The success of the 1976 international ban on trading of rhino horns in powering the recovery of decimated populations of black and white African rhinos is well documented. However, many people remain unaware that the black and white African rhinos are classified as near threatened and critically endangered respectively by the IUCN. Furthermore, it would appear that despite over 30 years of effort invested in trying to conserve these beautiful and elusive creatures, the threat of poaching is as prevalent as ever.
In South Africa alone, recent figures suggest that illegal rhino poaching is at a 15 year high, with almost a year on year doubling from 83 poached in 2008 to a stark 333 in 2010. Alarmingly, there are already 54 recorded incidences of poaching in the first 3 months of this year! There is no doubt that illegal poaching remains lucrative due to organised crime syndicates as rhino horn can fetch a staggering $60,000 per kilogram on the black market, as opposed to gold of the same amount peaking at $40,600!
Interestingly, this rise in poaching coincided with evidence of a resurgence and increase in the number of antique horns and ivory products being imported from Europe and auctioned in the UK, before subsequently being re-exported to East Asia. This impelled the UK government to implement a ban on the export of rhino horns, bar exceptional circumstances in September 2010. Despite the gloomy portrayal, is the trend a cause for concern?
Well for the time being it appears not, as despite the high levels of poaching both black and white rhino populations continue to increase in the wild. In 2009, South Africa was estimated to harbour 18,500 white and 1,570 black rhinos (Knight, 2009), thus rendering the population as sustainable against current poaching levels.
However, in neighbouring Zimbabwe the situation does appear to be a cause for concern for the rarer black rhino, as unsustainable levels of poaching are threatening to derail the fragile mid 1990′s recovery of the population.
However, Zimbabwe does appear to be the exception, as Botswana, Namibia, Uganda and Kenya all report growth in rhino populations.
Therefore, this increasing trend of poaching reported in South Africa would appear to be a consequence of it being considered a stronghold for black and white rhino populations and, most importantly, these levels do not in any way reflect the levels of poaching that were observed pre-1976.
So, yes this poaching is illegal and inhumane, with rhino’s often being shot, snared or poisoned, but there is no immediate cause for concern for conservation and preservation efforts. Just as in the past, the demand for rhino horn shows no sign of abating, and poaching will continue to remain prevalent, it is unfortunately just part and parcel with the success of black and white rhino conservation.