Will drones, rhino horn farming and commodity exchanges save Africa’s rhinos from extinction?

It is midnight and the near silence is characteristic of the South African bush by night. But silence does not mean that everyone is sleeping. On a regular night the darkness makes it difficult to see your outstretched hand, but tonight by the light of the full moon – or poacher’s moon as it is known – the trees and surrounding landscape are easily visible. Ben van Dyk and the drone patrolling team from Shaya E-Security are in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (HiP) – the oldest proclaimed nature reserve on the continent – located in South Africa’s KwaZuluNatal province. They were hired by HiP for a 10-month-long wildlife surveillance project to identify poaching activities and those who illegally enter the park in search of the golden prize: rhinos.

Tonight, the Shaya team prepares for another surveillance run using their fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones as they are commonly referred to, as rhino poaching increases around the full moon, on weekends, and public holidays. Their focus is the corridor road that runs through the park and a number of previously identified rhino poaching hotspots. Each UAV is equipped with a number of customisable features as per a client’s request, such as zoomable daylight cameras and infrared cameras that are used for nighttime surveillance runs. The UAVs’ nighttime lights often scare off poachers. “We did a one-week stint in Tembe Elephant Park, which is on the border with Mozambique, where we could see poachers running back into Mozambique when we flew over them,” says van Dyk, who is the COO at Shaya.

Technicians stationed at the makeshift control room near the runway receive a live camera feed, which they monitor for signs of poachers or suspicious activities. A surveillance team may consist of four to 15 people. Each UAV requires four team members to operate it: the pilot, who takes off, lands and does pre-flight checks; the sensor operator, who controls the UAV and cameras; the maintenance crew; and at times a cook, as a surveillance run may last for up to12 hours. Once everything is set up, van Dyk’s team may remote-control the UAVs from their offices in Sandton, Johannesburg, using a satellite uplink.Van Dyk explains that surveillance runs are deliberately random so that poachers cannot identify a pattern. Patrolling also continues after day break and the teams alternate in shifts. By day the UAVs record videos and take photographs, which may be used as evidence in court. The footage is geo-tagged, time-stamped and GPS track logs are also kept. These eyes in the sky can fly up to 180 kilometres per hour and up to 10,000 metres in altitude, although it is more practical to fly them at 500 metres for visibility purposes, which is also high enough not to attract too much attention.Going Going Gone“The safety aspect of using UAVs is their greatest feature because you don’t have people walking in the bush approaching poachers,” van Dyk says. Regardless, his team still wears bulletproof vests. After all, they are fighting a war on behalf of the rhinos, and the risk is great. During a surveillance run Shaya is in constant contact with HiP’s park ranger manger. When poachers are spotted they inform the park ranger manager who dispatches a reaction team. Smaller, battery-operated UAVs are also deployed for response purposes when anything suspicious is found.

Musa Mntambo, from Ezemvelo Kwa-Zulu-Natal Wildlife Reserve, who oversaw the HiP project, observed a significant decline in rhino poaching during Shaya’s deployment. “The fight against rhino poaching is being fought through various methods and we will never be able to identify one initiative and praise it over other initiatives,” he says. “We did not stop foot patrol and our zap wing plane continued to operate.” Van Dyk claims that according to their collated data, poaching decreased by 92 percent during their HiP surveillance project. “One of the biggest ‘critiques’ we receive is that poachers move out of HiP and into surrounding private game reserves. Their risk becomes higher and they don’t necessarily have the budget for UAV services,” He says.Going Going GoneProtecting rhinos – and other animals highly susceptible to poaching, such as elephants – using a surveillance service is very costly and many national parks and private rhino owners cannot afford long-term projects. A UAV costs between $858 and $85,700. The customised UAV surveillance service provided by Shaya for HiP cost around $160 per hour, but less than $430,000 for the entire project, which took place in 2013. These costs remain a major deterrent to UAV adoption. “It’s a very useful project, in terms of lesser cost, compared to a normal manned chopper,” says Mntambo, who is gravely concerned about dwindling rhino numbers in Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife reserve and across the country. “It is very expensive [though] and we cannot afford it. Peace Parks Foundation has introduced a drones programme that focuses on the whole province and not only HiP,” he continues. Van Dyk is not at liberty to tell me, on record, about their current projects due to confidentiality agreements.

Mntambo believes that other South African national parks have not made use of UAVs for wildlife conservation because “they have never had a trial on their protected areas to see how effective they can be as an intervention. There are also too many fly by night companies, which don’t have good records, and other drone companies don’t comply with aviation standards.” Van Dyk reassures me that with time UAVs will become more cost effective to build and easier to control, making such surveillance services more affordable. This may come too late for the rhinos, which face an unprecedented decline in population as a result of poaching.

Rhino horn is highly sought after in Asia, where it is used in traditional medicine. Today, across East Asia and especially in Vietnam, it is marketed as treatment for fever, hangovers and cancer. The horn is composed of the protein keratin, which is also found in human hair, nails, and animal hooves, and infused with calcium deposits that make its structure stronger. Despite the resurgence in its popularity as a traditional medication, scientific research indicates that rhino horn has little medicinal value, although research at Hong Kong University has shown that it can act as an antipyretic, to reduce fever, when administered in doses 100 times greater than those prescribed by traditional healers. Most researchers agree that you are better off taking an Aspirin. Rhino horn is also used for Jambiya dagger handles in Yemen and the horn of Africa which are given to boys as a rite of passage into manhood. The horn is also used for ornaments and jewellry.

Rhino horn can sell for about $60,000 per kilogram on the black market. According to a 2012 study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the consulting firm Dalberg Global Development Advisors found that rhino horn comprises a significant portion of a $10-billion illicit, global trade in wildlife. Dwindling rhinoceros populations are making rhino horn more scarce and raising prices, making the animal even more attractive to poachers. Demand for the horn is price-inelastic, meaning that consumers are not willing to look for substitutes and will continue to buy it, even when prices become very high. This was not always the case. According to the conservation website traffic.org, rhino horn sold for less than $500 per kilo in the early 1990s. According to the Atlantic Monthly Magazine, the 2008 rise in rhino horn demand can be traced to rumours that a Vietnamese politician was cured of cancer by ingesting rhino horn products. The result was a exponential increase in demand and price that has lead to a dramatic spike in poaching, even as rhinoceros populations dwindle.

Park rangers know this better than anyone as they bear witness to the slaughter on a weekly, if not daily, basis. They risk their lives and come gun-to-gun with poachers, many of whom live in the same poverty-stricken communities that border national parks and private game reserves. Game rangers seldom reveal where they work to avoid being coerced or targeted by poachers. However, other rangers double as poachers by night or sell information to poachers and make deals with rhino horn buyers. Their indifference is driven by financial incentives which trump the risk of imprisonment and even death. National parks and game reserves have become cautious about who they hire because some seek employment only to resign after their training is complete and they have gathered enough insider information to lead a poaching team into the nature reserve they have come to know so well. Some national parks even administer lie detector tests and fire employees who fail more than twice.

Community members from the economically depressed settlements that surround the Kruger National Park region of Mpumalanga Province openly admit to being resentful because the Kruger makes money from ecotourism and the land they once inhabited while they see little employment, profit or opportunity coming to them from the national park. Villages that were indigenous to the Kruger National Park region were involuntarily resettled in the early 20th century when it became a protected area, leaving behind ancestors who are buried within the parks boundaries. To this day, these former villagers are at varying stages of negotiation with the government about livelihood restoration, and some have still not received adequate alternative shelter with public services. The majority remain very poor and rely on subsistence farming and piece jobs whenever possible while many breadwinners have migrated to larger economic hubs to sustain their family members back home. Most claim that high unemployment levels are the largest driver of poaching: “If we had jobs, we wouldn’t even think of poaching, because when you are working you get home tired, take a bath, eat and go to sleep. Come payday you are able to put food on the table,” says a 46-year-old unemployed male from the small community of Nyongane, located between Hazyview and the Kruger National Park, who did not want to be named for fear of being mistaken for a poacher for commenting on the matter.Going Going Gone - Chad_Cocking_Rhino_Images_Disharmony_001-3[1]To add to Nyongane’s already challenging living circumstances the community is often terrorised by escaped animals. When their crops are destroyed or their livestock eaten by escaped wildlife or infected with diseases from the park’s buffaloes, they receive little, if any, compensation. Killing the park’s animals – even in self defence – is a criminal offence. “Community members kill animals from the game reserve [for game meat like they did in the past]. When caught they’re beaten up. Sometimes their means of transport, like bicycles, are confiscated. Even the dogs they would have used to hunt are shot. But when an elephant devastates crop fields absolutely nothing is done,” says a male from the small community of Chibotane, near Massingir, which borders Parque Nacional do Limpopo in Mozambique. He would not give his name for fear of being linked to poaching or being harassed by poachers in his community.

In such communities, daily survival takes precedence over wildlife conservation. Community members do not see themselves as custodians of wild animals but merely see the animals as the parks’ property. Although some community members believe that poaching is morally wrong, they feel that the financial benefits outweigh the ethical issues, especially when poachers pay handsomely for information or assistance and create employment. Most community members do not report poachers to the police – despite a $15,000 reward for tip offs that lead to arrests and even more for toppling a rhino poaching syndicate. However, community members also face many threats from poachers and are often intimidated into silence or killed for being informants. Sometimes police officers do not allow them to remain anonymous or they are arrested by corrupt police officers who have been bribed by poachers. In fact, the fear is so ingrained that no one wants to be identified when talking to journalists about poaching and some only agree to talk off record. Poachers use traditional healers, known as sangomas, for protection before going on a hunt, and fear prevents community members from ousting them. “If you have a death wish you can [report poachers], but I won’t do that. I value my life,” says a 21-year-old unemployed male from Justica, a village not far from Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve, which borders the Kruger National Park. He, too, asked not to be named.

Yet poachers are also at risk from the community. “When you see a poacher you kill them because they’ll tell their gang that you saw them and they’ll come after you,” says an unnamed 31-year-old unemployed male from Nyongane. Most poachers don’t reveal when they are ‘doing emasimini’ (‘going to the fields’ to poach) because they do not want to be targeted upon their return. Instead they lie about visiting bigger cities or family elsewhere. In some instances when people find out, the poachers are killed upon their return and the rhino horn is stolen before it reaches the kingpin or buyer.

Naturally, no one is willing to admit to being a tsotsi, sisluiti or oguluva, as poachers are called in South African vernacular, although some are willing to share insights into how they function. The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park straddles the borders between South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Poachers move unimpeded between the countries through porous borders. There are around 15 poaching gangs of three to four people on any given day in the Kruger National Park. A poaching gang usually consists of a tracker, shooter, cutter and sometimes a fourth person to carry the gear. An average of three gangs enter and leave the park daily. “Some spend three to four days, others spend less. Depending on where the rhinos would be at that time, they spend more than that because they won’t leave without the horn and some don’t find them at all,” says an unnamed 32-year-old unemployed Justica male.

In the area around the Kruger Park, no one wants to come across as knowing too much about poaching lest it raises suspicions, but I am told that there are two ways to organise a poaching group. Several close-knit people rent guns – predominantly a .375 Holland & Holland Magnum, .458 Winchester Magnum and at times an AK-47 – and enter a national park. A local kingpin might also organise a group from nearby communities, give them guns, information from corrupt park rangers and offer them insurance. If anyone is captured, the kingpin ensures their release or pays the family in the event of death. Yet the financial rewards seem to far outweigh the risks in the minds of poachers. Per unit, rhino horn is more expensive than gold, diamonds and cocaine when sold in Asia. Poachers can earn around $17,140 per horn in South Africa or $10,840 in Mozambique. This is over twice what some may earn in an entire year and sometimes even more than that, meaning that their families will be well looked after even if they end up in prison or dead.

A Justica community leader, who like the others wanted to remain unnamed for fear of being prosecuted, admits to providing aid to poachers. “Because of the poverty, we see ‘gold’ in the horn. They told me to guard that ‘gold’ and I was given something for that. […] We receive these people with peace. Those thieves, whether they are from Natal or Mozambique, we accommodate them within the community to camp for a day or two. Why? It’s because they pay $860 to spend the night. Where will you get that kind of money? A year passes without you even having that kind of money. We accommodate them so they can go do their jobs and we get paid. For us it’s the same as getting paid for doing nothing,” he says.Going Going Gone - Chad_Cocking_Rhino_Images_Disharmony_001-6[1]Park rangers and private rhino owners lament that the practice of offering counter-incentives has been unsuccessful. Many community members consider poachers to be role models because they bring money and employment to poverty-stricken areas. “There is no reward from [the Kruger National Park for reporting a poacher], but the poacher will buy me drinks that weekend or will give me a piece job and money. The horn indirectly creates jobs. They bring their car to the carwash and tell you to keep the change,” said the Justica community leader.

One South African private rhino owner who strongly criticises the government’s inability to curtail rhino poaching is Tommy Fraser. He neither censors his thoughts nor hesitates to tell me exactly what he thinks should be done with rhino poachers who are caught. Fraser believes that showing them mercy will not curb South Africa’s exponential growth in rhino deaths. As the head of national security on the board of the Private Rhino Owners Association of South Africa (PROA), he goes above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to protecting rhinos and educating people on the current situation. It is already after the close of business on a Friday, but hours later we remain in his office talking about what can be done to stop what he refers to as slaughter. Books about wildlife line the shelves in his office and framed newspaper clippings about rhino conservation cover his walls. There is even a certificate from the South African Police Service congratulating him on apprehending rhino poachers at the Dabchick Wildlife Reserve in Limpopo province; a reserve which he co-owns. “If we don’t act soon, the only rhinos we will be able to show future generations are those on the R10 note,” he says. South Africa is home to 75 percent of the world’s rhino population. Approximately 20,000 are white rhinos and 5,000 are rare black rhinos. During 2014, poachers killed 1,215 rhinos in South Africa – 211 more than during 2013. Fraser knows what he is talking about: the rhino population growth rate is around 6.5 percent for white rhinos and 5 percent for black rhinos. In other words, the rhino populations are not reproducing fast enough and conservationists currently predict extinction in the wild within the next two decades.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which regulates global wildlife trade, banned international rhino horn trade in 1977, but South Africa allowed legal rhino horn trade to continue internally and only banned the export of horn. The 2008 increase in poaching led the South African government to place a national moratorium on rhino horn trade in early 2009. Despite the still-standing moratorium, the South African Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) has admitted that South Africa is facing a major rhino poaching crisis. In October 2010, the DEA commissioned a feasibility study to determine the viability of legalising rhino horn trade in South Africa, with the research report published in 2014. Fraser is a vocal supporter of legalisation. He believes the moratorium and trade ban are not mini-mising demand, and he does not think legal trade could be any worse than the current situation. The majority of South African private rhino owners who were interviewed by the DEA believe it is the only financially sustainable option. International trade could fund anti-poaching programmes and further incentivise private owners to protect rhinos.

The DEA predicts that legalising rhino horn trade both locally and internationally may decrease rhino poaching in South Africa, but that they must occur simultaneously. “Sixty percent of rhino experts didn’t agree with lifting the national moratorium if international trade wasn’t also legalised,” says the 2014 DEA research report. With no end-user market in South Africa, national legalisation would result in the horn being smuggled out of the country and sold on the black market. This is especially true because South Africa’s current permitting controls are insufficient to prevent horn laundering. Government however fears that such illegal activities may tarnish South Africa’s reputation and may be detrimental to future negotiations around international trade. Government also believes that local legalisation without international legalisation may send mixed messages to end-users. South Africa also lacks the capacity to regulate national trade in South Africa.

Fraser already dehorns his rhinos in an attempt to counter poaching. More than half of the private rhino owners interviewed by the DEA said they would also do so if domestic trade were legalised. “Will it stop rhino poaching? We don’t know, but have we tried it yet? No! I believe if you are a cocaine dealer you know that you can go to prison for life for cocaine dealing and now suddenly the government says you can buy cocaine legally, people will buy it legally. Sure, there will still be poaching, but if they can buy it at a legal auction, at least we will have a paper trail. We need to legalise rhino horn trade for five to 10 years and then stop it. Then at least we will know how the system works,” Fraser says.

Rhinos need inherent value to survive, argues Fraser. Legalising the trade would make live rhinos more valuable than dead ones. Rhino horn is renewable and a legal supply may provide more horn than poaching. He references the sustainable use paradigm, namely that if something can be used, it can be saved. “We will never run out of sheep. We will never run out of cattle. They will always be there because it’s a source of food. Why can’t we do the same with rhino? Why can’t we see a couple of rhinos walk around without horns for 10 or 15 years, to save the species?” he continues, looking concerned. Fraser goes on to quote John Hume – the world’s largest private rhino owner, a South African who owns 1,060 rhinos or five percent of the rhino population – as saying that in 1960 there were three game farms and less than 700,000 head of game in South Africa. After the government permitted farmers to own game and allowed commercial hunting, the numbers rose to over 20 million by 2014. He is, however, aware that wild rhinos are a large source of income due to their tourist appeal and that ecotourism funds conservation. No one will fly thousands of kilometres to see a dehorned rhino, but perhaps it is a temporary contingency plan South Africa should take to avoid the species’ extinction.Going Going Gone - Chad_Cocking_Rhino_Images_Disharmony_001-4[1]Conservationists tout efforts to revive South America’s vicuña, a relative of alpacas and llamas, as an example of a successful sustainable use paradigm. The species was almost driven to extinction in the 1960s because of a demand for its wool. A three-decade moratorium on vicuña wool trading followed by highly regulated population management practices allowed the population to recover enough for sustainable and legal trade of vicuña wool to resume. Critics argue that such a solution will not work for rhinos because there was a larger population of vicuñas at the start of the sustainable use programme than the present population of rhinos. Furthermore, today’s more globalised world makes it more difficult to curtail trafficking. Others indicate that the greater availability and affordability of vicuña wool has not stopped an uptick in the poaching of wild vicuña populations over the last decade. Sustainable use needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis, argue critics. For example, while crocodile farming has been successful in decreasing poaching, the opening of the ivory trade increased poaching of elephants, and this may also be the case for rhinos.

Dehorning rhinos might result in similar success by providing horns for the legal market, however some poachers shoot dehorned rhinos out of spite, so as not to track them a second time, or to retrieve the horn stub. Fraser is accused of supporting dehorning because of the potential profit. Some private rhino owners are suspected of poaching their own stock. “People say, you just want to make money. Sure, I want to make money!” Fraser retorts. “It’s going to possibly save the rhino and I can make money, sure why not?”

Sale prices of white rhino in South Africa have dropped since the 2009 moratorium. Experts believe that legalising local and international trade in rhino horn will increase the value of live rhinos significantly. “There’s no market for them now. It’s sad to see that a rhino worth R800,000 [$69,000] will not sell for more than R300,000 [$26,000] at an auction – if he sells at all. While a sable sells for R12 million [$1.03 million], rhinos get taken off the auction list because they can’t even get the reserve price,” laments Fraser. Keeping rhinos has become a financial liability and security risk. Private rhino owners and their employees are held at gun point and sometimes killed, while security services and rhino insurance costs have increased. The DEA admits that some private rhino owners may consider taking legal action against the South African government if the moratorium is not lifted.

Fraser explains how rhino horn farming would work. Rhinos would roam freely on large, fenced, privately owned farms and their natural feeding would be supplemented with molasses and bone marrow. While there is little data about breeding rates in semi-captive environments, Fraser has reduced the inter-calf birthing period of his rhinos from 36 to 24 months through the supplemented feeding scheme. The time to do so is now, Fraser urges, because the long gestation period of around 16 months means it would take five years for an adult rhino population to produce a generation mature enough for horn harvesting. A rhino’s horn grows back within 18 to 24 months after harvesting, and an average rhino could wield up to 70 kilograms of horn in its lifetime. The DEA says that the practice of horn farming along with natural mortality could generate up to 3,606 kilograms of horn each year.

According to Fraser, private rhino owners in conjunction with Nature Conservation and the South African police would need to establish a permit and tracking system for dehorned rhinos whereby an authorised vetrenarian would microchip the horn, which would be sent to a stockpile along with the paperwork and confirmation from RhODIS, a rhino DNA profiling database of living and poached rhinos. A central clearing house could help to regulate the global industry.

The cost of dehorning rhinos depends on a number of factors, one of which is whether a helicopter or vehicle is used. Fraser pays around $3,000 to dehorn his 12 rhinos using a helicopter. On average it takes approximately 15 minutes to dehorn a sedated rhino and microchip the horn. “The first time he did it the vet was crying,” says Fraser “but if you leave it on, it’s like leaving a bull’s-eye on him.”

Fraser agrees that dehorning wild black rhino could be detrimental because they use their horn to fight and forage for food, but he claims that monitoring of dehorned rhinos has shown no change in behaviour or aggression in dominant males. Further, intensive behaviour monitoring could help todetermine whether dehorning affects mate competition and reproduction and also whether rhinos used for horn harvesting could be reintroduced into the wild at a later stage.

Perhaps the most effective measure to preserve rhino populations is to eliminate demand for rhino horn by educating the end-user that rhino horn contains no medicinal or nutritional value. The Rhino Disharmony campaign is one such programme. It encourages famous artists and musicians to create works of art opposing rhino poaching. These works are shared on various social media platforms alongside medical facts and scientific proof against rhino horn use. Activists still maintain that the onus should be on conservation and regulatory bodies along with the governments in demand countries.

With so much money changing hands from the illegal trade in rhino horn and local economies developed around poaching, restoring endangered rhino populations will require global as well as local cooperation. Any solution to the rhino poaching problem will take time and face numerous challenges. Unfortunately, time is just as scarce as the rhino population.

Source: Africa Ventures


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