Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Trouble with Rhinos

Michael asked me to re-post this blog which first appeared in Sept 2010.  He wanted to update it, but since he is currently in the bush having trouble with the internet (and rhinos), he is unable to do so.  He promises to bring us up to date on the rhino issue when he extricates himself from the acacia's long thorns.  He reports, via drum, that he has been charged twice by elephants in the past few days - entirely without provocation.

Stan (for Michael) - Thursday


As I write this, I’m being distracted by an elephant having a bath in the river in front of me. He seems to have it all worked out. First a good long drink, then some splashing to cool off, then a generous wash behind the ears, some mud, and finally a good dusting. There’s still plenty of food about, and he looks pretty happy.
 The rhinos look pretty happy too, but they shouldn’t be. The trouble with rhinos is that they have horns which protrude in a way that’s very suggestive to humans (if not to other rhinos). The horn is, of course, actually solidly matted hair and a perfectly natural defense and offense tool. Unfortunately it has obtained a completely undeserved reputation – mainly in the East – not as an aphrodisiac as the shape might suggest, but as a constituent of various traditional medications. A cabinet minister in Vietnam recently claimed it was an ingredient of a medicine which supposedly cured him of cancer. No amount of horrified denials from the medical fraternity will sink advertising like that!

Apart from its design, the sheer rarity of rhino horn is likely to lend it mystique. Trading in it has been banned for many years – even recently in the very countries which are the major users. (An attaché at the Vietnamese embassy here was recalled after being photographed buying a small quantity of the substance.) With the inevitability of market economics, the price has shot up. A male rhino horn will now fetch a price of around $100,000. And the result of that sort of price rise is that rhino poaching is now big business, in the league of drug smuggling, gun running and human trading. One is no longer talking about a couple of poachers tracking and shooting a rhino in a remote area. One is talking about organized gangs using helicopters, spies and GPS to go almost anywhere there are rhinos and get the horns. One small game park, the Krugersdorp Game Reserve, that used to pride itself on a small herd of rhinos, is only about half and hour’s drive from where I live in suburban Johannesburg. All the adults have now been poached. One youngster – probably spared until its horn has grown – remains and has been relocated to another more secure environment. In the latest attack, a helicopter flew in, the rhino was darted with a sedative drug used when transporting large wild animals, the horns were cut off with a chain saw, and the animal left to bleed to death. The whole thing probably took no more than fifteen minutes.

Horn with Medicine Box
 In total, more than 200 rhinos have been poached this year, more than double the figures for last year. Conservationists were at their wits end as to how to address this threat, which could easily drive the rhinos back to the verge of extinction from which they were rescued fifty years ago.

The Accused Arrive at Musina Magistrate's Court
 But the clues were there. For one thing, the economics don’t add up. Rhinos are sold at game auctions quite regularly because the White Rhino has been doing remarkably well, repopulating much of the Kruger National Park and the surrounding game reserves. You will pay between $20,000 and $40,000 for the animal. But the horn alone is worth $100,000 on the black market. Then there are the tranquilizing drugs. These are specialized and dangerous substances, certainly not available to members of the public. So where were they coming from? And the helicopters? People in the wildlife areas are now very alert to helicopters and report them whenever they’re seen. The police noticed that a helicopter with a similar description was seen in three of the areas where poaching took place. They managed to trace it to a small company. One of the directors was Sariette Groenewald. Her husband, Dawie Groenewald, owns a game farm on which 30 rhinos were found, all legitimately bought. Perhaps most shocking was the arrest of two vets in the swoop that followed. Such a hard and demanding profession. Why would you do it unless you care about animals? Obviously in this case the money was just too attractive. In all eleven people were arrested and charged on the 22nd of this month.

Is that the happy ending? Hardly. All the arrested are out on bail to the value of about two rhino horns. And if one ring is broken, another joins together. The stakes are too high.

What other options are there? One game reserve recruits paying visitors to help them dart their rhinos and cut off the horn – high enough so that there is no pain; it’s only hair after all. They accept that the rhinos are disadvantaged by the loss of their only weapon, they accept that their Big Five tourists will be disappointed by the look of their lopped rhinos. But they point out that some will still be safe and around when all the others may have gone.

Michael - Thursday

1 comment:

  1. I don't think pieces like this can be posted too many times...looking forward to the update.