Rhino killings slightly down in 2017 – but “we’re far from seeing the light at the end of this very long, dark tunnel” says illegal wildlife trade expert.



A total 1,028 rhinos were illegally killed in South Africa in 2017. This sad statistic, released by South Africa’s Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa, confirms that we are still losing rhinos to poachers at the rate of about three a day. Clearly we remain a very long way away from being able to claim any sort of victory against the cruel slaughter of these wonderful creatures for their horns.

Tom Milliken, Rhino Programme Leader for the wildlife monitoring network, TRAFFIC, points this out in no uncertain terms. “The bottom line is the crisis continues unabated,” he remarks. Minister Molewa also acknowledges this in a government tweet: “It is clear … that we continue to register successes in our fight against rhino poaching, but we are equally aware that the battle is far from won.” A disturbing aspect of this is that arrests of suspected rhino poachers and traffickers in South Africa dropped by almost a quarter from 680 in 2016 to only 518 last year.

Rhino killings down

That said, this is the third year in a row that rhino deaths from poaching reflect a decline, albeit modest, from the shocking high of 2014 when 1,215 were butchered. And for this we owe our gratitude to all who have worked so hard to curb the scourge, especially those in the frontline anti-poaching units who deal with thousands of potentially life-threatening encounters with well armed gangs every year.

Although rhino deaths at the hands of poachers operating in South Africa show a decline from the all-time high in 2014, we are still losing rhinos at the rate of three a day. Illegal rhino killings in Kruger National have dropped in number and as a percentage of the total, but against this “success” poaching in other areas of South Africa has increased. Graphic: Untold Africa

Kruger National Park, which holds the greatest concentration of rhinos anywhere in the world, has been the epicenter of rhino poaching over the past decade – more than 4,300 rhinos have been killed in the park over that period. In each of 2014 and 2015 killings peaked at 827 and 826 respectively. In 2016 the figure dropped to 662 recorded illegal killings and for 2017 the poaching figures are again significantly down to 504, a reduction of some 24 percent over the previous year. However, this trend has to be viewed with circumspection as this “success” has been offset by a increase in poaching in other regions, particularly in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Province which lies to the south of Kruger.

Poachers’ shifting tactics

As WWF South Africa explains, poaching syndicates on the ground are connected to cross-border wildlife trafficking networks and when confronted by improved security in one area, they simply redirect their efforts to where the risk is lower and the benefits greater.

While halting the illegal exploitation of rhinos for their horns is undoubtedly a continuing major priority, rhino poaching is far from the whole picture. Wildlife trafficking is a global criminal industry where operators compete for a slice of a more than US$20 billion a year pie. Like any businesses, the crime syndicates seek to add to their “product lines’. So while rhino horn is the prime objective, opportunities to take other animal products will be exploited.

In this regard 2017 also appeared to show a shift to poaching impacts on other species. For example elephant losses in Kruger National Park are reported to have increased from 46 in 2016 to 67 in 2017. WWF warns that these are important trends that need to be addressed now if we are going to be ahead of the curve in preventing the escalation seen previously for rhino.

Tourism and communities also threatened

Also, wildlife trafficking is not just about the impacts on rhinos, elephants or our protected areas. “Exposure to unwanted criminal elements operating within poaching syndicates is unravelling the social fabric in communities and our responses need to also reflect and address this.”

Dr Jo Shaw, African Rhino Lead for WWF International, sums it up: “Wildlife trafficking remains a pervasive threat to rhinos, and increasingly to other species such as elephants and lions which bring tourists and jobs to our important protected areas. These crimes also affect people living around our parks by exposing them to criminals connected to international trafficking syndicates.

Collaboration needed

“We need ongoing government collaboration between agencies, across borders and with private sector and civil society to stop the damage being done to wildlife and people. At the same time, we need to work to find a way to empower people living around protected areas to benefit legally from wildlife and become invested in their survival.”

Dr Margaret Kinnaird, WWF Wildlife Practice Leader, added: We must shine a light on the ongoing struggles facing the people whose safety and livelihoods are threatened by this illicit trade. To address poaching and the destruction it causes to both humans and wildlife, we need to put more effort into stopping the corruption that facilitates the trade and change consumer behaviour particularly in Asia,  to stop the demand for illegal wildlife products such as rhino horn.”

Evolving strategies

Notwithstanding efforts at bringing smugglers to book and at intercepting their contraband here in South Africa and elsewhere around the world, only a modest fraction is taken into custody. It is also clear that as law enforcement strategies are developed to thwart the trade in contraband, the tactics and methods used by the criminals also evolve.

AsTraffic’s recent report, Pendants, Powder and Pathways, sets out: “Criminal syndicates are resilient, adaptive and adept at exploiting law enforcement weaknesses and legal loopholes to smuggle rhino horn across multiple countries and legal jurisdictions. As law enforcement efforts intensify, routes and smuggling methods become increasingly diversified and complex.

For example: “There is worrying new evidence that some Chinese criminal syndicates operating in South Africa have begun processing rhino horn into ‘disks’, beads and powder to evade detection and interception. If the practice becomes more widespread, it will pose significant challenges to already overstretched law enforcement agencies.

Some progress, but much to be done

Minister Molewa acknowledged the evolving strategies of criminals, adding that “We will in 2018 continue to draw on our achievements, learn from our mistakes, and adapt international best practice. It is only through a collaborative approach that we have come this far — which is a long way from where we were a few years ago.”

And yes, some progress has been made, includes an increase in convictions for illegal activities relating to rhinos, especially higher up within the syndicates as well as support to involve communities in the legal wildlife economy. But, as WWF points out: neither the National Integrated Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking (NISCWT) nor the Regulations on Domestic Trade in Rhino Horn has yet been adopted. In addition, greater ongoing co-operation is required between South Africa and key consumer countries in Asia to investigate and prosecute the illicit movement and consumption of rhino horn and other illegal wildlife products.

TRAFFIC’s Tom Milliken also stresses that NISCWT needs to be signed. “TRAFFIC calls on South Africa urgently to adopt and implement its national strategy to combat wildlife trafficking,” he said. “the potential growth of new markets for rhino products is a deeply worrying development that needs to be nipped in the bud — we’re far from seeing the light at the end of this very long, dark tunnel.”




About Author

Peter has a career in publishing and conservation spanning more than four decades. His most recent project has been the development of Untold Africa, a meeting place for intelligent, engrossing and entertaining dialogue for a global community of like-minded people - people who share a common passion for the wild places of Africa, the creatures that inhabit them, and the breadth of African culture. See more

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