Hunters & ranchers push legal rhino horn traffic as response to poaching

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  May/June 2013:

MILWAUKEE,  LONDON,  JOHANNESBURG––As the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service sees it,  the critical issue in rhinoceros conservation is not rhinos are being killed in record numbers,  but rather,  who gets the money from killing them. Anyhow,  this was the reasoning that emerged from U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service explanations of why trophy hunter David K. Reinke,  52,  of Madison, Wisconsin,  was recently allowed to become the first American to legally import the remains of a black rhino since the species was federally listed as endangered in 1980.

 “Reinke killed the rhino in 2009 with the blessing of the Namibian government,”  recounted Dinesh Ramde and m.l. Johnson of Associated Press.  “He argued that the killing was an act of ‘conservation hunting’ because he was culling an elderly rhino who was unable to reproduce,  but could still aggressively crowd out fertile rivals.”

Reinke reportedly paid $175,000 to the Namibian Game Products Trust Fund to receive one of five permits per year that Namibia issues to hunters to cull purportedly sterile older male black rhinos.  The rhino he killed was 34 years old.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said it authorized Reinke to import remains of the rhino “in recognition of the role that well-managed,  limited sport hunting plays” in Namibian rhino conservation.   Contended the Fish & Wildlife Service,  “The removal of limited numbers of males has been shown to contribute to overall population growth in some areas by reducing fighting injuries and deaths among males,  decreasing juvenile mortality,  and shortening calving intervals.”

Namibia claimed to have nearly 1,500 black rhinos in mid-2011,  but has not been exempt from the subsequent explosion of rhino poaching that may have extirpated rhinos from Mozambique,  brought the illegal killing of a record 668 rhinos in South Africa in 2012,  and brought the deaths of another 273 rhinos in the first five months of 2013.  Altogether,  entering May 2013,  1,637 rhinos had been poached in South Africa in 41 months.

“Issuing this trophy import permit is a threat to rhinos,  since it will encourage more Americans to travel to Africa and start killing these imperiled animals,” commented Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle.  “It is a very dangerous precedent.  We have to wonder whether the federal government will start issuing permits for trophies of other critically endangered species,  such as the cheetah,  just because American hunters desire their heads and hides as wall hangings.  Where will this stop?

“There are lots of people who give more than $200,000 a year to help animals,”  Pacelle added,   “but no one says,  ‘I’ll give you the money if you let me shoot one.’  I think we should disassociate the notion of giving money to help rhinos from the act of killing them.”

Limpopo loses rhinos

Rhinos were first extirpated from Mozambique by trophy hunters more than a century ago,  but reappeared when 12 rhinos were among 5,000 animals of many long absent or scarce species who were translocated from South Africa to the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park in 2002.  The 13,514-square-mile park was created by removing the fences which formerly separated Limpopo National Park in Mozambique from Kruger National Park in South Africa and Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe.

Each nation remained responsible for protecting the wildlife within its boundaries.  But the collaborative effort that western private funders anticipated has not developed.  All three participating nations had had difficulty combating poachers.  Zimbabwe complicated the situation by allegedly allowing 750 families of supporters of longtime president Robert Mugabe to settle within Gonarezhou in 2005.

Limpopo National Park chief warden Antonio Abacar in April 2013 told Michelle Faul of Associated Press that 30 of the 100 Limpopo park rangers “will appear in court soon,”  Faul wrote,  in connection with rhino poaching.  Seventeen rhinos were found dead in the park in 2010.  How many rhinos might have been poached in 2011 and 2012 is unknown.  Unofficial reports suggest that as many as 15 rhinos were poached in early 2013.

“We caught some of the rangers red-handed while directing poachers to a rhino area,” Abacar said.

Recounted Faul,  “A game ranger arrested for helping poachers in Mozambique’s northern Niassa Game Reserve said on television last week that he was paid about $80 to direct poachers to areas with elephants and rhinos.  Game rangers are paid between $64 and $96 a month,”  Faul noted.

“While guilty rangers will lose their jobs,”  Faul added,  “the courts serve as little deterrent:  killing wildlife and trading in illegal rhino horn and elephant tusks are only misdemeanors in Mozambique.”

Said Abacar,  “We have already announced the extinction of the rhino population in Limpopo National Park.”

Countered Mozambiquan transfrontier conservation unit chief Bartolomeu Soto, “We believe we still have rhinos,  though we don’t know how many.”


South African officials meanwhile believe that more than 70% of the rhino poaching in the nation occurs in Kruger National Park,  and is done mainly by Mozambiquans.  Assigned by South African National Park Service chief David Mabunda in December 2012 to stop rhino poaching,  retired South African major general Johan Jooste has told media that Mozambiquans are hired to help kill rhinos and transport their horns for as little as a 25-pound bag of corn meal.

Rhino horn,  powdered and sold in Vietnam and China,  “can sell for as much as $65,000 per kilogram.  Gold traded at about $1,470 per ounce on April 30, making it worth $47,266 per kilogram,”  reported Franz Wild of Bloomberg News.

South Africa,  with about 15,000 white rhinos and 5,000 black rhinos,  is believed to have about 90% of the total global rhino population.  But at the present rate of poaching,  South Africa would have more rhino deaths than births by 2016,  Joost told Wild.

“South Africa,  a sovereign country,  is under attack from armed foreign nationals.  This should be seen as a declaration of war against South Africa by armed foreign criminals.  We are going to take the war to these armed bandits and we aim to win it,”  Joost declared when he took command of the 550-member South African anti-poaching force.

The resemblance of the situation to warfare was illustrated when five members of the anti-poaching unit were killed in a March 30 helicopter crash. Poachers reportedly took advantage of the temporary gap in patrolling strength to kill seven rhinos in the vicinity during the next week.

But Jasper Humphries of the Marjan Center for the Study of Conflict & Conservation is skeptical that the “war” metaphor is applicable.  Headquartered in the War Studies department at King’s College,  London,  the Marjan Centre is headed by retired British major general Peter Davies,  who later was director general of both the Royal SPCA of Great Britain and the World Society for the Protection of Animals.

“There are two ways of reading General Jooste’s heightened rhetoric of ‘war’ and ‘criminals,’”  Humphries commented.  “One is that he is barking up the wrong strategic tree and is badly muddled;  the other conforms to a classic counter-insurgency identity which will bear fruit over a period of time.

“Counter-insurgency theory stresses the need to ‘protect’ the population,  as part of the process to win over the population,”  explained Humphries.

“However, the problem confronting Jooste is that the ‘population’ under protection are rhinos:  not only are they unable to provide any assistance,  but they are unable to be influenced,”  in any manner useful to suppressing poaching.  Further,  for the majority of the local population living alongside the rhinos,  protection of wildlife ranks low when compared with surviving on low incomes.  Thus it would seem that counter-insurgency as a military tactic to protect rhinos is severely handicapped.”


Earlier,  Humphries theorized that,  “The appointment of Jooste as anti-poaching supremo suggests that the South African government is now articulating a ‘political settlement’ to the rhino poaching problem.”  Specificially,  Humphries wrote,  “In a country with such acute politico-racial sensitivity,  Jooste’s social and combat background [on behalf of the former apartheid government] was both a forceful signal and response to growing accusations of SANParks’ ineptitude over rhino poaching being levelled by the largely white-dominated conservation lobby.  Both at home and abroad,  some were calling for counter-insurgency tactics such as ‘shoot to kill,’  ‘stop and search,’  drones and other technology to halt poachers––all ‘sound-bites’ from the Apartheid Wars and dark memories.

“It is the overwhelmingly white farm lobby who feel their highly lucrative private rhino trophy-hunting industry is threatened,”  Humphries continued.

“Also under threat is an expanding and equally lucrative captive rhino breeding program.  These are the people with their wallets on the line,  rightly or wrongly depending on one’s conservation outlook,  and are a key element to the political settlement.”

Humphries recalled that at the most triennial meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in Bangkok,  South African environment minister Edna Molewa suggested that rhino horn sales could be legalized.  Humphries mentioned that some of the biggest South African rhino farmers “are already stock-piling rhino horn in anticipation of legal international horn sales.”

Meanwhile Humphries sees an urgent need for the South African government to “concentrate on getting a greater grip on the poaching problem within the national parks,  especially in Kruger,  where there is so much investment in tourism that is undermined by the heavily penetrated border with Mozambique. Bearing in mind Mozambicans not only poach,  but also stay illegally in South Africa,”  Humphries suggested,  one useful response might be “to fence the border, which hardly sends a message of fraternal neighborliness.  However,  if it was couched as saving the natural heritage of southern Africa,   qualms might be eased,” as “part of the anti-rhino poaching political settlement.”

Gypsy horn traders

The strength of the global market for rhino horn was underscored in mid-April 2013 by the theft of eight horns from a warehouse belonging to the Irish National Museum.  The horns had been taken off display in 2012 and put into storage specifically to prevent theft.

“In 2011,”  recalled Shawn Pogatchnick of Associated Press,  “Europol issued a warning that an Irish gypsy criminal network based in the County Limerick village of Rathkeale was responsible for dozens of thefts of rhino horns.  Europol said the thieves––officially called the Rathkeale Rovers but also dubbed the Dead Zoo Gang by Dublin tabloids––had already targeted museums,  galleries,  zoos,  auction houses,  antique dealers and private collections in Britain,  continental Europe,  the United States and South America.  In 2010, U.S. undercover agents arrested two members of the Rathkeale gang trying to buy four black rhino horns in Colorado. They both received six-month prison sentences.”

Noted Pogatchnick,  “Irish police and Europol say the Rathkeale criminal network also is involved in road-tarmac fraud and the sale of counterfeit goods, particularly tools and engine parts.”

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