For the first time in almost a decade, South Africa saw the number of rhinos poached for their horns decrease last year. This is good news, but it’s vitally important to not gloss over the fact that the animals are still being slaughtered in their thousands across Africa and India, for a trade dominated by international criminal gangs. With demand for rhino horn still prevalent and the price it commands still extraordinarily high, the future for the species remains on a knife edge.
“I am today pleased to announce that for the first time in a decade – the poaching situation has stabilized,” said Edna Molewa, South Africa’s Environmental Affairs Minister, in a statement. While in 2014 there were a record 1,215 rhinos poached in the country, Molewa said last year this figure had dropped by 40 to 1,175. She claimed that this slight dip in the number of rhinos killed is the direct result of an increase in the arrests of poachers, the translocation of rhinos to more secure reserves, and an increase in security around Kruger National Park, where the majority of rhinos in South Africa live and are subsequently killed.
Despite the drop in rhino deaths in South Africa, more than a thousand are still killed each year for their horns. Hein waschefort/Wikimedia Commons
Home to around 80 percent of the world’s rhino population, South Africa is vitally important for the survival of the animals. Because of this, the country has taken the brunt of the killings. While in 2007 there were only 13 recorded deaths, this has exploded over the last 10 years as the market in both the Middle East and South East Asia has boomed. This has resulted in the horn, made from nothing more than the keratin that forms your fingernails, to now be worth more than cocaine or gold, at around $65,000 a kilogram (2.2 pounds).
While conservationists welcome the news, they point out that the rhino poaching epidemic is far from solved. As security and interventions have been stepped up in South Africa, possibly contributing to the decline seen last year, poachers have turned their sights instead on Zimbabwe and Namibia, which saw the number of rhinos killed for their horns increase during the same period.
The horn is used in traditional medicine in Asia, but also in ceremonial dress in Yemen. IFAW/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
“The poaching epicenter has spread to neighboring Namibia and Zimbabwe, but is nowhere near being extinguished in South Africa: Despite some commendable efforts being made, we’re still a very long way from seeing the light at the end of this very dark tunnel,” says Tom Milliken, a rhino expert for the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC. “For Africa as a whole, this is the worst year in decades for rhino poaching.”
At the same time, a ruling made last year by the Pretoria High Court that lifted a ban in South Africa on the domestic trade in rhino horn was upheld. Heavily criticized by conservation agencies, the move was mainly called for by reserve owners who wished to sell their harvested horn legally. But many warn that by giving the product a legal market in which to be sold when there is no demand within the country, it will simply give an easy way in which to get more horn into the black market.