South African rhino poaching hits all-time high in 2013

Ted Bobosh

Rhinoceroses could soon be wiped from the face of the Earth - largely due to superstition and pseudoscience. For white rhinos in South Africa, 2013 saw a record number of poachers. The rhinos are typically poached only for their horns, which certain groups in Vietnam and China believe to have special medicinal properties. There is also a black market for the horns to be used as decorations.

White rhinos first emerged over 14 million years ago. There are two subspecies, the northern and the southern. The northern population is critically endangered, with only four individuals remaining in the wild, one of which is protected by four armed guards at all times. The southern white rhinos are currently the most numerous of four living rhino species, but that could be about to change.

According to the South African Department of Environmental Affairs, 1004 rhinos were poached during 2013. This equates to about three rhinos per day and far exceeds the 668 rhinos that were poached in 2012. Ten years ago in 2003, South Africa only lost 22 rhinos to poaching. Unfortunately, the last five years have seen a steep exponential curve in the amount of animals illegally killed. The vast majority of the animal is left behind to rot, so what are these poachers after? The horns.

Among certain Asian regions, mostly found in Vietnam and China, folk medicine is still widely practiced, despite lack of evidence that the treatments work. The horns of the rhinoceros, which are made of keratin like fingernails and hair, are believed to have special properties to treat fevers and seizures, in addition to many other maladies. Of course, this is nonsense. While there are groups who practice traditional healing who are speaking out against the use of rhino horn, the lucrative market still exists. Wildlife crime is the fifth most lucrative criminal activity in the world, as rhino horns can fetch more per kilogram than gold.

Wildlife preserves in Africa are not taking the situation lightly. Some rhinos have had their horns surgically removed in order to eliminate them as a target. Rangers patrol the areas and will kill poachers if necessary. Unfortunately, the rangers face many difficulties. Many African countries face extreme poverty and their governments are unable to spend much money on their patrol workers. Pay is low, proper equipment can be scarce, and not everyone can carry a gun during their shift due to local laws. This puts the rangers at risk if they should come across a poacher, who is usually desperate for the high paycheck that comes with collecting the horns. Conservation rangers are killed more often than police officers; about one ever four days.

It sadly appears that 2014 is looking just as bleak as last year. In the first two weeks of the year, 37 rhinos were confirmed to have been killed by poachers. Conservation groups and African governments are putting pressure on the governments of Asian countries to crack down on poaching, which is only a misdemeanor offense in some areas. While officials state that the rhino populations have not yet reached the tipping point in which the number of deaths outnumber the births, it is believed to be coming in short order. The southern white rhino is currently listed as Near Threatened, but is extremely close to seeing declining population numbers. If there are not drastic changes in the how poachers are dealt with, the white rhinos in South Africa are likely to be completely eradicated in the wild.

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