there as to the country’s resources: it is one of the continent’s most modern and best organised States, with the most efficient institutions. If South Africa does not manage to resolve this problem, what can an unstable State with ineffective institutions or dealing with a civil war do? The fact is that the South African government intervenes in an increasingly determined manner, with the support of the ICCWC.

The army, the police and the courts are mobilised. Soldiers have been assigned to the Kruger National Park, the country’s largest park, which is home to the majority of rhinos. A special unit (National Wildlife Crime Reaction Unit) has been set up and trains the rangers in military techniques, training which is all the more necessary as the criminal organisations do not hesitate to open fire on the patrols – which now shoot back. This conflict is far from small: in 2011, 206 alleged poachers were arrested, and 26 died during clashes with the authorities. A large number of private ranches – a quarter of rhinos in South Africa belong to these private estates, which organise tourist activities and regulated sporting hunts – have hired security teams and installed ultramodern protection and detection systems. They often use veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq; some of them even use drones on their land.


For a long time, animal trafficking has been less monitored than arms or drug trafficking. Control was also much weaker: a trafficker arrested in possession of a kilo of horn risked little by comparison with another trafficker surprised in possession of the same quantity of cocaine, for example. However, the situation is changing. South Africa has introduced a pilot genetic marking programme for the animals, in order to be able to associate the horns seized, for example at airports, with the animals killed by poachers. The country has also toughened up its sanctions. In an unprecedented judgement at the beginning of 2012, a South African court handed down a 25-year prison sentence to three poachers from Mozambique arrested in possession of two horns and AK-47 assault rifles. A few months later, a Thai trafficker accused of playing an important role in a network connected to Vietnam was sentenced this time to forty years in prison. This is the heaviest sentence ever pronounced in South Africa for this type of crime.


The South African government’s response is being organised, the teams are being beefed up, their experience is growing… however, every year that passes sees an increase in the number of rhinos killed. The criminal groups still have the advantage. Particularly as the trafficking represents substantial sums of money that enable them to acquire partners in crime. The different operations carried out recently send a strong signal to the traffickers. However, how can a few dozen rangers, well trained, equipped and motivated as they are, monitor the 20,000 square kilometres of the Kruger Park alone? Some innovative solutions are therefore needed. Modern traceability techniques include the DNA identification of rhinos, which has been used successfully in a number of poaching cases in South Africa; it is becoming a standard element of the procedures. These actions to combat poaching must also be coordinated beyond South Africa’s borders, which is the job of the ICCWC. Its officers carry out educational projects to take the initiative with regard to poachers, tracing the networks, identifying the intermediaries worldwide, in the same way the police operate in their operations against international Mafia networks.


For want of better alternatives, some conservationists or the authorities of some countries are multiplying the initiatives. The Namibian authorities, for example, have created a free telephone number that “will enable the public to raise the alarm in the event of suspicious activities threatening the safety of the rhinos, which constitute our natural heritage”, explained Linda Baker, of SPAN (project for the reinforcement of protected area networks). Some have taken desperate measures. In South Africa, the owner of a reserve decided to inject cyanide into the horns of his rhinos. He hopes that by doing so he will discourage poachers: “If someone in China eats it and becomes seriously ill, nobody else will buy it.” Obviously, this initiative poses certain ethical problems. Some plan to remove the horns from the rhinos one by one, and the government has even launched a study on the subject – Environment Minister Edna Molewa clarified, however, that: “We have not said we are going to remove their horns, but we are beginning a study on the impact of dehorning, and the conclusions will be made public.”


In the absence of an effective solution, some people have raised the possibility of legalising – subject to conditions – trading in rhinoceros horns. The subject is extremely controversial, as environmentalists fear that the slightest relaxation of the current provisions will encourage poaching: authorising certain quotas, for example, could encourage the laundering of illegal stocks and would therefore, far from helping to regulate the market, encourage the poachers, who would find a legal outlet. The question is asked in terms very close to that of trading in elephant ivory – which is also banned at present. Some conservationists and reserve owners, however, support this idea, explaining that the Asian buyers do not want to kill the rhinoceros, only to remove its horn. Furthermore, the horn is made up of keratin – like our nails – and can therefore regrow if it is removed carefully. In fact, the question is not that simple, as animals without a horn can experience a variety of problems. Legalising trading in rhinoceros horn is absolutely not on the agenda. It should, however, be noted that South Africa legally sells sport hunting permits and allows the marketing of a limited quota of trophies. The number of permits issued is very low and their price very high, and the sums collected fund conservation activities. The condition is that the horn must not be sold separately: the trophy, prepared by a taxidermist, is sent to the hunter’s personal address. In addition, there have been exceptional sales of elephant ivory: they concerned 102 tonnes of ivory from stocks seized by the governments of South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe, and brought in more than 12 million Euros.


CITES, UNEP and a series of partners are exploring a third avenue of protection for the rhinos, which involves decreasing demand. For the fact is that the efficacy of rhinoceros horn for non-traditional purposes is in no way proven. Some claims concerning its anti-carcinogenic properties clearly fall within the category of urban legend. Whatever the merits – or otherwise – of the existing demand, the need to protect the species is no less urgent. For the disappearance of this animal will prove to be a definitive obstacle to the use of its horns. In fact, in 1993 the Chinese government prohibited trading in rhinoceros horn within its borders and removed it from recipes of traditional medicine. However, some people remain convinced of the curative properties of the rhinoceros horn, and remain ready to pay a high price to obtain it. It would therefore seem that some of the horns that arrive in Vietnam – the main place of business – are moved on to China. However, this form of trafficking is often a bad idea for the consumers themselves, for, as is the case with all illegal substances, the quality and provenance cannot be controlled or guaranteed, which leaves the door open to counterfeiting: according to CITES, a significant proportion of products presented as rhinoceros horn are something else entirely.


Combating poaching, removing the trafficking channels, reducing demand: these three strategies must be must be implemented if we are to succeed; they support and complement each other. However, they can only succeed with the commitment of the governments and the support of international institutions, the involvement of local communities, NGOs, the private sector and all components of society. The action of the South African government is now recognised as exemplary, and it is to be hoped that it will inspire other countries. In this respect, the cooperation that the South African government is in the process of establishing with Vietnam is encouraging. In December 2012 the two countries signed an agreement to combat poaching and unlawful trade in rhinoceros horns. The local populations must also be taken into account in the conservation measures. Their involvement is one of the key factors for success. In Africa, sustainable use, sport hunting, tourist activities involving the Big Five – lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo – represent a significant part of the economy and provide income for a large portion of the population. The welfare of the population is also at stake.




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