Helicopters, GPS, dart guns, tourist spies, $300,000 bounties, night vision goggles and organised crime. This is just a taste of what Shamwari and other reserves throughout Africa have to contend with to protect their rhino population. Since the 1990s the population of rhinos has been growing slowly, having previously become almost extinction. It seemed like real progress was being made, then in 2007 a Chinese minister went on national TV to proclaim that his cancer had been cured by a medicine made from rhino horn. Almost overnight the poaching intensified on a huge scale. Last year over four hundred rhino were killed for their horns and this year already over three hundred have been killed. Despite the alleged medical uses of rhino horn, scientific tests have shown this to be untrue - not exactly surprised given that the horn is made from the same substance as hair! Nevertheless, within the next few years it's expected that the numbers poached will overtake the numbers born and that at the current rate rhinos could be extinct in a couple of decades. One of the most vulnerable parts of South Africa is the Kruger National Park, simply because of the sheer scale of it - it is roughly the size of Wales and extends into several of the neighbouring countries making it a huge task to effectively monitor.
In the past poaching was done mainly by local people in small numbers but rhino horn has become so valuable ($60,000 per kilo with a large horn being worth up to $300,000) that organised crime has become involved and the poachers are now highly skilled and well resourced. People have actually come into the reserve posing as tourists. Once out on a game drive they photograph any rhinos that they come across and use GPS on their phone to tag the location of the image. They then send the picture to someone outside the park who will fly in by helicopter once the rangers are gone. Helicopters are relatively common in the area so it's not particularly unusual for one to fly over the reserve. The helicopter will land quickly and drop a couple of people off who will dart the rhinos, cut the horns off, be picked up by the helicopter again and leave the rhino to bleed to death. All helicopters have a unique number on the side of them, like a licence plate on a car, and this is logged if any are spotted flying over head. With this number the owner of the chopper can be identified. Of course anyone not wanting to identified can simply cover up or remove the number but that would immediately arouse suspicion. During our game drive the previous day we spotted four rhinos standing together in the distance and Conrad radioed in their location to the Anti-poaching Unit. To try to combat the poaching all rangers and guides in the reserve must log the location of any rhinos that they see so that night-time patrols can be stepped up in those areas. When a rhino dies naturally on the reserve its horn is taken away and stored in a secure location. The horns used to be kept in a safe on the reserve but there was an incident a few years ago where armed men came onto the property and stole the horns.
Various strategies have been proposed to stem the poaching, including injecting a poison into the horns or cutting the horns off. There are a few problems with the poison idea, the first being that it might harm the rhino (although the poison used is supposed to be harmless to the animal there is still some controversy over it). The other issue is that someone could die and human rights supercede animal rights. I think if someone is stupid enough to take medicine made from illegally sourced rhino horn that's their problem! Cutting the horns from all of the rhinos won't work either. To fully remove the horn would seriously wound the animal so a small part would need to be left. That tiny part alone would still be so valuable that a rhino would be hunted for it. In fact reducing the availability of the horn wouldn't have any effect on the demand for it and so if anything, the remaining bits of horn would be even more valuable. Until people realise that there is no medicinal value in the horn it seems like the problem will continue to get worse and extinction is a very real possibility.