Mission impossible? Fighting rhino poaching in Africa

Mission impossible?  Fighting rhino poaching in Africa

Illegal poaching of Africa’s rhinos for their horns has decimated population numbers of this iconic species. Rhino horns are highly valued for their supposed medicinal and aphrodisiac properties, fetching high prices on the Asian black market, where they are erroneously believed to cure hangovers, cancer and other ills.

Illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products by highly organized international syndicates is believed to be one of the largest illegal activities in the world, surpassed only by drug smuggling and human trafficking. South Africa is home to the largest number of rhinos globally, as rhinos in other countries have already been poached to the brink of extinction. As a result, rhinos in South Africa are the primary target of international poaching syndicates who supply the Asian market.

Rhino Poaching Statistics

The number of rhinos slaughtered in South Africa has risen dramatically in a very short period of time. In 2007, 13 rhino were poached, rising exponentially each year, with 1,215 rhinos being killed in 2014, dropping slightly to 1,175 killed in 2015. These animals are killed purely for their horns, which get carved off their face, with the rest of the animal left to rot where it fell. Mothers with calves at foot are not spared, such is the barbaric nature of these criminals.

While the war on wildlife, particular that on rhino, is taking its toll on population numbers, several initiatives have been implemented that are proving effective in combatting this crime.

Dehorning Rhino as an Anti-poaching Strategy

Many smaller wildlife parks and private game farms who lack the necessary resources to tackle poachers directly are resorting to the seemingly drastic measure of removing horns from rhinos to make them less appealing to would-be poachers. The horn eventually grows back, so for this method to be effective, rhinos would need to be dehorned every 18-24 months.

A study assessing the effectiveness of dehorning rhinos suggests the practice has no long-term impact on the animal itself, as long as all rhinos within the area are dehorned. In larger parks where there are lions, leopard and hyena, having no horn may reduce a cows ability to defend her calf from predators, which in turn could have an negative impact on population numbers in the long-term. But on smaller game ranches there is no obvious trauma, behavioural change or negative impact on the health of the rhino, and rhino are usually up and about within fifteen minutes of being darted.

The practice of dehorning rhinos is not in itself a hugely controversial issue, however, the fate of the harvested horn — i.e. whether it should be sold or not — certainly is. Currently, the international trade in rhino horn is banned, fuelling an illicit black market where rhino horn fetches $60,000 a kg or more to meet the huge demand in Vietnam and China.

Women Take on Poachers in Africa

Rhino poaching is particularly prevalent in the Kruger National Park and surrounding game reserves. In 2013, Craig Spencer, the Head Warden at Balule Nature Reserve and Managing Director at Transfrontier Africa, founded the Black Mambas Anti-Poaching Unit, consisting almost exclusively of female rangers. This unique band of women are tackling poachers head on, and are having a remarkable impact in preventing poaching in the area.

Named after the world’s fastest and deadliest snake, the Black Mambas is made up of 36 specially trained women who together with one man combat wildlife poaching both on the ground as well as through education initiatives within the surrounding communities that border the park. Rather than arming themselves with guns to fight the war on poaching, the Black Mambas Anti-Poaching Unit believes education is the answer to preventing poaching in the first place.

This unique approach appears to have some merit, as the Black Mambas have been instrumental in reducing poaching activities in the area where they operate, winning several prestigious conservation awards for their efforts, including the Best Conservation Practitioner Category of the 2015 Rhino Conservation Awards, and the Inspiration and Action category of the United Nations Champions of the Earth Award in 2015.

The female rangers that make up the Black Mambas are drawn from disadvantaged communities that surround game parks bordering the Kruger National Park. They initially undergo a rigorous 6-week training programme before being sent out into the bush-veld with a team of more experienced rangers to gain experience in the field. Their primary objective is to combat wildlife poaching in the Balule Nature Reserve, and on neighbouring tribal farmland, where they also patrol. By preventing poaching activity in this area, they effectively create a buffer zone that makes it difficult for poachers to gain access to the Kruger National Park — a key area targeted by rhino poachers.

Fighting Wildlife Poaching on the Ground

The Black Mambas tackle poaching on the ground with the help of specially trained sniffer-dogs, conducting daily patrols searching for poachers who hunt wildlife for their horns or for bush-meat, as well as wire snare traps that poachers set to capture their victims. To date the group has removed over 1000 wire snares that could have killed more than 1000 animals, including endangered wildlife species such as cheetah and wild dog. Should the rangers detect any poachers while out on patrol, they communicate the location to their commanding base who then send out armed rangers to protect rhino and capture the suspects.

Besides tracking poachers and searching for snares, the Black Mambas also monitor the daily movements of rhino with GPS and VHF transmitters. Should rhino move into an area considered to be a high-risk poaching hot-spot, the rangers alert armed anti-poaching units who move in to offer the rhino protection.

“The Black Mambas have identified and destroyed over 10 poachers’ camps and three bush meat kitchens within the “buffer-zone” and reduced snaring and poisoning activities by 76% within our area of operation since their deployment in 2013.” — The Black Mambas Anti-poaching Unit

Raising Community Environmental Awareness

The Black Mambas don’t only tackle poaching in the field; they are also working within local communities striving to improve environmental literacy and to create awareness of the need to protect rhino and other wildlife, and the benefits of doing so.

“The objectives of this program are to bring knowledge to life, raise awareness of their surrounding environment, give a better understanding of conservation, lead to sustainable use of resources and install environmental problem-solving skills and ultimately installing an ethical ethos in our future generations.” — The Black Mambas Anti-poaching Unit

The Black Mambas are involved with the Bush Babies Environmental Education Programme, where they conduct regular weekly visits to four schools within the surrounding communities, improving the environmental literacy of 264 young learners. This environmental education initiative follows the school curriculum, bringing the local ecology of the area into the classroom by focusing on four main themes:

  • Basic ecology (grass, trees, soils, environment, water etc.)
  • Friends of the rhino (mammals, reptiles, birds, insects etc.)
  • Tour my world
  • Protectors of the rhinos (Black Mamba APU)

The positive impact that this unique group of women have achieved in the short time they have been operating is truly remarkable, especially if we consider they are tackling poachers who are typically armed and dangerous bandits working for large international crime syndicates.

“Community-led initiatives are crucial to combatting the illegal wildlife trade and the Black Mambas highlight the importance and effectiveness of local knowledge and commitment. Their many successes are a result of their impressive courage and determination to make a difference in their community,” said UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner, as he presented them with the 2015 Champions of the Earth award. “The Black Mambas are an inspiration not only locally, but across the world to all those working to eliminate the scourge of the illegal wildlife trade. With every rhino saved the Black Mambas demonstrate that action on a local level is critical to achieving global sustainability and equity.”

Their success at combatting poaching in their area highlights the importance of tackling problems such as these at grass roots level, and the need to work closely with communities who are most affected.

US Army Veterans on a New Mission

Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife (VETPAW) is another group on a mission to protect African wildlife from poachers, which coincidentally was also founded in 2013. War veterans often struggle to find purpose and meaning in their lives upon returning from serving their country, and many struggle to find a job. This can often lead to depression and anxiety. Yet these ex-military vets have skills — skills which can be put to very good use in the war against poaching.

“When I returned to civilian life after the Marine Corp, I lost myself. I didn’t really know what I was here for,” says Ryan Tate, founder of VETPAW. “Learning about the brutality of the poaching crisis and the rangers who are dying protecting wildlife, hit me harder than anything I’d ever seen—and I’ve seen some crazy stuff. I realized I have the skills necessary to help save animals and the people who risk their lives daily. That’s when I decided to create VETPAW”

In many cases park rangers in Africa lack the necessary skills, putting their lives in danger while trying to protect wildlife. Along with the thousands of rhino and elephant killed each year, several rangers have lost their lives valiantly trying to defend helpless wildlife. VETPAW provides meaningful employment to US military veterans returning from war zones who can now utilize their expertise and unrivalled skills to train and support park rangers in their ongoing fight to protect endangered wildlife from poachers in Africa.

One such vet is Kinessa Johnson, a female U.S. Army veteran who hails from Western Washington. Johnson recently joined VETPAW as an anti-poaching advisor, training female park rangers in Southern Africa. In a recent interview with King 5 News, Johnson explains that working alongside park rangers in Africa is a rewarding experience that benefits both parties.

“We work side by side with park rangers and it’s truly a learning experience for not only park rangers but also our team,” said Johnson. “Our intention is not to harm anyone; we’re here to train park rangers so they can track and detain poachers and ultimately prevent poaching.”

While photos depict Johnson as a badass take-no-prisoners kind of girl brandishing a very large weapon, in the interview she quickly points out that she’s not a ‘poacher hunter’.

“I’m a technical adviser to anti-poaching rangers so I patrol routinely with them and also assist in intelligence operations,” she explains. “Most of the time anyone that is in a reserve with a weapon is considered a threat and can be shot if rangers feel threatened. Our goal is to prevent trigger pulling through strategic movements and methods of prevention.”


But it’s very clear that Johnson loves her job and is passionate about protecting critically endangered wildlife in Africa.

“Imagine one of your community’s most cherished assets disappearing forever. It impacts everything,” she said.

Mission Impossible?

To win the war on rhino poaching, we first have to fight, and win, a series of ongoing battles. These initiatives are doing just that, providing a glimmer of hope for the future of Africa’s rhino populations.

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