At the beginning of this year, South African conservationists celebrated a small victory. Figures from 2015, released by the South African government, showed that only 1,175 rhinos were destroyed in its wildlife parks, 40 less than in the previous year.
South Africa is currently home to around 15,000 white and 5,000 black rhinos, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Edna Molewa, the minister of environmental affairs, said it was "very, very good news" that the numbers had decreased.
"I am today pleased to announce that for the first time in a decade the poaching situation has stabilised …despite escalating poaching pressure, and in the face of an increased and relentless rise of poaching activity into protected areas," she said at a press conference at the department of government and communications in Pretoria on January 21, 2016.
Yet conservationists aren't getting too excited. Back in 2007, only 13 rhinos were massacred across the country.
An insatiable appetite for rhino horn, especially in Vietnam where it is celebrated as a panacea for a medley of ailments, has sent poacher syndicates to the plains with grenade launchers, AK47s and top-of-the-range hunting rifles.
Big cash customers in Hanoi, where rhino horn is seen as a status symbol are reducing it to powder and snorting it, despite the fact that it is made of keratin and has the psychoactive effect of a toenail clipping. Costing between $70,000 and $100,000 per kilogramme, however, rhino horn rivals cocaine and gold in value.
"The future of the rhino is at a tipping point," Les Carlisle, group conservation manager at Rhino without Borders, based close to the Kruger National Park, in South Africa, told Al Jazeera. His charity has been using a crowd-funding campaign to save rhinos.
"We move rhinos to safety in Botswana, where poaching is virtually non-existent." The group is raising money on its website to move 100 rhinos at a cost of $45,000 each, Carlisle said.
"The government [in Botswana] has helped us by providing military equipment," Carlisle explained. "They have a different approach to looking after their wildlife to South Africa. It appears they have a greater political will."
|'The future of the rhino is at a tipping point,' says Rhinos without Borders [Bevery Joubert, Rhinos without Borders/Al Jazeera]
Poachers without borders
South Africa and its neighbour Mozambique have huge economic problems. Chronic poverty and the absence of a sustainable economic alternative lure some into the murky world of poaching. Poachers often come from a life of abject poverty and are destitute. Just a few kills can change their life. This is one of the reasons why there are no rhino left in the wild in Mozambique.
The last known 15 have been poached over the past few years.
"Rhino are like walking diamonds in value, so it's a real struggle to keep the animals safe," Carlisle said.
Poachers enter Kruger National Park from Mozambique on foot and kill by moonlight using night-vision equipment, tranquillisers and silencers. "Full moon is the most dangerous time in the parks," Carlisle added.
Once the dehorning has occurred, often with the animal still alive, the poachers rendezvous with a mule, who takes the horn out of the park in a wheelie bag or something similar, just like they would with drugs.
After the poachers disband, the rhino horn makes its way over land to Mozambique's coastline, where it joins some of the 20,000 elephant tusks and other animal parts that have been collected by poachers and placed into the hands of international criminal cartels. These ship the precious horn out, mostly from the port of Maputo.
The poachers might get a few thousand dollars per horn, but the cartels get much more.
According to a 2012 World Wildlife Fund report (PDF), the illegal wildlife trade is worth $19bn a year. It is the world's fourth biggest illegal industry after drugs, arms and people involving the same cartels.
READ MORE: White gold - the shadowy trade in illegal ivory
|Wildlife conservation organisations fear they are fighting a losing battle amid dwindling animal populations [Bevery Joubert, Rhinos without Borders/Al Jazeera]
Rhinos, red tape and corruption
In South Africa's game parks, like the 20,000 sq km Kruger National Park, which is home to between 8,000 and 9,000 rhino, impunity and lack of prosecution is a big issue, said Yvette Taylor, director at the non-profit charity, The Lawrence Anthony Earth Organisation.
The charity sets out to reverse dwindling animal populations. "It is impossible for this scale of poaching to take place without collusion at every level. The number of animals that are being killed, wouldn't be possible without support and backhanders," Taylor said.
In January, minister Molewa said that 317 people were arrested for rhino-poaching offences. Taylor explained that sentencing is often difficult as poachers illegally slip across the border and legal processes are excruciatingly slow.
In March 2015, Calvin Ndwambi, a police officer who sold a fake rhino horn to an undercover colleague, was charged with fraud and sentenced to six years' imprisonment. According to the South African Legal Information Institute, however, the crime had been committed 12 years previously on October 29, 2003, at the Shell Ultra City, Kroonstad, in Free State.
In February this year, Enoch Chauke, was sentenced at Hoopstad Regional Court under magistrate Johan Bosh to eight years' imprisonment for entering the Sandveld Nature Reserve with weapons with the intent to poach rhino. His co-perpetrator was shot and killed by rangers.
According to former Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano, between 2010 and 2015 almost 500 Mozambicans were shot dead by South African game rangers and security forces.
A number of articles in the Witness, a local Kwazulu Natal newspaper, recently claimed that a rhino anti-poaching helicopter unit belonging to Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife had been grounded for six months due to red tape. This is the governmental organisation responsible for maintaining wildlife conservation in the Kwazulu Natal province.
"Fears have been raised that bureaucratic bungling by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife could be impacting on the province's dwindling rhino population," an article from October 2015 said.The reason, it went on, was because staff failed to attend key meetings to decide who should be the supplier of helicopters used to protect the rhino.
"It's incomprehensible, because all they need to do is find a provider. Animals are dying, because the relevant people won't sign on the dotted line .... You would wonder is it red tape or sabotage?" Taylor said in the article. "The longer the status quo remains, the more rhino will die," Taylor added.
On February 26, in an article in The Witness, David Mabunda, the chief executive of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, responded to these accusations.
Helicopters were just one tool in the fight against poaching, he said. "There is no empirical evidence that shows the existence of a correlation between rhino poaching and operating helicopters as a tool to stop the scourge," he insisted.
"There are many more variables that influence the increase of rhino poaching incidents in KZN than the helicopter tender (which is already awarded)," he wrote. The effect of the drought has had devastating consequences for the fight against rhino poaching, he added.
Mabunda also noted a changing trend in arrests. "We are arresting many South Africans at both level 1 and 2 categories. The situation is compounded by the increasing levels of corruption among our ranks, the police, immigration officials and other law enforcement and professional services such as veterinarians."
|NGOs say the numbers of rhinos poached may soon exceed the numbers being born [WWF/TRAFFIC]
Hunting for trophies
Trophy hunting of black rhino and white rhino in South Africa is legal and is regulated by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
A maximum of five black rhino per year may be hunted in South Africa. White rhino hunting is less closely regulated and primarily takes place on private land.
Allison Thomson, director of Outraged SA Citizens Against Poaching, a non-profit organisation that works closely with other rhino groups and local and international wildlife agencies, says the numbers of rhinos poached may soon exceed the numbers being born, which means that they will be on the path to extinction.
In a letter sent to minister Molewa, dated February 11, 2016, she wrote that hunting of both white and black rhinos was a matter for great concern and called for an immediate rhino-hunting moratorium.
"South Africa is sending out a desperate appeal to stop killing our rhinos but at the same time your department rubber stamps the killing of rhinos by issuing hunting permits. This sends out the wrong message," she wrote.
"Whether a rhino is hunted or poached we still end up with a dead rhino and under the current poaching crisis every single rhino counts."
In an official response, Molewa on February 18, 2016, said that she appreciated concerns about the status of rhino populations in South Africa.
"It should be understood/noted that the implementation of interventions to address the illegal killing of rhino and the illegal trade in rhino horn does not preclude the legal, sustainable utilisation of the species," she said. "The government has introduced numerous legislative and policy measures to address the increase in rhino poaching in South Africa," she added.
Richard Thomas, the global communications coordinator for Traffic, a joint programme of the World Wildlife Fund for nature and the World Conservation Union, told Al Jazeera that "the rhinos used for trophy hunting are generally old, post-reproductive bulls, who may have a detrimental effect on the overall population because they have become aggressive".
"If executed properly and with strict quotas, it is a useful management tool," Thomas explained.
The white rhino population was down to fewer than a hundred in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but was pulled back from extinction, because of protection and management, which included "canned" hunting, whereby animals are bread for slaughter by private companies.
But, animal rights activists argue that real hunters kill for survival, not for sport and certainly not in exchange for anything between $20,000 and $150,000 or more, which is what hunters usually pay for the experience.
"We don't have a problem with hunting for the sake of controlling populations, we have a problem with hunting for the sheer pleasure of it," animal rights activist and organiser of an Irish ban trophy hunting rally, Lea Hennessy, says.
Hennessy and a handful of people gathered earlier this month to protest against a trophy-hunting event hosted by Safari Club International, the world's biggest hunting club, taking place at the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas.
Around 20,000 professional hunters bid on 600 hunting permits, and reportedly up to $3m was raised from auctioning animals from more than 30 countries
"Fifty percent of animals on the planet have gone in the last 45 years, why should people have them hanging on their wall?" Hennessy asked.
Hunters argue that hunting provides jobs in areas of low employment and increases the average wage for locals. But conservationists question the motives of the wealthy people who pay to do it.
"If they really care about animal rights, why don't they just donate the money? For the price of a big five hunt - around $45,000 -, a hunter could sponsor a rhino getting relocated from South Africa to Botswana," Hennessy said.
In data (PDF) from a new analysis of the US Fish and Wildlife Service's import data, carried out by Humane Society International and the Humane Society of the United States, it emerged that American hunters import more than 126,000 animal trophies a year and that 1.26 million animal trophies were imported into the US by sports hunters between 2005 and 2014, around 345 animal trophies each day.
READ MORE: Kenya - race against time to save the last white rhinos
|According to the WWF, the illegal wildlife trade is worth $19bn a year [WWF/TRAFFIC]
What's being done?
In South Africa there have been calls to legalise rhino horn, which can be removed without causing harm and regrown. That could facilitate a harm-free form of horn farming. But conservationists fear that this would create misconceptions about the medicinal value of the horn and potentially increase the desire for it.
Removing the horn or tusks altogether is another idea, though poachers may kill the animal anyway out of vengeance. Due to its high value, it can be killed even for a tiny stump.
Another innovative idea to modify horns and tusks by colouring them has helped against poaching.
Some organisations have taken the radical step of injecting rhino and their horns with a mix of parasiticides and indelible pink dye to keep rhino poachers at bay. This has also enjoyed some success, though the ink only lasts for a month and, on a national level, it hasn't proved plausible.
More work is needed to improve security, particularly at borders between countries and at key locations in the ivory trade chain.
"In order for this to work, there needs to be a pan-country and multi-organisational approach to ensure security all along all ivory routes," Carlisle said. The coastline in Mozambique is the longest in Africa, so trying to police it will be tough.
A lack of active leadership from governments in Asia has remained a serious impediment. That is why organisations have tried to target the end consumers. A campaign aimed at rich Vietnamese men aged between 35 and 50 called the "Chi Campaign" was launched last year by Traffic and its partners. Its message is that they don't need rhino horn to bolster their ego.
"It's about influencing the influencers. Men of stature look up to other men in similar positions, and this campaign uses local insights, business networking events, billboards and testimonials to reshape public perception about the use of rhino horn," Thomas explained.
Taylor says that the South African government has been taking steps towards improvement, namely in the increase in the number of arrests and the introduction of a $20m surveillance system at the Kruger Park, but she says a strong coordinated military defence is needed.
"This war can only be won with real, honest support on every level. It does not allow for weak, bureaucratic or corrupt officials," she said.
Source: Al Jazeera