We are dealing with an unprecedented level of illegal trade in rhino horn, which threatens to dismantle decades of conservation progress.
As rhino lovers, we all know that if we are going to make a difference, we have to be informed and tackle the challenges head-on, as they come. This includes on-the-ground work in the field, as well as in the political arenas in which rhino conservation takes place. I’d like to take you on a ‘deep dive’ regarding recent policy work, some in the US and some global, related to rhinos.
I recently attended a day-long workshop at the World Bank focusing on Wildlife Criminology, a meeting that brought together different professional cultures, including wildlife conservation, research criminology, development, law enforcement, and others, in a new, international effort to link wildlife conservation with the science of criminology to address wildlife poaching and trafficking. An important take-home message for me (and all of us at IRF who take rhino poaching very personally) – it’s not personal. For organized crime, rhino horn (and other wildlife products) is just another commodity, along with drugs, weapons, children, and other trafficked items. Great strides are being made to build on the strengths of the various disciplinary groups present at the meeting, and we are all hopeful that working together we will progress in bringing down the syndicates responsible for rhino horn and other wildlife trade.
It’s About Greed
Rhino poaching is not a crime of poverty. It’s about greed. Middlemen take advantage of local people, often casually hired in bars and other places, to do the killing and transport the horn out of the area. The middlemen, who often drive large, luxury vehicles and live in grand homes, come away with huge profits as they sell to distributors that then sell to end-users. Wildlife trafficking is a business. Every trafficking network has a sophisticated logistics network that keeps rhino horn and other illicit products moving across borders. It has a retail-marketing network, and a financial system to convert product into cash or a marketable commodity that can be used in legitimate methods. These criminal groups are very, very organized.
As part of the IRF family, you have often heard us refer to the rhino wars. Poachers, middlemen, and distributors are not soldiers, though. They are criminals – murderers of animals (and people), money-launderers, and traffickers. In addition to going after poaching gangs on the front lines where rhinos are being poached, these groups also need to be ruthlessly pursued within the criminal justice system. We need to be sure that evidence is collected at the scene of poaching events that can stand up in court, and we need to train prosecutors to successfully go after these convictions.
Make no mistake, the person who ruthlessly slaughter rhinos will kill a bull, cow or young calf, and anyone who stands in their way. Hundreds of rangers across the globe lose their lives each year trying to protect their wildlife charges. We recently visited one reserve in South Africa and were shocked to learn that anti-poaching teams discovered the bones of a small child among the items recovered from a poachers’ camp. The poachers were using the body of the child, who was presumably murdered, as ‘muti’. Muti, consumed or smeared on the body, is usually made of plant or animal origin (often wildlife) and is thought to be imbued with powerful magic, particularly in the Zulu culture. In this case, poachers believed that muti would ensure their safety as they went out to kill rhino. Poachers also use animals as muti, especially owls and vultures, because they are thought to provide clairvoyant powers, foresight and increased intelligence.
How Governments and Others are Trying to Help
In the US, great strides have recently been made in setting up a policy framework against wildlife trade. President Obama’s new National Strategy for Combatting Wildlife Trafficking, launched in February, outlines three major strategies: (1) strengthening enforcement of existing laws and regulations; (2) reducing the demand for illegally-trafficked wildlife; and (3) building greater international and domestic cooperation. We are encouraged by the US governments issue of its first-ever reward offer in November last year: a $1 million reward to assist in dismantling the Laos-based Xaysavang Network, which has been linked to several major wildlife product seizures and which is known to have affiliates in South Africa, Mozambique, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and China. It’s a start.
In other countries, policy agreements have been signed but to-date not shown demonstrable results because they often are not effectively enforced. Nevertheless, there are a lot of new developments. Three weeks ago, China’s People’s Congress passed a new ‘interpretation’ of the country’s criminal law that will allow authorities to jail people who knowingly eat products made from endangered species. (China already prohibits trade in protected animals, and promises harsh fines and jail sentences for people who catch, kill, traffic, buy and sell the animals, but they are often not enforced.)
Late in April, the Mozambican and South African governments signed an agreement on the management and conservation of biodiversity, which is particularly aimed at stopping rhino poaching in the Greater Limpopo Transnational Park, which encompasses Mozambique’s Limpopo, South Africa’s Kruger, and Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Parks. Some gangs have moved their base of operations to Mozambique, where they have operated with impunity. Many Mozambicans are hired to poach rhinos in the Kruger and carry the horn back across the border and Mozambique is part of the known transit routes for rhino horn trafficked to Asia.
In March, in an unprecedented step, the Indonesian Council of Ulama, the country’s Muslim clerical body issued a ‘fatwa’, or edict, against illegal wildlife trafficking. The edict declares illegal hunting or illegal trading of endangered species to be forbidden, and requires Indonesia’s 200 million Muslims to take an active role in protecting and conserving endangered species, including tigers, rhinos, elephants, and orangutans. Indonesia holds the two most endangered rhino species: Javan rhinos, numbering no more than 50 individuals, and Sumatran rhinos, now thought to number no more than 100 animals.
The fight against rhino poaching was given a further boost in March 2013 with the signing of a MoU between South Africa and the People’s Republic of China, aimed to promote cooperation on broad conservation issues, particularly rhino poaching, through cooperation in law enforcement, compliance with international conventions and other relevant legislation. In December 2012, the governments of South Africa and Vietnam signed a Memorandum of Understanding to improve co-operation between the two states on biodiversity conservation and protection including tackling illegal wildlife trafficking, with an emphasis on rhino horn. All of these agreements are promising. Now they have to be implemented.
Please Stand with IRF in the Fight
As of April 30th, 331 rhinos have been lost just this year in South Africa. We are dealing with an unprecedented level of illegal trade in rhino horn, which threatens to dismantle decades of conservation progress. Only a robust approach will give us the best chance at safeguarding the world’s rhinos. We recognize that we will not be able to save them all. Over the next months, IRF be revitalizing our Operation Stop Poaching Now campaign, with the aim to raise funds that can be used to strategically protect the populations we believe have to best chances of making it through the crisis – the ones that are relatively large in number, and which can be defended with more and stronger ‘boots on the ground’, and with increased equipment, technology, and collaboration. This, combined with a focus on going after organized crime through legal frameworks, backed up with policy support and enforcement of laws by governments, provides our best chance of keeping rhinos and other wildlife alive for future generations.
We won’t back down. And we need your help. Please consider giving generously.
Susie Ellis, PhD
P.S. Every dollar helps. In the US, text RHINO to 501501 to make a $10 contribution.