In 2014 the South African government counted 1,215 rhinos that met their deaths at the hands of poachers. The final number will almost certainly increase as more data arrives. Whatever the total, it means that more than 1,200 rhinos needlessly were killed for their horns—tapered shafts of keratin, the same stuff that's in your fingernails. The count, once finalized, will be about twice as many animals as were killed in 2012 and over a thousand more than were poached in 2008, which marked the real start of the rhino poaching crisis. The total population of African rhinos is estimated at about 25,000.
To call it a crisis is a bit of an understatement. In truth it's a war. And South African law, relatively strict compared to other African nations once poachers are caught and found guilty, isn't much help in preventing poaching in the first place. In 2014 there were fewer than 370 arrests made for rhino poaching–related crimes, and—as antipoaching ranger Wian van Zyl explains in the interview that follows—poachers know that the rangers, unless their lives are threatened, can do little more than shout at them.
Van Zyl, just 20 years old, is a member of the antipoaching team at Nambiti Private Game Reserve in South Africa's KwaZulu–Natal Province. When speaking with the guides and rangers at the reserve, I was surprised by just how unevenly matched the war really is. My naive view of rhino poaching involved poachers breaking through a reserve's fence with wire cutters, wandering around until they find a rhino (perhaps with the aid of night-vision goggles), darting it, hacking off its horn with a machete and then scampering away into the darkness.
How wrong I was.
On one side of this war are the poachers, many of whom are affiliated with organized crime and terrorism. Rhino horns can sell for $60,000 to $100,000 per kilogram, making them, in addition to elephant ivory, which sells for around $3,000 per kilogram, an attractive funding source for terrorist militias in Africa such as the Janjaweed, the Lord’s Resistance Army, al Shabab and Boko Haram. These poachers are well funded criminals with access to some of the highest-tech, most powerful tools that allow them to quickly find and tranquilize an animal, lop off its horn (and often some of the rhino's face with it) while the animal is still alive, then quickly escape, leaving the rhino to slowly die as the anesthetic wears off. If the mutilated animal is lucky, it might be found quickly and euthanized by wildlife officials.
The antipoaching guards and wildlife officials combatting the poachers are sometimes armed with little more than motorcycles, rifles and a can-do spirit. If they’re lucky, perhaps they have night-vision goggles. Despite their meager tools, they take their jobs seriously and care deeply for the animals they're tasked with monitoring. During the week I spent at Nambiti nobody would even tell me just how many black or white rhinos live within the reserve.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
As a member of the antipoaching team at Nambiti Game Reserve, what is your job? What do you do every day?
I help out with antipoaching patrols (Daytime patrols, night patrols, fence patrols, etcetera), camp management, game guard management and also anything concerning security on the reserve. My main job is to track and find black and white rhinos on a daily basis. First of all, I need to make sure they are alive and well, then I determine their condition, make notes of what they feed on and capture any necessary data that needs to be collected. This entails approaching the rhinos on foot 85 percent of the time as they usually frequent thicket areas away from the roads.
Why did you decide to join the antipoaching team?
Growing up on a Big Five game reserve, I developed a deep passion for nature at a very young age. I always knew that one day I would have a career in the African bushveld. By the time that I was close to finishing high school, the rhino poaching crisis was very serious and it made my decision as to what to do a lot easier. I went into guiding for a few months and then got offered the antipoaching-monitoring position. I accepted the job knowing that I can make a direct difference and help conserve and protect this amazing animal species as well as others so that they will still be there for generations to come. It is something that I can definitely see myself doing for a few years, but my true passion is guiding, working with people from all walks of life, and educating them on how important nature is and getting them to understand the seriousness of the situation. That is also a very good way to get people involved in the fight against rhino poaching.
Some of the guides mentioned that the reserve had a few rhinos poached recently. How did it happen?
Fortunately there were no rhinos poached [last] year . The poaching incident that the guides mentioned happened [the previous] year. The poachers came in with a light helicopter early in the morning close to our eastern boundary fence. They darted three white rhinos, landed the helicopter, sawed the horns off and flew away…all in under 45 minutes to an hour.
We suspect that inside information had to be given to an outside source, as those rhinos were due to be "dehorned" the following week. We dehorn our white rhinos in the attempt to deter poachers. Because the black rhino is a smaller animal and needs its horn for protection we don't dehorn them.
What did the reserve do in response to the poaching incident?
The reserve did not have an antipoaching team in place [at that time] and only found out that the rhinos were poached well after the poachers left the property. The incident was reported to the local police services as well as Ezemvelo (the KwaZulu-Natal government parks board) and the case went under investigation. No poachers or suspects were apprehended.
I understand that laws in South Africa make it difficult to really protect rhinos from poachers.
The main difficulties around the law are the rules of engagement. The poachers know the [rules] and use it to their advantage. Antipoaching guards are not allowed to engage (open fire) on a poacher if their lives aren’t being threatened by the poacher. So if the poacher is not running at me with a knife or machete, shooting at me or threatening my life in any way, according to law I'm not allowed to do anything to the poacher except shout and attempt to deter him. Even if the poacher is armed but running away I am still not allowed to shoot at him. The poacher could be shooting a rhino while I am watching but I'm not allowed to open fire on him to stop him.
[Some] reserves and antipoaching teams believe that if the rules of engagement could be changed so that antipoaching teams are allowed to shoot any armed trespassers on private property, it could have a serious effect on reducing poaching incidents. If the poachers know they have a higher risk of being injured or even killed, they might think twice before entering a property with an armed and active antipoaching team in place. It's bad that it might come to that but the game guards put their lives on the line on a daily basis trying to protect nature and our heritage. This [has become] an ongoing war, fighting guns with guns.
It's easy for us, back home in the States, to argue that there should be no legal trade in rhino horn. But I suspect that people like you, on the ground in South Africa, perhaps have a more nuanced perspective. Some have argued that the best way to reduce the possibility of poaching is to create a legal market. They argue that, if removed properly, rhino horns actually regrow, making the horn a renewable resource, and that rhinos can be "farmed" this way. Even though there's no real medical benefit from rhino horn, at least this would reduce the violence against rhinos. Do you think that's a good solution?
Poachers hack out as much of the horn as possible and usually go into the nerves, which prevents the horn from growing back. If the horn is cut off a few inches above the base, the horn will grow back. Within a rhino's life span (40 to 45 years) the rhino will regrow a decent sized horn at least five times in good natural conditions. This does raise the point that “farming” the animals to harvest their horns for trading could be a viable way to lower the [risk of] poaching. If it's run professionally with a good system in place it might work. But this entails capturing wild animals and breeding them like cattle, which isn't the way that it's meant to be, in my personal opinion.
If run correctly from the start, legalizing the trade could have a positive effect on the poaching problem. I have read that South Africa has a stockpile of rhino horn to sustain the market for at least five years, if not more. If this is the case, legalizing the trade would flood the black market, lowering the value of the horn, which in turn will reduce poaching of rhinos. After the black market has been flooded, then the system must be run in a serious manner. Trading licenses should be given out on an annual basis to rhino owners interested in trading stockpiled horn or newly dehorned rhinos for trading purposes. If controlled correctly, the "farming" of the rhinos won't be necessary as licenses would be given to different owners [such as those at game reserves, whose rhinos were not explicitly bred for their horns] in different years, allowing them to dehorn a certain amount of rhinos or to trade their stockpiled horns.