Rhino poaching: Another year, another grim record

David Shukman BBC 10 Mar 16;

The mass slaughter of rhinos has increased for the sixth year in a row, according to grim new figures from international researchers.
At least 1,338 of the iconic animals were killed for their horns in Africa last year.

This is the greatest loss in a single year since an intense wave of poaching began recently.

Since 2008, as many as 5,940 rhinos have been killed although scientists fear that could be an underestimate.

The findings were compiled by researchers from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The losses come despite a drive to fight poaching gangs by strengthening patrols, harnessing satellite technology and boosting intelligence-gathering.

The IUCN blames continuing demand from South East Asia - where rhino horn is wrongly believed to have medicinal properties - fed by increasingly sophisticated international crime networks.

'Nowhere is safe'

Officials say that amid the killings there are some helpful developments.

Overall, the rate of increase in poaching has fallen slightly and in South Africa, home to the greatest number of rhinos, the numbers killed in a single year fell slightly for the first time since 2008.

Dr Richard Emslie, of the IUCN's African Rhino Specialist Group, told the BBC:

"Any increase in poaching is alarming but there are some positives. When poaching started to escalate in 2008, we saw year after year of exponentially increasingly poaching.

"But over the last couple of years we've seen a decline in the rate of increase."

Dr Emslie described this as "an encouraging trend" and he highlighted how South Africa has managed to reduce the number of rhinos slaughtered from 1,215 in 2014 to 1,175 last year.

But success in one area can lead to further poaching elsewhere and while South Africa can point to a slightly improved picture, other countries have seen sharp increases in losses.

According to the new data, the number of rhinos killed in Namibia has quadrupled in just the last two years while losses in Zimbabwe doubled over the same period.

No rhinos in the wild

Dr Emslie described the fight against poaching as like squeezing a balloon.

"If you clamp down on poaching on the one side of the Kruger National Park beside the Mozambique border, then suddenly the balloon pops out a bit the other side and you can get more poaching.

"There's a trend of poaching from different park to different park and also from one country to another so no individual country is safe and all need to be on their guard given the huge threat."

Commenting on the latest figures, Craig Bruce, a rhino specialist at the Zoological Society of London, said: "I think it's a dire situation and despite reports of a decrease in the Kruger National Park, I don't think it's a cause for celebration.

"If we continue with the current rate of losses, then I would estimate that within five to 10 years, all we will have is rhinos in very strictly controlled captivity scenarios and we will basically have lost the species in the wild."

After a previous collapse in rhino numbers during the 1960s, a concerted effort which was backed by determined governments and generous funding saw populations restored.

Unprecedented aggression

But this crisis is seen as more serious and therefore harder to tackle because of the sheer aggression and growing sophistication of the poaching gangs, fuelled by the high price for rhino horn on the black market.

Mr Bruce told me that every new technological advance designed to help the conservation effort - including drones, radios and intelligence-gathering - is matched by the poachers.

The illegal rhino trade
*Wildlife crime is the fourth largest global illegal trade, according to WWF, after drugs, counterfeiting, and human trafficking
*Rhino horn is one of the world's most expensive commodities, fetching about $60,000 (£40,500) per kilo - it is worth more by weight than gold or diamonds
*Poaching is by no means restricted to South Africa, home to the world's largest population of rhinos - it is also a threat to smaller rhino populations elsewhere eg in Asia

"What's frightening is that the same technology that we are able to use, they are also able to use. Shockingly, as much as we're using them to combat the poachers, they're using them to facilitate their poaching.

"They understand intelligence as well as we do. They understand how to threaten people to get information, how to threaten people to keep them quiet so the whole criminal element has just advanced in a way that's unprecedented."

The latest data will reignite long-running debates over the best way to stem the losses.

Ideas range from cutting off the rhinos' horns in order to deny poachers and to flood the market with cheap horn to fitting monitoring devices or even cameras to the animals to help provide warning of attacks.

With the global total of rhinos now only in the region of 25,000, there will be renewed attention in the approach to a major international meeting of the CITES convention, set up to combat the illegal trade in endangered species, in Johannesburg in September.

And the South African government has just announced the logo for the event: an image of a rhino.

IUCN reports deepening rhino poaching crisis in Africa
IUCN 9 Mar 16;

The number of African rhinos killed by poachers has increased for the sixth year in a row with at least 1,338 rhinos killed by poachers across Africa in 2015, according to new data compiled by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission’s African Rhino Specialist Group (AfRSG).

This is the highest level since the current crisis began to emerge in 2008. Since then poachers have killed at least 5,940 African rhinos.

Demand for rhino horn from South East Asia is being illegally supplied by sophisticated transnational organised crime networks. “The extensive poaching for the illegal trade in horn continues to undermine the rhino conservation successes made in Africa over the last two decades,” says Mike Knight, Chair of IUCN’s AfRSG, which just concluded its biennial meeting.

However, increased law enforcement effort and expenditure in recent years have coincided with a slowing down in the rate of increase of poaching continentally from 2013-2015. Over the last two years, poaching has declined in Kenya and, for the first time since 2008, the number of rhinos poached in the major range state, South Africa, fell slightly last year (including in Kruger National Park).

“This is testimony to the valiant and enormous efforts underway – often against overwhelming odds – to curb the losses,” says IUCN Director General, Inger Andersen. “It also demonstrates the commitment of field rangers who – at tremendous cost to themselves and their families – work tirelessly, risking their lives daily. Sadly, these improvements have been dampened by alarming increases in poaching over the past year in other vitally important range states, such as Namibia and Zimbabwe.”

The continued poaching has impacted on rhino numbers. According to the experts who met recently in South Africa, numbers of the more numerous white rhino (Ceratotherium simum) appear to have levelled off on the continent, with 2015 numbers provisionally estimated at between 19,682 and 21,077. While the total white rhino estimate is down -0.4% per annum since 2012 (compared to the updated 2012 estimate), this difference is within the margin of error around the estimates and not statistically significant.

The black rhino (Diceros bicornis) – listed on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ as Critically Endangered – has fared slightly better with continental numbers for 2015 estimated at between 5,042 and 5,455 rhinos, representing a statistically significant +2.9% per annum increase on the updated 2012 estimate. Poaching has, however, reduced growth in black rhino numbers to below the usual +5% per annum target growth rate.

South Africa currently conserves 79% of Africa’s rhinos and has suffered the bulk (85%) of poaching on the continent since 2008. The country’s vast Kruger National Park is home to the world’s largest rhino population and has borne the brunt of the killing. While the margins of error around the Kruger National Park rhino population estimates between 2012 and 2015 overlapped, statistical modelling suggests that in all likelihood the populations of both black and white rhinos have decreased in the Park. This has however been countered by net increases in the numbers of black and white rhino elsewhere in South Africa and other countries.

Rhinos lost to poaching also represent a significant loss of revenue for African countries, reducing incentives for the private sector and communities to conserve rhino. Based on recorded average live rhino sale values from some major sellers, rhinos killed illegally in 2015 in South Africa alone represent an estimated loss of around US$25 million. The meeting heard how substantially increased security costs and risks to staff and rhinos, coupled with declining and limited economic incentives, is resulting in increasing numbers of private white rhino owners in South Africa selling or looking to sell many or all of their white rhino. Poaching threatens to reduce the range area available to rhino in future as well as cutting conservation agency revenue and budgets.

IUCN’s AfRSG recognises the important role that commercial wildlife enterprises, including live sales, tourism and limited controlled trophy hunting, have played in generating incentives for conservation and stimulating population increases of rhinos on state, private and communal land in Africa. Other themes such as alternative conservation funding mechanisms, the importance of community livelihoods, and strategies to reduce demand for illegally sourced rhino horn were discussed at the meeting to both enhance the value and conservation of rhinos on the African landscape.

While there is certainly room for improvement, Mozambique, which has been heavily implicated in much of the poaching and trafficking of horn, has made some recent progress, with AfRSG noting increased collaboration with neighbouring Kruger National Park. The country is also in the process of tightening legislation, increasing penalties and entering into bilateral agreements. The IUCN Group remains hopeful that proposed new laws with increased penalties for poaching and trafficking will be passed soon and then stringently enforced. Mozambican progress in implementing its National Ivory and Rhino Action plan is being followed closely; with the country due to report back to CITES on progress.

Wildlife crime is just one form of organised criminal activity undertaken by powerful transnational crime syndicates that also traffic in drugs, weapons and people. These criminals are now widely recognised as a global challenge and threat to national security. Such networks control much of the illegal trade in wildlife, destabilising communities and countries and corrupting government officials and structures. There is worrying evidence of the increasing involvement of Chinese citizens along with nationals from South East Asian countries like Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, as well as North Korea, in the illicit trade in rhino horn.

“With immediate, urgent interventions on all fronts,” Dr Knight concludes, “we hopefully will be able to get rhinos onto a more positive growth curve again.”

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