A record number of rhinos were killed by poachers across Africa last year, driven by demand in the far east for their horn.
The number slaughtered in their heartland in South Africa, which has four-fifths of the continent’s rhino, dipped for the first time since the crisis exploded nearly a decade ago.
But increases in the number of rhino poached in Nambia and Zimbabwe offset the small signs of hope in South Africa, leading to a record 1,338 to be killed continent-wide. A total of 5,940 have been poached since 2008.
Conservationists said it was possible that a clampdown by authorities in South Africa, where ministers have stepped up efforts against an illegal trade that they say threatens the tourism industry, have led to organised criminals moving their operations.
“They [poachers] operate like an amoeba so if you push in one place they expand elsewhere. What you may be seeing is a response at the regional level, where increased pressure in South Africa makes it more difficult for operatives to operate, having a response elsewhere,” said Mike Knight, chair of the respected International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s African rhino specialist group.
The group met in late February at South Africa’s Kruger, a vast national park and poaching hotspot that is the size of Belgium and has a 1,000km border with Mozambique. The meeting heard that although record numbers of rhino were killed in 2015, the rate of increase across Africa had slowed.
The expert group said that the number of white rhino across Africa had levelled off in 2015 to 19,682-21,077, while the population of black rhino stood at 5,042-5,455, a growth of around 2.9% a year since 2012. South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe are home to 95% of Africa’s rhino.
The situation in South Africa, where 1,175 rhino were killed in 2015, is so bad that some private game reserves are selling off their rhino because of increasing security costs and fears over attacks on the animals and their staff, the IUCN said.
In Namibia the authorities worked well with local communities but it appeared they had sat “back on their laurels, thinking they are immune [to the wildlife trade]”, Knight said.
Alongside nationals from China, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand involved in the illegal wildlife trade, Knight said that for the first time he had heard of North Korean nationals being implicated, which he said was a trend that needed watching closely.
He praised the South African government for having realised the crisis was not just a “wildlife crime” but an “economic crime” too, and said other countries needed to follow that approach.
“You cannot win this war in the parks. You have to win it outside protected areas. [You can] only do that through intelligence, that has to come from whole government response. It’s not only [the] wildlife sector, it has to be customs and excise, it has to be police.”
This article was first published by The Guardian on 09 Mar 2016.