More than 725 rhinos have been illegally killed in South Africa so far this year, according to the latest figures from the conservation charity Save the Rhino. This means that last year’s record of 668 has already been passed with almost three months of the year still remaining.
Despite an international ban on trade, the number of rhinos poached for their horn in South Africa has been increasing year on year. In 2007, only 13 were killed.
It remains a lucrative business, with crushed rhino horn worth more than its weight in gold on the black market. Conservation groups are even suggesting that the illegal trade may have financed Al Shabaab, the terrorist organisation behind the attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi.
The increasing trade is being driven largely by demand in Vietnam. A survey conducted by wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City found that the typical rhino horn buyers are upper-middle class citizens, often businessmen, celebrities or government officials.
In Vietnam, rhino horn is seen as a symbol of social importance. Rhino horns are often bought as a gift to family members, colleagues or people in positions of authority. Those purchasing rhino horn often believe that owning it, as well as being able to purchase it for others, reaffirms their social status. It is also used as a traditional medicine.
Save the Rhino says that there are around 20,950 rhinos left in South Africa, meaning that the country has lost 3.5% of its rhinos this year alone.
Cathy Dean, director of Save the Rhino, says, “If poaching continues to accelerate at the current rate, it is predicted that total deaths, natural and poached, will overtake births in late 2015 or early 2016. Rhino numbers will then start to decline and, as they do so, their ability to recover will reduce.”
Dean estimates that the final number of rhinos slaughtered in South Africa for 2013 will be in the 900-1,000 range.
“This is clearly a dire situation”, she adds.
“The South African government has taken important steps this year to curb the epidemic via a whole range of measures and while more can always be done, we feel that the pressure now needs to shift onto Mozambique, the primary route for trafficking rhino horn, and to Vietnam, the main consumer country.”
Earlier this month, Prince William announced that he was retiring from military service to concentrate on charity work, in particular focusing on conservation. The prince has spearheaded United for Wildlife, an alliance of seven of the world’s largest conservation organisations, whose first mission is tackling the illegal trade ivory and rhino horn.
He has been joined by celebrities such as David Beckham and retired Chinese basketball star Yao Ming to film an advertising campaign protesting against the trade. The adverts will go out later this year.
However, Dean says that more needs to be done to make sure the message reaches the biggest buyers.
“Behaviour change campaigns work best when they reach audiences who recognise the spokesperson as a figure of authority and respect”, she says.
“These British and Chinese campaigners are clearly well-known, liked and respected throughout the world, but we also need to identify, recruit and work with Vietnamese leaders, who carry weight and influence in the business community in Vietnam.
“Rhino poaching, and the poaching of elephants for ivory, is not just a conservation problem, as funds from rhino horn and elephant ivory are being used to finance terrorist groups such as Al Shabaab. Wildlife trafficking needs to go on the agenda for G8 meetings. It needs to be taken seriously.”