At the Sharp End

South Africa’s private game reserves, which have played an important role in rhino conservation, are now finding their charges a liability.

photo of a rhinocerosAll photos by Ann and Steve ToonWhile anti-poaching efforts have had some limited success in Kruger National Park farther north, it seems to have simply shifted the problem elsewhere, to places like KwaZulu-Natal , which is fast becoming ground zero of South Africa›s rhino poaching crisis.

Simon Naylor has just finished dehorning a rhino. It’s a white rhino bull, a two-ton behemoth incongruously sporting a cerise blindfold and matching earplugs, accessories that help ensure the tranquilized animal stays calm. Here on Phinda, a private game reserve in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province, which Naylor manages, rhinos tolerate the daily traffic of safari-viewing vehicles and the excited chatter of their top-dollar guests. But a groggy, disoriented rhino bull having its horns sawn off is unlikely to be so relaxed. Naylor’s team works quickly, eager to finish the job and see the rhino get back on its feet. It’s a well-practiced routine: They’ve carried out this procedure on dozens of rhinos.

Phinda’s wildlife has been having a hard time. The reserve’s 23,000 hectares are a rich tapestry of habitats, including savannah, thorn bush, acacia woodland, marsh, and a rare sand forest. But two years of severe drought in Southern Africa have left the landscape looking more like a desert. It’s great for game viewing; the barren vegetation makes for good visibility and few places for animals to hide. But it’s tough on the wildlife struggling to find anything to eat.

Phinda’s rhinos face yet another threat to their survival, and it’s the reason Naylor has been busy doing a job he doesn’t enjoy. Rhinos should have horns, he believes. But dehorning has become a necessary evil in Phinda, as on so many other private reserves in Zululand. With rhino poaching rampant in South Africa, conservationists and rhino owners are being forced to take drastic measures to minimize the risk to their charges.

It’s taken Naylor and his team two weeks to dehorn a large proportion of Phinda’s rhinos, and that’s only the beginning of the process. “It was a big task and now we will have to monitor all these rhinos carefully to see how they’re getting on,” he explains. “We want to ensure there is no negative [impact on] their well-being and social behavior. And we want to gauge whether this drastic action has in fact deterred poachers from planning or entering the park.”

South Africa’s government, often criticized for its response to the poaching crisis, has suggested that increased security in the country’s state-run parks has started to show encouraging results. The first eight months of 2016 saw 702 rhinos poached in South Africa, compared with 796 in the first seven months of 2015. In Kruger National Park, the epicenter of poaching activities, the number of rhino carcasses found was 458, against 557 in the same period last year. Edna Molewa, the country’s environment minister, says she hopes 2016 will be the year in which the poaching tide is turned. “We are under no illusions of the challenges ahead, but we are confident that slowly but surely, progress is being made. We are not claiming victory, but we are claiming success that accounts for the downward trend,” she said earlier this year.

Naylor is far less optimistic. He thinks the poaching situation is getting worse. “I have seen no evidence demand for rhino horn is reducing and, from the information we’re getting, the price of horn per kilo on the black market is growing every day,” he says.

Rhino horn, used variously as a traditional medicine, a high status gift, and an investment, is sold on the black market for up to $65,000 per kilo. The current surge in rhino poaching, primarily driven by demand for horn in Vietnam and China, has had a devastating impact on Africa’s rhinos. Just 150 years ago, more than a million black and white rhinos roamed the continent’s savannahs. Today their numbers have dropped to fewer than 27,000. Most of Africa’s remaining rhinos are found in just four countries – South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya – and very few of these ancient animals now survive outside of protected areas and sanctuaries.

photo of a wildebeest under a sunrise or sunset Private game reserves – which typically offer safaris to tourists – have played a very important role in rhino conservation over the past few decades.

According to official figures, the number of rhinos killed annually in South Africa, which is home to around 75 percent of the continent’s rhino population, has increased by a dismaying 9,000 percent since 2007 – from 13 animals poached that year to a record 1,215 in 2014. Last year’s figure was 1,175, but many conservationists believe the true number is significantly higher, as many carcasses are never found, and some private rhino owners do not report poaching incidents.

The situation in KwaZulu-Natal – the spiritual home of the rhino, where the southern race of the white rhino was saved from extinction – is particularly bad. While anti-poaching efforts have had some limited success in Kruger National Park farther north, it seems to have simply shifted the problem elsewhere, to places like KZN, which is fast becoming ground zero of South Africa’s rhino poaching crisis.

In comparison to Kruger’s 2 million hectares, KZN’s largest reserve, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, is a mere 96,000 hectares, but it contains the highest density of wild white rhinos anywhere in the world. Criminal syndicates are increasingly sending their armed poachers to reserves such as Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, where anti-poaching measures are less intensive. Incursions now happen almost daily.

“The situation in KZN is dire in that we are losing rhinos, both black and white, at an alarming rate,” says Dr. Jacques Flamand, project leader of the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project, which has been instrumental in establishing new black rhino habitats on private game reserves by translocating rhinos from reserves with healthy populations. Flamand says poaching threatens the future success of this endeavor.

“So far we have lost 128 rhinos this year in KZN, compared to 93 by this time last year. Some 122 of these were [in] state parks and six were on private land, 117 were white rhino and 11 were black. This translates to 3.7 percent of the white rhino population being poached and 2.2 percent of the black rhino population,” Flamand says. “Such a proportion is unsustainable in the long term, particularly for our black rhino population, whose 5-year mean annual growth rate in KZN was 2.48 percent. As most of the black rhinos we source are [translocated] from Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, this will impact … the number of animals we will be able to draw on for our future populations, so it will have the effect of slowing down our population growth further.”

infographicsource: WWF Global

Phinda’s Simon Naylor says close to 15 populations of rhino on both private and state land have already gone extinct in KZN, due mainly to the pressures of poaching. Besides the populations lost to poachers, the cost of paying for the rhinos’ security was simply too much for landowners so they sold their animals to other reserves. But the number of reserves wanting to buy rhinos, too, is decreasing. Positive growth trends changed in 2012 and for the first time in decades the population in the province of KZN is in decline, at a rate of 4.1 percent per annum. There are now more deaths due to poaching than births.

Naylor says dehorning Phinda’s rhinos became unavoidable as the poaching crisis worsened: “Close to 100 rhinos have been shot and killed within a 50 kilometer radius of Phinda in the last 12 months. Dehorning changes the risk/reward ratio substantively against the poacher. It increases the time poachers will have to spend in the park looking for rhino with horn – increasing the opportunity for our field rangers to arrest them,” he explains. “Of course, the horn is the essence of a rhino, but all of us would rather see a live, hornless rhino than a dead and bloated hornless carcass.”

Dehorning Dilemma

What characterizes a rhino? Some might say its huge size, immense power, thick legs, or prehistoric appearance. But, for most, surely it is their horn. In recent years dehorning has become more commonplace as the threat from poaching continues to rise. Dehorning doesn’t hurt the animal – it’s like cutting fingernails or trimming horses’ hooves. But, as with any surgical procedure, it is not without its risks, and – as with any proposed solution to a very complex problem – dehorning will never be a panacea for poaching.

Evidence shows that dehorning has a place as part of a suite of measures to protect rhinos from poachers but, when conducted in isolation, can have unintended consequences.


Dehorning isn’t a magic bullet: Poachers will still kill dehorned animals for the stump of horn that remains, or to avoid wasting time tracking the same animal on another night, and the dehorning process itself carries risk (see “Dehorning Dilemma”). At best, it may simply persuade poachers to try elsewhere. As Jacques Flamand points out: “Almost all of the private Zululand game reserves that surround the state reserves have dehorned their rhinos. The only attractive rhinos available in the province are the ones in places like Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, which is understaffed by security personnel due to severe budget cuts by the provincial government, which does not see poaching as a priority crime.”

State parks will never be able to afford to dehorn every rhino, so their territories will be much more rewarding for poachers, says Cathy Dean, director of Save the Rhino, an international rhino conservation group. She says state rangers need to have access to high-end technology as well as advance intelligence if they are to beat the poachers at their game. Funding is flowing to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi for more advanced technology. That helps, but isn’t enough. “We need the basics done well: the right training, and good-quality equipment. We also need rangers to be led from the front, with people working at the top with tangible field experience,” she says.

Dean says working on advance intelligence gathering is critical because the information can help rangers nab poachers before they kill an animal. This process requires building informer networks and good relationships with communities so that they come forward with information, which increases the capacity of enforcement agencies to follow the money, she says. Getting the kingpins rather than lower-level poachers can turn the tide in conservationists’ favor.

Private rhino reserves – which typically offer safaris to tourists – have played a very important role in rhino conservation over the past few decades. Rhinos are one of the “Big Five” must-see tourist drawcards (along with lions, leopards, elephants, and Cape buffalo), so as South Africa’s rhino population recovered from the 1960s onwards, game reserves were keen to reintroduce the animals. Reserves such as Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, which had as many rhinos as they could hold, began selling their surplus animals, and a lucrative trade in wild rhinos developed, with individual animals selling for as much as $80,000. This raised money for conservation, and ensured new rhino populations were established. By 2015, 33 percent of South Africa’s white rhino population was to be found within 2 million hectares of privately owned game reserves.

The Legalization Conundrum

Controversial proposals to legalize international trade in rhino horn have divided opinion among conservationists and rhino managers. Rhino horn, which is essentially keratin, grows like fingernails, so it can be harvested sustainably, unlike elephant ivory. Advocates of a regulated trade system argue that flooding the market with legally stockpiled rhino horn would drive down the price, and decrease the incentive for poachers. Income from horn sales would help reserve owners fund the high cost of anti-poaching measures, and redress the imbalance between the well-funded criminal syndicates behind poaching and the financially stretched conservation bodies attempting to safeguard rhinos.

Opponents, including several international conservation groups, argue that legal sales would create a smokescreen for continued black market trading, as it would be extremely difficult to distinguish legal and illegal horn. They believe that key consumer states like China and Vietnam lack the capacity or political will to police trade effectively, and that widespread corruption in rhino range states and end-user countries would make strict monitoring impossible. Increased supply could also lead to greater demand for rhino horn, while legalizing horn trade would undermine efforts to educate consumers that horn is of negligible medicinal benefit.

With around 20 tons of rhino horns stockpiled by the South African government, and at least two tons in private hands, there is likely to be continuing pressure to legalize trade or allow at least a one-off sale. But a proposal to legalize trade put forward by Swaziland was rejected at the recent Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), held in Johannesburg earlier this year, so for now, at least, the issue has been put to bed.

Stepping up anti-poaching measures has put considerable financial pressure on both state and private rhino owners in South Africa. According to the Private Rhino Owners Association, poaching has cost private reserves more than $78 million in the past eight years, due to a combination of additional security costs of more than $50 million, and the loss of animals worth $28 million. Nationally, rhinos killed illegally in 2015 represented an estimated loss of around $25 million based on average live rhino sale values.

Private rhino reserves, which are mostly self-funded operations, are finding it prohibitively expensive to protect rhinos effectively, especially since their live value is dropping as demand for animals decreases. They are becoming more of a liability than an asset. Since the start of the poaching crisis eight years ago, more than 70 private reserves in South Africa have divested their rhino populations – a sad statistic, as prior to this the number of private rhino reserves introducing new rhinos into the wild was growing.

Dehorning is now yet another task on the increasingly long list of work private reserves like Phinda have to carry out in order to keep their animals safe. “Rhino security takes up a huge proportion of our time, effort, and budget,” says Naylor. “Total reserve security costs in the 2015-16 financial year was about 8 million rand (US $575,000) for the year.” Security work includes checking the entire fenceline daily, deploying field rangers, monitoring access into the park each day, and occasionally using aerial patrols. Then there’s the constant training of field staff who have to be on standby 24/7 to react to incursions or suspicious activity inside or outside the park.

“Dehorning will not replace [other security measures] or allow for security reduction,” Naylor adds. “To be effective it must be in conjunction with high levels of security. We could have easily just sold off or given away a large percentage of our [rhino] population due to the threat and pressure. But our population is of massive conservation value to the province, country, and world. We do not want to capitulate as so many have already.”

To date, Phinda has lost seven rhinos to poaching. “It’s a low number compared to the size of the population and surrounding area, and that’s mainly due to the many proactive measures we’ve implemented,” Naylor says.

Much of the security bill at Phinda is funded from sales of rhinos and other wildlife as well as tourist operations on the reserve. The reserve also gets great support from several conservation groups such as, International Rhino Foundation, Cycle is Life, Project Rhino KZN, and WWF-Black Rhino Range Expansion Project, and from private donors. “There’s some government support from programs that assist us with the employment of field rangers from local communities. But these are not sustainable in the long run,” Naylor warns.

The lack of support from the authorities and judiciary is a constant complaint among private reserve owners and operators. “Criminal syndicates and organized crime behind the poaching are growing stronger; they’re becoming very wealthy and there’s growing suspicion they have some magistrates, public prosecutors, police and other authorities on their payroll, making it very hard to have successful investigations, arrests, and convictions,” Naylor claims.

photo of a man working with a tranquilized rhinoceros An injured rhino receives treatment for a wound. The cost of caring for and protecting
rhinos like this one has gone up amid the poaching crisis.

Many complain that the sentences meted out to poachers are too light, if cases do go to court at all. The threat of jail is not a deterrent. With large sums of money at their disposal, the crime syndicates are offering money to staff and field rangers at rhino reserves for information and assistance.

The rhino-poaching crisis has also taken a heavy toll on the men and women fighting to safeguard the animals.

“Many, many Africans are suffering mentally and physically. Death is all around, on both sides,” Naylor says. “Many Africans are dying at the hands of unscrupulous criminal syndicate bosses. Too many people comment ‘They are poachers and deserve to die.’ But to others they are fathers, brothers, and sons, and their deaths are in vain and to serve the greed of those more powerful. We are also starting to see the effects of post-traumatic stress on our field rangers and conservation staff. Long hours, stress and the constant threat of violence and death are taking their toll.”

A recent World Wildlife Fund poll that looked at field rangers across Africa found that more than 65 percent of them had been attacked by poachers and more than 70 percent had been threatened by poachers and local communities. Less than 25 percent get to see their families for more than 10 days a month. And most said they would not want their children to become field rangers.

Vincent Barkas, head of Protrack, one of Southern Africa’s largest private anti-poaching companies, speaks vividly of the horror of poaching scenes. “When you find a poached female that’s pregnant, cut that rhino open, and an almost fully-developed calf falls out, I’ve seen grown men, men with no compassion for rhinos, for whom anti-poaching is just a job, sit down and cry. I saw a calf have to be destroyed once. It’s a noisy animal; when you shoot it, it screams. You don’t forget that.“

Barkas, however, sees the problem in a larger context. “It’s just another way the rest of the world has corrupted Africa with its money. Africans are fighting and killing one another over one of our natural resources which we’ve never had any use for.”

Karen Trendler, South Africa’s leading wildlife rehabilitator, works with baby rhinos orphaned by poaching. She fears the relentless bad news is having a wider impact. “We’re seeing fatigue and burnout throughout the rhino [conservation] community. The guys are tired, they’re worn out. There’s donor fatigue, public fatigue, media fatigue,” she says.

Back at Phinda, Naylor talks of how the sacrifices of anti-poaching staff and conservationists on the front line will amount to little without support at the top from the police and the judiciary. “Sadly, it appears that the political will that needs to be applied will not be forthcoming anytime soon,” he says. “I’m afraid to say that the future of rhinos in South Africa looks bleak.”

Pessimistic he may be, but Naylor isn’t quitting, and, for now, fatigue must wait. There’s work to be done. The white rhino that Naylor’s crew has just dehorned has been given an antidote to the tranquilizer, and is starting to come round. It clambers unsteadily to its feet, shakes its head, then walks slowly off into the bush, apparently none the worse for the experience. For this rhino, at least, the future is a little more secure.

Ann and Steve Toon are UK-based wildlife photojournalists specializing in Southern Africa.

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