The conservation of the white rhino in Africa is a great success story.
With numbers as low as 2,000 in 1973, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was signed, the population is now more than 19,000. More than 90 percent of these animals are in South Africa as a result of both public and private management efforts, for which CITES provides a framework.
But while poaching numbers steadied at about 10 a year for much of the last decade, they took a dramatic upward turn about five years ago, with killings reaching 668 in 2012 in South Africa alone.
These disturbing trends are not confined to the rhino. For the second time since CITES was adopted, the African elephant is under threat. After the surge in poaching and illegal trade in the 1970s and 80s, elephant populations recovered and stabilised. However, the latest data show we are witnessing the worst spike in poaching and illegal trade in ivory in decades. In 2011 alone, an estimated 25,000 elephants were poached across the African continent and early indications are that the situation may have further deteriorated in 2012.
These conservation successes are now at risk. The illegal, and often extremely cruel, killing of elephants and rhinos and the lucrative trade in their ivory and horns put populations of these magnificent animals at risk and, if the trends continue, they could threaten the entire species.
Wildlife crime is increasingly being orchestrated by organised criminal syndicates operating across international borders and, in some cases, rebel militia. Strong national laws and enforcement coupled with robust international co-operation are needed to disrupt these networks and reverse the trends. Such efforts must be supported by suppressing demand and imposing strict penalties for illegal trade and use.
South Africa has recently handed down heavy sentences to rhino horn traffickers and is working closely with Vietnam, the primary destination for illegal rhino horn.
Today, rhino crime is driven by uses such as a hangover cure and an aphrodisiac – not associated with traditional medicine. Furthermore, we suspect that some misguided investors are speculating on ivory and rhino horn by amassing their stocks – in other words, “banking on extinction”. This gamble must not pay off.
For this, countries must step up their response through better policing, investigation, forensics, prosecutions and penalties, with serious sentences being handed down for major offenders and assets being seized.
While many poachers have been arrested in different countries, the key to combating organised wildlife crime is to track down the “kingpins” of this illegal activity. This will happen through the use of modern enforcement techniques, such as tracking rather than seizing contraband detected at international borders, and undercover operations.
We must move beyond seizures to investigations, prosecutions and strong penalties, and prevent criminals from keeping the proceeds of their crime. Last but not least, we must clamp down on demand in consumer countries.
There are some positive signs. For example, South Africa has recently handed down heavy sentences to rhino horn traffickers and is working closely with Vietnam, the primary destination for illegal rhino horn. Such efforts are in their early stages and need ongoing political and on-the-ground support.
Still, this will be a tough, long fight – one that can only be won through treating wildlife crime as serious crime and using techniques deployed in the fight against narcotics, as well as through scaled-up international co-operation and public awareness in consumer countries.
We know the way, and if we have the collective will this fight can be won. The CITES World Wildlife Conference opened today – from March 3 to 15 – in Bangkok is when we must come together to secure the future of the elephant and the rhino, along with many other plants and animals, in the wild.
John E Scanlon is Secretary-General of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Follow him on Twitter: @John_CITES