HLUHLUWE-UMFOLOZI, South Africa — The ample white rhino sighted on a visit to Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park might lead one to believe that they are plentiful in the wild.
Well, yes and no.
Here, yes. South Africa is home to over 80 percent of Africa’s rhinoceros, and nearly 80 percent of the world’s rhinos — the fruit of decades of careful conservation and stringent protection. Most of these rhinos are descended from populations in the nearly 100,000-hectare Hluhluwe (pronounced shloo-shloo-wee) and Umfolozi Parks.
The southern subspecies of the white rhino is one of wildlife conservation’s best success stories. By the early 1900s, there were less than 100: Just as thousands of buffalo were left to rot on the North American plains, African rhinos were the hapless target of hunters and farmers, and were even killed as vermin. Then, the southern white was perhaps the most endangered rhino in the world, and most of the survivors were in Umfolozi Park.
Today, there are an estimated 8,465 southern white rhino in the wild, 7,913 of which are in South Africa. With the best infrastructure and most carefully monitored parks system on the continent, this country is able to use the best of what conservation has to offer, including equipment for 24-hour surveillance of some of Hluhluwe-Umfolozi’s rhino populations.
Elsewhere it’s another story: The white rhino in other countries, and other species of rhino, have not fared so well. Massive poaching in the 1960s and ’70s brought a black rhino population of about 100,000 in the late 1950s down to about 65,000 in 1970, continuing on a speedy downward spiral.
Most poached rhino horns end up in Asia for use in traditional Chinese medicine markets (primarily in China, Taiwan and South Korea) where they’re believed to have anti-fever properties (rhino horn use as an aphrodisiac is a myth). The second largest market for the horns is the Arabian Peninsula, where they are used to make ceremonial dagger handles in Yemen and Oman.
Alarmed by the rhino rapidly disappearing worldwide, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species banned all international trade in rhino horn and other rhino products in 1977. But without effective anti-poaching measures in place in most range states, the killing of rhino continued: The black rhino population nosedived to about 14,785 in 1980, then further to about 2,600 in 1998, the majority of which are in South Africa.
South Africa is unusual in that nearly all of its private reserves and state parks are enclosed with fencing: Animals are kept within a fixed, known area that can be more easily patrolled and monitored. In contrast, other rhino range states in Africa and Asia often do not have fenced-in parks. Animals freely roam across their natural range, and humans often live within the nature preserves, making monitoring the animals considerably more difficult.
Also, wildlife is enjoying a certain popularity in South Africa, with more and more private landowners converting holdings into reserves for ecotourism or game hunting. The rhino populations from Hluhluwe-Umfolozi are the main stock source for South Africa’s other parks and private reserves and, as of 1994, even international destinations, such as foreign zoos or wildlife preserves. Auctions of rhinos at Umfolozi bring in about $15,000 a head, according to Hluhluwe trails officer and wildlife physiologist Dave Lonmore, with the proceeds going back into rhino conservation.
South African exports of white rhino hunting trophies became legal as of 1994. The country’s trophy-hunting industry brings in big money, 10 times more than ecotourism, according to wildlife rehabilitation specialist Brian Jones. Between 1968 and 1996, white rhino hunting alone generated some $24 million. Ironically, the high cost of live rhinos and their value for ecotourists and hunters may mean that this form of rhino “business” makes for the best conservation practiced today.
Today, the northern white rhino is the most critically endangered, with about 25 left in a national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Civil wars there have conservationists anxious for the northern white’s future, as ready access to guns tends to foretell increases in poaching. In Asia, the Indian rhino populations are stabilizing, with about 2,600 (equal to Africa’s black rhino population today), but there are only 60 Javan rhinos in the wild, and about 300 Sumatran rhinos.
Unfortunately, environmental departments in most rhino range states are losing their budgets as governments struggle with social problems like massive unemployment, crime and illiteracy, plus the human foils of ignorance, corruption, and greed. The 1998 budget for KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Services, which oversees Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park, was slashed to a mere 18.2 percent of the previous year.
To ensure rhino’s safety from poachers, about $1,400 per sq. km per year and one ranger per 20 sq. km is optimal, according to the World Wildlife Fund, which concedes the unlikelihood of getting such resources in most cases.
By comparison, a kilogram of rhino horn had an estimated value of about $60,000 in East Asia in 1994, according to the International Rhino Foundation. Meanwhile, its worth in South Africa, the wealthiest of African nations, was about $1,220 per kg last year, says Superintendent Pieter Lategan, chief of the Endangered Species Protection Unit, which works to choke the illegal international trade. Most of the money goes to a long string of exporters, re-exporters, importers, wholesalers and retailers, before the end product finally reaches the consumer.
“Our biggest problem is getting to the middleman, who pays the poacher. We can’t get the end user,” says Capt. Francis Weyers of the ESPU.
In 1994, South Africa proposed to the CITES parties that it be able to sell its stocks of rhino horns, obtained from poaching seizures, animals dehorned in antipoaching programs, and rhinos that died naturally. A legal trade in rhino horn could supply the traditional Chinese medicine market, and thereby weaken illegal trade, argued South Africa. But fears about the fate of rhinos in countries where they enjoy less protection were high, and the proposal was voted down.
In Africa, accurate information on the end markets in Asia and the Middle East is difficult to come by.
“An undercover agent went to Taiwan and could see rhino horn everywhere. He went up to a shopkeeper and asked how much it was. He responded, ‘Are you buying, selling, or investigating?’ ” relates Lategan.
This week, participants at the biennial conference of the parties to CITES will discuss developing an international monitoring system of the world’s rhino populations, including rhino poaching and seizures of illegally traded rhino products. It will also measure the more complex causes behind the illegal rhino horn trade: whether the reserve is fenced, relations with local communities, park budgets, staff training and the like.