The last stand of the African white rhino

A bleak scene on the high plains of South Africa

The preamble for NgoNyama Lodge just outside Krugersdorp in South Africa lists white rhino among the species likely to be seen on a visit to this, one of an extensive family of private game reserves in South Africa.

The last surviving adult white rhino on NgoNyama Reserve, however, was recently darted from the air in an astonishingly sophisticated poaching attack, divested of her horn with a chainsaw, and as a consequence moved from the surviving to the deceased column in the statistical catalog of efforts to save this iconic African species from extinction.

The relocation of South African rhino to Tanzania

Getting back from Tanzania, and back in the drivers seat of a fast internet connection and a decent wide-screen, the wider picture of conservation in Africa has tended to overshadow the more localized efforts covered elsewhere in this blog that were focused on the Grumeti Game Reserve and the Eco Lodge Africa concession. The buzz in Tanzania about the relocation of black rhino from South Africa to the park system of the northern circuit – a project that has been underway for some time, and one that has helped underline the fact that South Africa enjoys now, as it always has, a reputation of being a pioneer in the field of wildlife conservation – seems a little weak now that South Africa itself is losing rhino at a manifestly unsustainable rate.

>>Singita and the Gumeti Reserves is at the forefront of this effort. Check out my blog on the Grumeti Reserves

Organized Crime and others in South Africa involved in the plague of rhino deaths

In a nutshell organized crime in South Africa is able to bring to bear sophisticated resources, in a country already blessed with generally excellent road and communications systems, to almost completely overwhelm any realistic attempts to control the problem. Helicopters are used to locate and isolate vulnerable animals and then later to conduct a poaching operation using tranquilizer darts and a chainsaw. These operations usually take just a few minutes and are over before anyone on the ground can be any the wiser.

South African investigation channel Carte Blanche, with a long history of probing where the sun rarely shines, has successfully shed light on a number of disturbing aspects of the phenomenon. In a recent report members of the very fraternity usually on the front line of conservation have been – if not fingered exactly – then at least exposed as being distinctly dodgy. A white game farmer and white khaki clad bush pilot were proved to be cruising a Limpopo game ranch in an unmarked helicopter, clearly up to no good. Fervent denials followed which where, of course, richly threaded with pleas of commitment to the well being of local wildlife; but one can never tell.

Who does have the wherewithal to pilot a helicopter into the deep bush, hover above a supine rhino and place a dart where it needs to be placed? Certainly not a wide boy from Joburg and certainly not an urban Nigerian gangster. So perhaps a white, khaki clad bush warrior really is at the root of it all. The recent arrest and prosecution of a syndicate of South African whites, including a high profile safari operator who acted as a middleman, prove that nothing currently is impossible.

Vietnamese embassy officials are deeply involved in the local rhino horn trade

A still photo from SABC’s nature investigations programme 50/50 (from top to bottom) show a Vietnamese Embassy staffer allegedly buying a rhino horn outside the embassy.

What the urban Nigerian gangster, and apparently a South African safari operator, can be relied upon to bring to the table, however, is connections, and it is connections to the various Asian embassies that seem to be where the money is.

With the public revelation by a Vietnamese government minister that a concoction containing rhino horn cured him of cancer it has become clear that the trade and use of rhino horn in the Far East is more or less public. Moreover covert press photographs of Vietnamese embassy officials in Johannesburg openly trading in rhino horn has confirmed where the major leak is.

The payback chain sees poachers at the supply end netting about US$10 000 a kilo, Asian middlemen doubling that, and retailers – usually Chinese doctors – doubling it again. This means that for an end user looking to stiffen his own horn, put a handle on a curved dagger or cure any number of ailments, the price of rhino horn is US$40 000 a kilo.

The economics of rhino horn

In South Africa all kinds of high tech solutions are now being mooted and tried, and certainly there is no shortage of reaction in the conservation fraternity to this scourge. However economics has also crept into the conservation picture, and an interesting ‘if you can’t beat them join them’ approach is being suggested. Unlike that other valuable wildlife commodity, elephant tusk, rhino horn can be removed easily and painlessly without causing death to the owner. Creating a legal market for rhino horn, therefore, moderated in the same was as the Kimberley Process for diamond trading that weeds out blood diamonds, is being proposed as a possible solution. This would render a generation of rhino hornless, which, although hardly a tourist attraction, would nonetheless make the creatures worthless to poachers and as a consequence reasonably safe in the open bush.

Who is guilty and who is innocent in the rhino horn trade

To me, however, pondering the moral aspects of poaching in general, this whole rhino saga in southern Africa – not just South Africa, because Zimbabwe, in the throes of economic crisis, is also battling to save a dwindling population – has tended to confuse old certainties of who is guilty and who is not. It has always in the past been a convenient typecast to see the nasty black peasant, armed with an illicit Kalashnikov and empowered by weakening enforcement under corrupt black government, as being guilty of the slaughter, and of shady black politicians in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Harare facilitating the movement of product through suspect Indian businessmen to Asia.

One of the first books I picked up on my return to the US was the Myth of Wild Africa by Jonathan Addams and Thomas McShane. The principal theses, at least in the early stages of the narrative, revolves around the basic myth that black man is bad and white man is good in the field of African wildlife conservation. Theodore Roosevelt’s 1909 slaughter of 500 animals across 70 species is central to this claim, along with similarly bloated bags by such hunters as Frederick Selous and Scotsman Gordon Cummings, are compared against the modest off-take by black hunters of the time who had, deeply entwined in their social institutions, methods of conservation that at the time were invisible to most whites.

The myth of the Myth of Wild Africa

This picture tells a story of when enough of these lovely creatures survived to be hit by a car. This on the main Mombasa Nairobi Road...

While I take a certain amount of exception to the general assertion that both authors press in the book, written I feel against a backdrop of undue liberalism in the interpretation of African history, the current phase of poaching in Southern Africa has certainly thrown the light on a number of agencies that in the past would have been above suspicion.

The white hunting and commercial game fraternity is one of these. Sport hunters as a sub-culture have always tended to press their credentials first and foremost as conservationists. In Africa the main wildlife conservancies where put in place first as protected hunting grounds for European and American hunters. And certainly no professional hunter that I have ever met would dart a rhino and chainsaw off its horn. But the light has recently shone on many that will, and have, and this is a dark day for all of us, since none have better skills to achieve the extinction of the two species of African rhino than this fraternity.

The bottom line is, however, that with all these elements involved what chance does the rhino really have out there in the mythic wilderness of Africa. I will refer back to an earlier post, Serengeti Shall Not Die, for an interesting picture of a bygone age as I reflect on this. I would also recommend anyone reading this to pick up a copy of The Myth of Wild Africa, and to educate themselves as much as possible on the last struggle of this iconic African species. After all, ours may be the last generation to see them in the wild…

  • K illing fields

    great article, im afraid i agree that we will be the last to see these magnificent beasts in the wild habitat. The commercial Blood sport trade is a disgrace and needs to by stopped with Fat cat operators hiding behind the guise conservationist trying to legitimize there abhorrent trade. We all know it is complete bull shit but those that can do something chose to look the other way or worse are involved themselves.
    I feel for these animals and wish nothing but the worse fate for those pulling the triggers.