From high tides to labor, for many of us, a full moon signals the ending of a cycle and the beginning of another. The lunar effect of a full moon is believed to be very powerful and have several effects on the functioning of the world. For many reserves around South Africa, however, the full moon presents an opportunity for poachers to strike. When the whole disc is illuminated, there is ample natural light available to increase the visibility of the rhino. With 80% of the rhino population living within the counties of Kenya, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe and the numbers rapidly decreasing, it is important to discuss the conservation perspectives and government policies. By doing so, we may realistically understand the possibilities that remain for the existence of this species.
In an interview with Les Slabbert of Mount Camdeboo Reserve, he took me to the death site of a poaching attack. He spoke of the effect of the recent full moon and the increased security measures that had to be undertaken. On our arrival, the putrid hide smell engulfed the area. The mother and her three-year-old calf laid lifeless on either side of the Karoo Thorn tree. He begins to discuss the corpse and details which add to the gravity of the situation. The closer the rhino gets, the more grime the decay becomes. Strikingly, stark white bones representing rib cages and other bodily remains lie scattered. This poignant portrait showcased the aftermath of a crime. As we looked closer, the rasping nature of the cutlass marks revealed the nasal cavity. The scene gave an insight into the pain the mother suffered. As if to make matters worse, she was two weeks to full term. The emotional burden of witnessing the delivery of an unborn calf has scarred Slabbert.
During a safe dehorning, the rangers administer an anesthetic to immobilize the animal. Then they would cut the horn, allowing 7 cm to remain so as not to damage any nerve endings at the germinal layer and cause the animal pain. Instead poachers use an almost fatal amount of the drug, a chainsaw and do not issue an antidote which causes the animals to bleed to death. Rhino horns are renewable resources and therefore, if removed following protocol, many lives could be preserved.
On 5th April 2017, the Constitutional Court – South Africa’s highest court – decided to legally allow the sale of rhino horn within the country. With the ongoing battle between the Department of Environmental Affairs, conservationists, reserve owners and government reaching its peak, a decision had to be made. As there seems to be no promise of the demand for rhino horn decreasing, the belief supporting the legalization of the rhino horn trade is that it would make South Africa directly responsible for meeting the demand. With the market being extremely concentrated, there has arisen a practice of stockpiling rhino horn. Stockpiling increases complications as it creates a spike in poaching due to the great anticipation of the ability to launder horn illegally by passing through the legal domestic trade.
The horns harvested and allowed to be legally traded within the country must be sold with a DNA fingerprint. Scientists will work with government to obtain DNA profiles from rhino horn directly through an extraction process. As opposed to computer technology, DNA cannot be removed, changed or destroyed making it one of its kind within the world. This development for security allows greater protection in comparison to microchips. DNA matches of recovered horn can be linked to individual rhinos and poached rhinos which enables the government to link horns to poachers and traffickers and trace the origins of horn from consumer countries. Moreover, this DNA allows for advanced security and in the event of theft, profiled horns can be returned to owners if recovered. This step may be a huge tool in the management and control of this high demand resource.
Brian Child, an associate professor at the University of Florida, with expertise in community governance and park management systems is pro the trade of rhino horns. He claims, “the lessons for rhino conservation are obvious: unless we put control of rhinos back in the hands of landholders, and encourage high-priced global markets, rhinos are unlikely to survive the massive pressures piled up against them. Indeed, rhinos are the ultimate sustainable product, with non-lethal harvesting of horns being far more valuable even than trophy hunting.”
While this may be true, a study on Rhino dehorning by Peter Lindsey and Andrew Taylor highlighted some saddening facts. Over the years in South Africa there have been incidents of dehorned rhinos being killed by poachers despite clear knowledge that the animal was dehorned. Thus, dehorning rhinos in the absence of intensive security is likely to be ineffective in preserving the species. Moreover, it shows that even a mere 7 cm horn stumps are still valuable to poachers. The study also pointed out that “horn size was closely related to dominance in Black Rhinos, suggesting that dehorning could have potentially serious social consequences.” The human interference that causes social and behavioral changes could be more significant in small, fenced populations where rhinos occur at high densities such as large game reserves.
The protection of rhinos on the reserves is entirely funded out of pocket by the game farms. Poached Rhino is an anti-poaching unit and as an estimate they provided information for the cost of their service. For four individuals to help protect the reserve, it can cost 1.2 million rand per year and that is allocated mostly to fuel, food and maintenance costs. There is the outlook from some ranchers that the sale of rhino horns may help them to afford the large security costs that are needed such as electric fences and much more.
Rhino poaching and horn trade is not simply a crime against wildlife and the environment, it is organized international crime and is as far as impacting national security. The Black Mamba group is an excellent example of what South Africa can look towards as a possible conservation mechanism. This all female group focuses not only the protection of rhinos through physical presence but also through community engagement. By focusing on reinforcing positive ontologies concerning rhinos they promote the far greater benefits of rhino conservation rather than poaching. Furthermore, the group exemplifies positive images of adults earning an honest living instead of corruption and works to foster positive childhood development. Social movements to make major change must focus on restructuring ideologies within communities and the wider society so that the species lives for years to come. This may be the pivotal string that holds the country together.