Traumatized and agitated, with bullet fragments still buried inside her, a black rhino named Phila was given sanctuary at the Johannesburg Zoo last week.
Phila is a rare survivor of a global epidemic of rhino poaching, which is threatening to annihilate most species of the world’s second-biggest land mammal. Her ordeal began in June, when poachers shot her twice from a helicopter. They wanted to slice off her horn – worth up to $400,000 on the streets of Vietnam and China for its alleged medicinal properties.
She survived the attack, in great pain, and her owner decided to cut off her horn in an attempt to protect her. But in September, the attackers found her again, shooting her nine more times with a military rifle, leaving her partly deaf and badly injured. They were seeking the remaining stub of her horn – still valuable enough to sophisticated criminal syndicates – but they fled before they could finish the job.
Phila (which means “life” in the Zulu language) is the poster child for a growing crisis in African wildlife. If the poaching escalates, one of the world’s most ancient mammals could be pushed to the brink of extinction.
Their global population has plummeted by 90 per cent since 1970. Their last refuge was South Africa, home to the vast majority of the 21,000 rhinos on the continent. Now the killers have arrived here too, and the rate of poaching is the highest in decades, fuelled by soaring demand from Asia’s newly affluent consumers. Illegal killing of rhinos in the country has more than doubled in the past year, from 122 last year to a projected 300 this year.
With their poor vision and massive size (up to 4,000 kilograms), rhinos are an easy target for criminal gangs, especially on fenced-off wildlife farms. Five rhinos were shot by intruders this year at the Inkwe Valley game lodge, where wildlife is raised mostly for tourism. Two of the rhinos were killed execution-style, with a single bullet to the neck at close range from a high-calibre hunting rifle. “It’s a terrible sight to see,” said Riaan Kotze, manager of the game lodge. “It’s a terrible feeling of helplessness.”
In other regions of South Africa, parks officials are experimenting with implanting GPS microchips in the horns of their rhinos to track them withsatellite technology. Within the past few days, South Africa has also recruited Interpol and the governments of Mozambique and Vietnam, which are key to the rhino-horn trade as destinations or exit routes.
At an emergency meeting last month, dozens of rhino owners discussed a series of crisis measures: closing roads, setting up checkpoints and installing radio towers and 24-hour communications systems to alert each other of suspicious intruders. They have already hired dozens of guards.
For the owners, the most stunning discovery was that the killers may have come from within. Two of their trusted veterinarians, who had served the local wildlife farms for many years, have been arrested and charged with crimes linked to rhino poaching.
“It was a very big shock for us,” Mr. Kotze said. “Who can we trust now? Who is selling off this information? People are very paranoid now.”
THE END IS NEAR
The rhinoceros has existed on Earth for more than 50 million years, yet only five species survive today, and three of those are critically endangered. Rhinos were nearly extinct in Africa in the late 1800s, with only a few dozen remaining along the Umfolozi River in the traditional Zulu lands of South Africa. But a national park was created and intense conservation efforts helped to rebuild their numbers. More than 90 per cent of the world’s white rhinos are now in South Africa. It was an enormous conservation achievement – yet that achievement is in peril as poaching soars. It takes a heavy toll on white rhinos because they are slow to reproduce, with a 16-month gestation period. A single calf is produced every two or three years at best. In neighbouring Zimbabwe, the near-collapse of legal authority has allowed poachers to run rampant. More than a quarter of its rhinos have been killed in the past four years alone.
Black rhinos and Asian rhinos are the closest to extinction. Only about 4,200 black rhinos survive. Two subspecies in Africa, the western black rhino and the northern white rhino, have already become extinct in the wild because of rampant poaching in West Africa and Central Africa within the past decade. And the Javan Rhino is the most endangered land mammal on Earth, with only about 50 still alive, mostly in Indonesia.
HORNS HAVE NO HEALING POWER
Vietnam is believed to be the world’s biggest consumer of rhino horns, which are ground into a powder and turned into tablets or dissolved in boiling water as a traditional remedy for fever, anxiety, headaches, arthritis, typhoid and a vast array of other ailments. The demand skyrocketed after a prominent Vietnamese official claimed that he beat cancer by consuming rhino horn.
Yet the truth is that rhino horn has absolutely no medical value. It is made up largely of keratin, the same substance found in human hair and fingernails. “It is more expensive than gold, yet as medicinally useless as a pile of fingernail clippings,” said Keith Martin, a physician and Liberal MP in Ottawa who heads an all-party committee on international conservation.
Diplomats at the Vietnamese embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, are among those implicated in smuggling rhino horns. One employee was videotaped receiving one of them on the street outside the embassy.
The embassy now says it is educating its citizens to obey wildlife laws. But a Vietnamese man was sentenced to 10 years in prison in South Africa after he was arrested at Johannesburg’s international airport in June with seven rhino horns that he was trying to smuggle out of the country. In another recent case, three Vietnamese nationals were caught at the airport with 18 rhino horns.
THE BUSINESS OF WILDLIFE
Wildlife is big business in South Africa, where tourists and hunters flock to luxury lodges for guided safaris or shooting expeditions. Buffalos and rhinos – two of the famed Big Five of the safari animals – traditionally sell for more than $50,000 each at auctions here. Private hunting-safari companies cater to wealthy foreigners who pay up to $100,000 to shoot a lion or rhino.
The safari business has become more lucrative as nouveaux-riches Asians join the Americans and Europeans who traditionally did the hunting. But now this profitable business may have gone too far. Among those recently arrested for poaching-related crimes were several professional hunters and hunting-safari operators.
Until a year ago, Riaan Kotze allowed hunters to visit his game ranch to shoot rhinos, using legal permits issued by the government. Now he is calling for a five-year moratorium on hunting. The legal hunt is being exploited by Asians who sell their trophy horns, and it fuels the rising demand for illegal horns, he says.
“Since the start of this year, so many Vietnamese citizens have come to South Africa to hunt,” Mr. Kotze said. “I know a lot of tourist operators who are making a killing on Vietnamese citizens coming here.”
Because of the soaring cost of anti-poaching security measures, many owners are selling their rhinos now, and the IR price at auction has plummeted. A year ago, a rhino cow would sell at auctions for 450,000 rand (about $65,000). Now they sell for a fifth of that price – or not at all. Rhinos today are more valuable dead than alive.
Many of South Africa’s top leaders have joined the fight against poaching. “The butchering of rhinos in South Africa must be stopped,” said a statement last month by Desmond Tutu, the former anti-apartheid activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Some wildlife farms and nature reserves have responded to the crisis by dehorning their rhinos, removing the object of desire. But this often fails to deter the poachers, who can still profit from the remaining stub of horn beneath a rhino’s skin.
Niel Maritz, who owns four rhinos on his small game lodge in the Waterberg region has boosted security by telling his employees to track the rhinos daily. He is also trying to set up radio towers to connect the farmers in his remote region where cellphones don’t work .
Riaan Kotze, who has about 40 rhinos on his 9,500-hectare game ranch in the same region, is spending nearly $100,000 a year on security – six times more than a year ago. He has hired 16 scouts to guard the rhinos and has moved them into centralized locations where they can be more closely guarded.
In the most sensational development in the anti-poaching fight, South African authorities arrested 11 people last month – including the two veterinarians, several professional hunters and a hunting safari operator – and charged them with involvement in hundreds of poaching incidents.
But a few days later, more rhinos were killed in another region of South Africa. “This isn’t the end of the story – it’s just the beginning of the war,” Mr. Maritz said.