2008 saw a disturbing upward trend in African rhino losses to poaching. Vietnam and neighbouring South East Asian countries were identified as the new end user markets and the carnage has continued exponentially and largely unabated. The wildlife community has been on the back foot and in defence mode ever since…scanning the skies in abject paranoia for unmarked helicopters carrying gunmen on a nefarious mission. Several respected conservation professionals and well known wildlife veterinarians have been implicated in the killing for this insidious and highly illegal trade. The Kruger National Park has suffered the biggest losses thanks to cross border incursions from Mozambique…often by impoverished rural people who do the dirty work for Asian middlemen, circling inexorably out of reach. As a result of this frightening new interest in the erroneous medicinal properties of rhino horn…the black market value, ounce for ounce, is now worth more than gold and is highly sought after as a mantelpiece ornament in well to do homes in Vietnam…as a status symbol…a kind of diabolical Faberge egg…carved off the face of a dying animal in Africa.
Poaching has been widely condemned. Cars in lavish northern suburban Johannesburg sport bumper stickers like “save the rhino…kill a poacher” while corpulent, armchair conservationists in first world countries throw their financial weight behind the private armies that now wage a kind of guerrilla warfare against impossible and overwhelming odds. The enemy? Usually members of tribal communities living adjacent to these wildlife areas. They are poor, dispossessed and hungry. To feed their children and scratch a living they are a paid a pittance by the real criminal to risk their lives, kill rhino and in some cases, elephant and deliver the contraband for illegal export to the east.
This situation is considered by many to be a failing that must be placed at the door of the wildlife, eco-tourism and conservation community. Reserves are not engaging with these burgeoning rural communities outside the fence. There is no partnership…no economic upliftment to speak of barring the handful of jobs on offer. Eco-tourism empires, who love to flaunt the sustainability model, profit enormously while the locals suffer…fertile ground indeed for criminal syndicates.
What then is the answer? Perhaps we should legalise the trade, take it out of the hands of the criminal and farm the horn…harvesting it off the live animal and stimulating an economy built on wildlife agriculture. This sounds plausible but raises certain questions…perhaps the insatiable market will be inadvertently stimulated…perhaps certain corrupt African governments will pervert the concept and all rhino will disappear…perhaps.
One thing is abundantly clear. The war being waged now is not working…and the poor man in the bush on the receiving end is not the real enemy.