Spotlight on SA's failure to stop Rhino poaching

22 September 2011 - 03:18 By CHARL DU PLESSIS
A rhino. File picture
A rhino. File picture

As the world celebrates International Rhino Day today, all eyes will probably be focused on South Africa - the frontline in the battle with brutal and sophisticated poaching syndicates.

Sources close to investigations into rhino poaching say that several syndicates operate in South Africa, the most ruthless of these striking anywhere, and trading rhino horn and abalone for drugs.

But recent media reports have shown that South African game farmers, professional hunters, veterinarians and government officials are also involved in the lucrative market.

South Africa has the largest population of white rhino in the world, and SA National Parks is the custodian of most of them, estimated at between 9460 and 12243.

SANParks is also one of the main suppliers of white rhinos to private game farm owners. It sold 568 white rhino for about R119-million between January 2007 and October 2010.

In July, The Times reported that, though SANParks claims to do background checks on buyers, at least 50 rhino were "delivered" to individuals other than the original buyer.

Once the rhino are in the hands of private owners, it becomes possible for them to be legally hunted in terms of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species.

Though there is a total ban on trading in rhino horn, or any other part of the animal, there is a loophole that permits it.

Trading is supposed to be strictly regulated by local authorities.

Recent media reports have shown that the issuing of hunting permits and the subsequent hunts - meant to be monitored by provincial departments of the environment - have been grossly abused and that the bureaucracy is riddled with corruption.

The rhino-horn "trophy" is mounted - usually on a wooden plaque - and shipped to southeast Asia.

According to investigators, these trophies are often intercepted by corrupt airline officials and do not end up at the destination in terms of which the permit was issued.

Once the trophy reaches its destination, the horn is removed and ground into powder.

According to the Endangered Wildlife Trust - a wildlife conservation organisation - the belief that rhino horn is used as a sexual stimulant, or as a cure for many ailments, is wrong.

The organisation said scientific studies have shown that rhino horn, which is similar in its composition to a horse's hoof, has no known medicinal attributes.

Rhino horn is believed to retail on the black market for around R27000 per 100g .

Experts believe that the spike in trade that South Africa is experiencing is due to the integration of formerly marginal economies, such as those of Vietnam and Thailand, into the global economy.

It has also been attributed to a rising middle class in China, which can afford the status symbol of owning rhino horn.