Animal rights activists are challenging a decision by South African conservation authorities to auction off a permit to hunt a white rhinoceros, a member of a species increasingly under threat from poachers.
Government conservation officials say the deal will actually protect the remaining eight rhinos in the Makhasa Resource Reserve, a game reserve adjacent to an impoverished community whose residents might otherwise be tempted to participate in poachings.
Growing demand for rhinoceros horns by practitioners of traditional medicine in Asia has created a booming poaching industry in South Africa. Last year, a record 443 black and white rhinos were killed in the country’s public and private game reserves, up from 333 in 2010, according to government officials and conservation groups. Five years ago, the country lost only 13 black and white rhinos to poaching.
South Africa is home to the largest rhinoceros populations in the world, including about 4,500 black rhinos, classified as “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and about 20,000 southern white rhinos. White rhinos are classified as “near threatened” by the IUCN, which means they may face extinction in the near future.
The poaching has become an emotional issue for South Africans, who regularly see front-page images of rhino carcasses, bloodied stumps where the horns used to be. As measures to curb the crime fall short, the sanctioned killing of the single rhino has fueled a heated debate about how best to protect one of the country’s most beloved animals.
Last month, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the government body responsible for conservation in KwaZulu-Natal province, auctioned off a license to shoot a specific male white rhino at the Makhasa Resource Reserve. Ezemvelo, which runs game parks throughout the province and co-manages Makhasa with the local community, sold the permit to a local businessman for about $120,000.
Simon Bloch, of Outraged South African Citizens Against Poaching, one of hundreds of volunteer groups created in recent years to raise awareness about rhino poaching, says the killing of any rhino should be forbidden while white rhinos are under threat.
“Our rhino are being poached at an alarming rate that, if unchecked, will see them extinct in the very near future,” Bloch said. “They play an important role in our tourism, our economy, as well as the ecology. There is no need to kill rhino other than, it seems, a financial reward.”
Ezemvelo spokesperson Musa Mntambo said the provincial parks agency sometimes issues permits to hunt rhinos, but only once a conservation officer confirms a reserve has exceeded the sustainable population size. Permits are required for any rhino killing, whether trophy hunting by tourists or culling by private game farm owners.
Last year, Ezemvelo issued 23 licenses to hunt white rhinos in private preserves and one permit was auctioned to raise funds for Makhasa. The latter permit authorized the killing of the specific male white rhino, which is more than 12 years old, Mntambo said.
“He has started to breed with his own children and grandchildren,” Mntambo said. “He’s threatening the population as a whole because of inbreeding.”
A hunt for the rhino is expected to take place in the next month or two.
The Mduku community voluntarily created the 4,200-acre reserve in 1992, after being granted the land as restitution at the end of apartheid. But Mntambo said it remains an impoverished rural community and that funds raised by the hunt will also create an incentive for residents to keep the animals alive.
“Right now, if the community around the reserve is hungry, they may start poaching,” Mntambo said. “But they will start to protect the reserve if it can generate income.”
Members of the Mduku community said some of the money from the hunt will go toward improved security, including repairing damaged fences and hiring rangers.
“We will also put aside a fraction of the funds raised to address certain educational and health needs of our community, like improving the conditions of our local schools, clinic, daycare and other facilities,” said Inkosi Gumede of the Mduku Tribal Authority.
Many established conservation groups and game reserve owners in South Africa say protecting the animals from poachers is difficult. Most say they understand why cash-strapped conservation bodies need to finance operations through managed hunts.
“This is not the wanton killing of whales. It is the sustainable utilization of a species, for its ultimate conservation,” said Pelham Jones, chairman of the Private Rhino Owners Assn., a group of private game farm owners. “This is about hunting a rhino at the end of its biological function, and if money can be raised for conservation purposes, that’s commendable.”
The Endangered Wildlife Trust said it does not condemn managed hunting for sustainability, especially if it is done to improve conditions in a local community that otherwise might consider indiscriminate poaching.
“We will continue to support sustainable use as long as it is legal, ethical and that it is done correctly,” said Kirsty Brebner, the trust’s spokeswoman. “We are not concerned with one particular animal, but rather with the survival of the species, which right now is under threat of being wiped out.”
The rise in poaching is believed to be linked to a surging demand for rhino horn in Asia, particularly in Vietnam and Thailand, where it is ground and used by some practitioners of traditional medicine, sometimes in an effort to cure or prevent cancer or as an aphrodisiac. In the Middle East, rhinoceros horns are used to make ornamental dagger handles. On the illicit market, rhinoceros horn can fetch about $30,000 a pound.
Poachers are often backed by international crime syndicates, but they rely on locals to provide information on the terrain and rhinos’ whereabouts. The poachers often hunt by helicopter, swooping over grasslands at night and spotting the animals using night-vision goggles.
Often they use darts to tranquilize the animals, then use military-grade weapons to kill them. The poachers saw off the horns with chain saws, leaving the carcasses behind.
Wilson is a special correspondent.