Russ Juskalian
Russ Juskalian

Fellowship Title:

Will All African Rhinos be Dead in Twenty Years?

Russ Juskalian
August 6, 2015

Fellowship Year


The flat bone had a bullet hole through it wide enough to fit the tip of a pinky finger, and was caked in a dried mix of Kruger National Park’s rusty clay earth, and blood. Two cracks had propagated outwards from where the bullet entered. This sort of ballistics evidence is a crucial aspect of rhino poaching forensic work, but the crime scene was already a few weeks old—well scavenged by lions, hyenas, and vultures—and the bullet was nowhere to be found. 

Nearby, the helicopter was cooling off, and two overworked investigators, with help from the pilot, were scouring the South African lowveld for clues. Frik Rossouw, a former policeman, and now legendary environmental crime scene investigator, had the unenviable task of searching the hollowed-out body cavity of the rhino carcass with a metal detector and then hacking off a sliver of the rhino’s toe for a DNA sample. Maggots wriggled in black ooze as he chopped. 

“We have a major backlog,” Rossouw had said that morning about following up on poached rhinos in Kruger. “We are trying to do fifteen a day.” But no matter how quickly Rossouw and others work, the rhino carcasses are piling up faster than they can be investigated. Last year, like every year since 2008, was a new record—with 1,215 rhinos killed in South Africa alone. This year is on track to be much worse. The numbers have gotten so bad that even the most optimistic estimates suggest poaching deaths will outnumber births no later than 2016. Many experts think the tipping point has already been passed.

This is a dramatic reversal from what had been, up until now, the most successful large animal conservation project in modern history: from 1900 to 2014, white rhino numbers in South Africa recovered from fewer than 50 to around 18,000. Starting in the 1960s, Ian Player’s Operation Rhino re-seeded breeding populations in Kruger, and throughout the African continent, saving the species from the threat of extinction. 

That success is on the verge of failure. “If poaching continues to accelerate,” wrote conservation economist Duan Biggs in early 2013, when rhino killings were less than half of what they are today, “Africa’s remaining rhino populations may become extinct in the wild in 20 years.”

Perverse Incentives

Two months earlier, on a balmy March day in a hotel conference room on the industrial outskirts of Johannesburg, a speaker at a public hearing on rhino conservation summed up the current rhino poaching crises in a damning equation: “A dead rhino is currently worth more than a live rhino.”

By all accounts—and there were scores presented at this meeting held by the South African Department of Environmental Affairs—the math is correct. A rhino bull can be sold for around $25,000, but his horns, sold on the black market after he has been poached, can fetch close to $1 million. A struggling landowner stands to make more money by simply agreeing to turn a blind eye, allowing a poaching take place on his property, than he can by legally selling a living rhino. Though not common, it has happened.

The force behind this reality is a rapid increase in the market for rhino horn, driven by newly middle-class and wealthy consumers in China and Southeast Asia. Coupled with a worldwide ban on the legal sale of horn, the price has skyrocketed. Demand so outstrips availability that powdered horn is worth more than cocaine or gold—selling for upwards of $100,000 per kilogram. 

Most of this horn ends up in Asia, where consumers falsely believe it has medicinal properties to reduce fever, prevent hangovers, or cure major diseases like cancer. In recent years, however, the horn has become an increasingly potent socioeconomic status symbol—used as a gift to close a major business deal, or consumed conspicuously on a long night out as proof of one’s wealth. 

A Militarizing Conflict

“Ask my wife if she sleeps at night,” said Colin Patrick, a 20-year veteran of conservation and scout work in South Africa who trains rangers across the country in tracking and counter-insurgency techniques. As he sat under the flickering lights of the Moholoholo Mountain View lodge near Hoedspruit, South Africa, which he at one point managed, he was preparing to head to Kruger early the next morning for a meeting on rhino poaching.

“I can put it like this: In 2007, I was still chasing warthog poachers,” he said. The work wasn’t particularly dangerous, and most of the poachers were local guys hoping to supplement a family’s diet with a little extra protein.”

Around 2010, a different, more sophisticated type of poacher started showing up. The teams, now three to five people strong and in search or rhinos, would case properties looking for weak spots, pay workers on the inside to share information, and hit the reserves with test break-ins to get a sense of what kind of response to expect. 

“Two months ago,” said Patrick, by way of example, a group of poachers were picked up on a camera trap at a nearby reserve. “There is a picture of three individuals walking on a path. The person in the back is carrying a [rifle]. The person in the middle is carrying a bag and a saw. The person in the front is walking, he’s not carrying a bag or anything. But if you look, he’s walking with a pistol in his hand. What’s that telling you? That’s for people.”

Personnel in Kruger and other large reserves talk of armed insurgents—mostly coming from villages on the other side of the Mozambique border in the vicinity of Massingir—backed by regional organized crime and international syndicates with links to terrorism and human trafficking. Their forces make use of everything from heavy caliber rifles with suppressors, to small aircraft, to high-level corruption in order to spirit poachers in, and horn out, of South Africa. By some estimates there are upwards of 45 poachers operating in Kruger on any given day.

In December, 2012, when retired Major General Johan Jooste was contracted by South African National Parks (SANParks) to lead the fight against rhino poaching, he released a statement that:

“It is a fact that South Africa, a sovereign country, is under attack from armed foreign nationals. This should be seen as a declaration of war against South Africa by armed foreign criminals. We are going to take the war to these armed bandits and we aim to win it.”

The response has been an escalation from the anti-poaching side. Kruger has experimented with drones, and recently added advanced night-vision and thermal imaging capabilities to its small fleet of surveillance helicopters. On a nightly, basis even the smallest of reserves have turned to sending out small teams of rangers-turned-soldiers dressed in full camouflage and toting combat rifles. The bodies are piling up.

From Nature Lovers to Fighters

“We’ve now converted people from ordinary conservationists to privatized soldiers,” said Li Lotriet, Director of Wildlife Security Operations for security firm Quemic. He laments that people who originally became field rangers out of a love of nature and the outdoors have instead seen their job duties come to more closely resemble that of a warrior.

“The various leaders that I have in my different contingents,” said Lotriet, with a sigh, “all have battle fatigue, battle stress. All of them.”

He speaks of a hypothetical field ranger who, having fatally shot a poacher may be regarded locally as a hero. “But actually, inside, he’s melting,” said Lotriet. The man struggles to deal with the trauma of having killed, and the stress of such dangerous work—manifesting in drinking and domestic violence back home. 

Lotriet, like others, talks longingly of a remarkably specific nostalgia: being able to let down one’s guard, beer in hand, and enjoy the sun setting over the bushveld. But those days are over, and all Lotriet sees is a body count—poacher, ranger, rhino—that climbs needlessly higher. “If I stand back and look at the last year, I have to ask myself how many more have to die?”

A Financial Inflection Point

Rhino protection isn’t cheap. Patrick, the former Moholoholo manager, says Hoedspruit area reserves have seen costs double or triple in just the last few years. Les Carlisle, Group Conservation Manager at ultra-luxury safari company &Beyond, said rhino security costs had recently quadrupled. As the trend continues, and poaching brings armed conflict ever closer to paying customers, Carlisle said, the time is approaching that &Beyond will have no choice but to consider divesting its normal, free range rhino population. Kruger itself has already started moving rhinos to what it calls Intensive Protection Zones within a small part of the park.

It’s a sentiment one hears repeated throughout South Africa. Pelham Jones, head of the Private Rhino Owners Association, says that the cost of protecting rhinos is, “growing out of control by the day.”

“If I am a conservationist, or a businessman, and very often the two go together,” he said, “I would ask myself the question: Can I justify spending a million rand, or a million dollar[s], or a million whatever on buying rhino? Well the answer is no. That’s dumb money. Because it’s high risk. It’s high cost of protecting them—and zero return.”

In total, Jones says the private sector has lost about 400 million South African Rand in poached rhinos since around 2007, and is spending 270 million Rand a year in security costs. 

Ten years ago, said Patrick, conservation-minded reserves were spending just a fraction of their budgets on security. “Now, security is the major factor, and conservation is almost non-existent”, he said. “And it’s all because of counter-poaching.”

Just last month, said Patrick, a typical narrative played out when a reserve near Moholoho had some of its rhinos poached. “A week later, you know how many rhino[s] they had,” he asked rhetorically? The answer: zero. 

“Because within five days,” he said, “they made a few phone calls: I’m not taking those risks. I’m not keeping these rhino[s]. I can take that financial reward by selling the rhino[s] right now and I can invest it another method—buffalo, or whatever it is that’s not getting poached at this stage. A week later those rhinos had been sold and moved.”

The upshot is that the process started under Ian Player in the 1960s—to increase the range of rhinos by creating a system in which owning rhinos was profitable, and buying the animals made good business sense—is reversing. Private concerns in South Africa own about 5,000 white rhinos, which, depending on whose estimate you believe, makes up between one quarter and one third of the total white rhino population in the country. Already, The Private Rhino Owners Association estimates that over 40 reserves that once had rhinos no longer no longer do.

A Desperate Measure

The mounting pressures of poaching have led many rhino owners, and some officials at non-profits and in the South African government, to consider a radical experiment: pushing to legalize the international trade in rhino horn. 

The move would be fraught with risks, chief among them, say anti-legalization advocates, is that breaking the taboo on the use of rhino horn has the potential to massively increase demand. They point to one-off sales of elephant ivory; though there isn’t enough data to show causality, demand for elephant ivory, and prices for ivory on the black market in Asia, have increased in the years after the sales. 

Proponents argue that since rhino horn can be trimmed without much risk, and grows back at a rate of nearly 1kg a year, increased demand will be met by rhino farmers increasing the size of their herds. They point to John Hume, a retired South African businessman who currently owns over 1,000 white rhinos. Every 18 months or so, a rhino on Hume’s massive farm—which resembles the open bush except for the density of the rhinos—has its horns trimmed and added to a hidden stockpile now worth tens of millions of dollars. And anyway, they argue, without a radical turn-around wild rhinos are destined for extinction in our time, under our watch.

But as the debate rages on, and South Africa, which will host the next CITES meeting in 2016, decides whether to formally endorse legalization, time is running out. During a press conference in May, the country’s Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa released rhino poaching numbers for the first fourth months of 2015— showing an 18% increase compared to the previous year.

The numbers are bad, and the day-to-day reality is worse. Back on the ground with Rossouw and the Limpopo province police officer, the stench had faded into the background, becoming yet another quotidian detail of conducting post-mortem fieldwork in the midst of the rhino’s last stand. 

At the site with the bullet-pierced bone, though, something stood out: Fewer than 200 meters away tourists sat in cars by the side of the road, straining to spot game, perhaps rhinos, they’d come halfway around the world to see. Rhinos that, in a decade or two, may only be found in a zoo or one of a few unnaturally small, so-called intensive protection zones already being created. And yet here were the rhinos, just out of view, decomposing behind the tall South African grass. 

@RussJuskalian. During his APF year, Russ Juskalian is examining the demise of the rhino in South Africa.© 2015 Russ Juskalian

Russ Juskalian
Russ Juskalian