In late March, South Africa was unexpectedly plunged into lockdown. Our team was able to obtain travel permits under essential services and Carl and Drew quickly headed to Pit-Track’s Timbavati Headquarters to assist the teams on the ground. With the tourism industry shut down immediately, Kruger National Park and the Greater Kruger area was, for the first time, empty of visitors with all lodges shut down.
Whilst this allowed nature and the environment to have a breather and regenerate, it fuelled illegal poaching. Without people around, and with limited staff on reserves, it opened up opportunities for poachers to move around without being seen. This meant extra work and pressure for our teams, as they undertook extensive perimeter searches and security, as well as intense training exercises for both our handlers and K9s.
Pit-Track K9s and Handlers on Patrol © Pit-Track
Globally, in the last ten years, more than 1,000 brave rangers have lost their lives while fighting in the war to save animals.
“You can always build another Taj Mahal, but you can never build another rhino”- Artist and Conservationist David Shepherd
Greed drives the destruction of Africa’s second largest animal. Rhinos are being poached in terrifying numbers for their horns. The Chinese and Vietnamese believe these horns have medicinal qualities, even though research has repeatedly proven that they do not. The horns are made of keratin, the same as human fingernails and hair. Rhino horns are also, inexplicably, seen as a symbol of status and wealth in these countries, and are given as gifts to show off. With 94% of the world’s rhinos gone, the situation is, to say the least, dire.
A Crash of Rhinos © Drew Abrahamson
The statistics are alarming. In 1920 there were 500,000 rhinos in the wild. In 2020 there were less than 20,000 left. The remaining 6% are facing serious danger, with black rhinos expected to become extinct in the wild in the next two years, and white rhinos facing the same fate in the next ten. The Northern White Rhino is already extinct in the wild.
0.1%. That is how much of a male Southern White Rhino’s body is made up of his horn. He is slaughtered for a tenth of one percent of his body. It is a shocking thought. A rhino is killed approximately every ten hours. Think about that – from the time we go to work in the morning until we get home that night, another rhino has been slaughtered.
Rhino Poaching Victim without its Horn © Pit-Track
Every day in Africa there is a war against poachers, whose single-minded attitude doesn’t allow them to care about the animals they hunt. They only see the payday at the end. Unfortunately, that is a substantial payday, with the cost of rhino horns being higher than gold or cocaine.
Our teams are on the ground every day fighting this war. We came together in 2004, with trained teams of K9s and handlers for the protection of rhino. Our handlers, K9s and armed personnel guard entry and exit points of reserves to detect weapons going in and horns coming out of the reserve. We also undertake extensive perimeter searches and security and conduct ongoing training exercises for both our handlers and K9s.
“When the rhinos rest or graze, we lie in wait. When the rhinos move, we move. And in the event of contact, we have military-trained operators with tracking and apprehension K9s to counter any threats the poaching syndicates can bring”, explains Pit-Track Founder and Director Carl Thornton.
Pit-Track Rangers on Patrol© Pit-Track
Despite poaching being illegal, it is not stopping. There is a lucrative black market behind it, estimated to be worth $20 billion a year. This level of greed is virtually impossible to stop. In fact, not only is it not stopping, but the demand for rhino horn is also on the rise.
With the amount of money on offer, the poachers are willing to take risks with their lives and face imprisonment for a hefty payday. They are paid for the killing of these animals, and sell the horns to the traffickers, who act as brokers between the poacher and the buyer in Asia. These organisations are said to be global organisations run by international criminal gangs. They have sophisticated and advanced equipment, including night vision scopes, silenced weapons, darting equipment and helicopters.
Trading of rhino horns has been illegal since 1977, but in 2018, China went as far as to reverse the ban on rhino horn trading. “Investors” are even stockpiling horns in the hope that their value will increase, earning them even more money.
Between 2007 and 2014, rhino poaching in South Africa increased a staggering 9,000%. The country holds nearly 80% of the world’s rhinos, so it is the epicentre of the poaching crisis. Between 2013 and 2017, more than 1,000 rhinos were killed there each year. Carl explains, “the situation has escalated completely out of control. It is not just a South African problem; it is a global problem”.
Dehorning a Rhino © Pit-Track
Despite their size, rhinos can be an easy target. Their eyesight is poor, so they have difficulty seeing someone 30 metres away unless they are moving. They are also non-violent and non-aggressive. However, their exceptional hearing and sense of smell allows them to easily detect someone approaching.
Social media is being used by poachers to help search for rhinos, using tourists’ innocent photos of their safari sightings to track their targets. Sighting boards in the Kruger National Park no longer include rhinos, in an effort to keep their locations secure.
But it is not just about the rhinos being killed. It is also about their families. Infant rhinos are left orphaned. They live with their mother for the first three years of their life. They don’t have the skills and knowledge to live on their own. Killing their parent is effectively a death sentence for their young too. Thankfully, efforts are ongoing by various organisations across Africa to ensure baby rhinos are given the best chance to be reared and make it to adulthood.
Rhino Baby & Mother © Pit-Track
With rhino pregnancies lasting 16 months, usually resulting in only one baby, the rate of reproduction is slow. It takes only minutes to kill a rhino, happening every ten hours, but 16 months to give birth to its replacement.
Describing the problem as “global terrorism”, Carl says, “As per a recent UN Caucus study, some of the biggest global terrorist groups are funded up to 75% by the illegal trafficking of animal products, including rhino horns”. He warns that, “South Africa’s economy is collapsing, and we are on the brink of civil war that could very well lead to the extinction of South African rhinos as well as many other animals. Our country fights for land, oil and water, but when will we unite to fight to protect our wildlife?”. Citing corruption as a big cause of these problems, he states, “there are 54 million South Africans, but we can’t look after the last 20,000 rhinos because our country cannot unite to fight against our own corruption”.
“The situation has escalated completely out of control. It is not just a South African problem; it is a global problem.”– Carl Thornton
But not all hope is lost. Various national parks and private reserves are employing military-trained anti-poaching units, such as ours, who are fighting for rhinos on the frontline. These units can end up in shootouts with poachers, ultimately costing either side their lives. This is incredible work being done by selfless individuals at huge risk to their safety and welfare. These dedicated personnel are fighting in warzones, away from their families and friends for long periods during deployment, all the while fighting to save the animals that others are destroying.
Importantly, in the two years prior to Covid-19, poaching had decreased in South Africa, with 594 incidents recorded in 2019. It was reported that there had been a reduction in poaching in the Kruger National Park in the previous five years, which was a positive sign, but is by no means enough. However, with the onset of Covid-19 last year, the South African tourism industry was shut down, leading to a dramatic increase in poaching.
Our team has been deployed to control two gates in the Greater Kruger area, helping to secure larger areas, keeping poachers, weapons, and contraband out of these reserves. We are now manning both of the gates in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, and are deployed as field rangers with K9s in the Umbabat Private Nature Reserve, which form part of the Association of Private Nature Reserves (APNR). We have also been undertaking extensive perimeter searches and security, ensuring that these areas are secure and doing everything we can to keep the rhinos in our care protected and safe.
It is clear that much of the human race places little to no emotional value on our wildlife. That hundreds of animals a year can be killed, purely for money, demonstrates this. Wildlife crimes are deemed less significant or important than other international crimes involving humans or drugs, such as trafficking. Picture this: a group of killers are employed to travel the world and kill hundreds of humans a year for their fingernails. There would be no law enforcement agency in the world who would not fight against that, who would allow that to happen and do nothing about it. Yet, this is exactly what is happening to rhinos.
With 94% of the world’s rhinos gone, the situation is, to say the least, dire.
Rhinos in South Africa are not currently considered a wild species by the government, but rather legislation has been introduced to encourage domestication of these animals. The hope for the future is that the South African government will stand up and do more to protect rhinos and make them a protected species.
There is still some hope in South Africa, though, with some government organisations working together in an effort to combat poaching. Arrests and prosecutions for poaching are on the rise, which is a positive step, but sentences are still too lenient, and many arrests do not translate into formal charges or sentences. Frighteningly, Mozambique, with a large number of poachers, considers poaching a misdemeanour. This needs to change. Corruption needs to be stopped and penalties need to be increased as a deterrent. Enforcing these laws and improving law enforcement is paramount to decreasing poaching.
Global law enforcement is also required, not just on a country-by-country basis. With numerous countries involved in poaching and trafficking syndicates, a global approach is required. It is not enough for each country to arrest and charge the locals caught on the ground. The heads of these vast and sophisticated networks need to be brought down. This can cause a significant disruption in the operation of their organisation, but requires intelligence, resources, and action.
It is equally vital on a global scale for countries to ban the importation of rhino horns. Some airlines and countries are beginning to ban such importation, which is a positive step, but more airlines and countries need to get on board.
Black Rhino© Drew Abrahamson
Education is needed to ensure locals living in areas near rhinos understand the benefits of these animals. This can help to reduce people being coerced into becoming poachers on the ground. Extensive education is needed across China and Vietnam to demonstrate the harm their selfish actions are causing, and to convince them that they are paying tens of thousands of dollars for, effectively, nothing more than someone’s fingernails. There are programs in place, working in Asia on education, but will it be enough? If scientific facts can’t convince them that they are wasting their money, what can?
Although poaching is the major risk to rhinos, there are also other risks to their future, including encroachment of their habitat. As people claim more land for development and farmland, rhinos are losing their usual habitat. This also affects the ecosystem as they are said to be “natural pruners”, keeping vegetation under control. More work is needed to combat this problem.
White Rhino© Drew Abrahamson
With the rhino’s only enemy being humans, how can we destroy so many innocent animals, all in the name of money? As artist and conservationist David Shepherd rightly said, “You can always build another Taj Mahal, but you can never build another rhino”. The senseless slaughter of these impressive animals needs to end, and it needs to end now, before it is too late. “Too late” is really not that far away.