Friday, September 27, 2013

By world numbers few people have encountered a live endangered animal species. So, why should it matter if an animal becomes extinct? After all, we can still watch and learn about them on television. Some might even argue that the vast majority of animals that ever lived have gone extinct. Look at the dinosaurs for instance. The difference though is that dinosaurs weren’t unceremoniously and illegally butchered for status or unproven medicinal value.

Dwindling rhinoceros (rhino) numbers

Of the five species in the world two, the white and black rhino are located in South Africa and other parts of Africa. Last year, the number of rhinos poached for their horns in South Africa reached an alarming 668. This year more than 600 have been killed already and it is estimated the number could escalate to 1000 by the end of 2013.

Rhinos have a long gestation period of about 450 days. With the current illicit trade in rhino horn, worried conservationists say within three years deaths will exceed births. Currently, there are approximately 20 000 white and little more than 2000 black rhino in South Africa. According to the African Wildlife Foundation the black rhino population throughout Africa is down 97.6% since 1960. It isn’t difficult to see the immediate threat to black rhino in particular.

Crisis fuelled by demand

On the black market rhino horn is as expensive as gold and more expensive than cocaine. Demand is greatest in Vietnam followed by China. In fact demand in Vietnam is said to be increasing, owing largely to a growing middle class. It’s also driven by the unsubstantiated belief that rhino horn contains powerful healing and stimulative properties.

Not just an ecological issue

The loss of a rhino is not just an ecological and biodiversity issue. Rhino poaching negatively impacts the South African tourism industry, which harms the country’s economy. It also poses a threat to national security. Last year Thai citizen Chumlong Lemtongthai was sentenced to 40 years in prison, a major milestone in the war against rhino poaching. Still, while there has been an increase in arrests and convictions, tougher sentences must be imposed consistently - every time a rhino is butchered. Hefty fines do little to deter wealthy crime bosses.

No single answer to a complex problem

Combined, coordinated efforts to curb poaching are numerous and far-reaching. These include intelligence gathering, public support, and a dedicated DNA bank linking suspects to dead animals. A National Wildlife Crime Prevention Unit now co-ordinates crime fighting efforts for police, park services, prosecuting authorities, customs and excise, and revenue services. The South African Government is also in the process of establishing a National Rhino fund to help finance anti-poaching efforts and to make sure income from the public is allocated responsibly.

In addition, they are getting tougher on issuing legal hunting permits. Permits are issued individually by South Africa’s different provinces and not by central government. This creates some problems in terms of how the permit process is managed, or in some instances mismanaged. To counter the problem a recent law was passed to set up a national database, on which, all professional hunters and hunting operators must be registered. There is also talk of a central registry of all rhino protection organisations but this has yet to happen.

What of legal trade?

Whether to allow for controlled legal trade in rhino horn is a contentious, emotional question. The horn can and does grow back if a couple of inches are left behind. But even when these methods have been implemented in other countries poachers come back and mercilessly hack off what remains.

Will education make a difference?

David Attenborough said, “people are not going to care about animal conservation unless they think that animals are worthwhile”. A lofty ideal, but many realists claim education and awareness will make little difference. They say that crime bosses will continue to recruit poachers from desperate impoverished communities, often from neighbouring South African countries where South African law does not apply. Also, can education really change opinion in countries where, even though scientific testing proves otherwise, many still believe rhino horn can save lives?

Law enforcement remains the single most effective deterrent at this stage as in the case of Lemtongthai and other so-called kingpins. Global public anger is rising and with it the growing pressure to ensure that the punishment matches the severity of the crime. It is also clear that more needs to happen outside of animal conservation to combat the problem on a broader socio-economic scale. While South Africa is home to approximately 80% of the world’s rhinos resolutions must transcend national and international borders.


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1 comment :

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