The year 2012 has not brought any happy endings for the rhino and elephants of Africa. On the contrary, this year saw the maximum killings of both these majestic species due to high demands for horns and ivory in Asian countries.
According to the environment ministry of South Africa, by mid December 633 rhinos had already been killed by poachers. Comparatively 448 rhinos had been killed last year with only a handful becoming poacher’s target about a decade ago.
South Africa is the country with the highest rhino population in the continent but also facing serious poaching difficulties.
Apart from rhinos, elephants too have been brutally killed this year by illegal wildlife traders. Mass killings were reported in Cameroon and Democratic Republic of Congo. As per TRAFFIC, a WWF initiative that monitors global trade in animals and plants, the amount of ivory seized would be less than 2011, but it is still large.
“It looks like 2012 is another bumper year for trade in illegal ivory though it is unlikely to top 2011,” says Tom Milliken, who manages TRAFFIC’s elephant trade information system.
In 2011 48 tonnes of ivory was seized representing thousands of dead elephants. This year the organization has seized about 28 tonners of ivory with the amount probably growing by year end.
“The last four years since 2009 are four of our five highest volume years in illegal ivory trade,” Mr Milliken says.
The market for both rhino horns and ivory has grown in the last few years in Asia. Ivory is used for making ornamental items while rhino horns are used for treating a range of maladies including rheumatism, gout and even possession by devils.
The illegal trading is also no more a simple act of poaching. It has turned into an organized crime with more and more groups getting involved with the crime.
Last week the United Nations Security Council called for an investigation into the alleged involvement in the trade of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda. The group is led by warlord Joseph Kony, who is being hunted by an African Union and US-backed military force. It has been accused of terrorising the country’s north for more than 20 years through the abduction of children to use as fighters and sex slaves.
“The illegal killings of large numbers of elephants for their ivory are increasingly involving organised crime and in some cases well-armed rebel militias,” the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) said in a statement issued this week.
“In Bouba N’Djida National Park, in northern Cameroon, up to 450 elephants were allegedly killed by groups from Chad and the Sudan early this year.” It said.
The demand for rhino horns has also increased in Vietnam, with many of the affluent class buying it to treat aliments such as cancer. There is no medical evidence to prove the benefit of rhino horn to treat such health problems, but rise in demand has escalated its cost to $65,000/kg on the streets of Hanoi making it costlier than gold.
Kruger National Park in South Africa is one of the worst affected by these high demands for horns.
According to the BD Live report, gangs armed with firearms and night-vision goggles enter from neighbouring Mozambique, from where observers say the horn is often smuggled out through the same routes used to bring illegal drugs from Southeast Asia into Africa.
“Kruger is a national park the size of Israel and it is incredibly difficult to police,” says Julian Rademeyer, author of Killing for Profit, a book published this year that examines the international rhino horn trade.
“You have very advanced international syndicates run like business operations that are very good at getting horn out of here,” he says.
Kruger national park is now being patrolled by the army. The South African Revenue Service and police too are helping.
South Africa hosts virtually the entire population of white rhino — 18,800 head or 93% — and about 40% of Africa’s much rarer black rhino. 2012 has also made it more challenging to save these animals because of the two-month strike by Kruger National Park workers and corruption within the ranks of the park service that undermined its anti-poaching efforts.
The elephant population in Africa on the other hand varies from nation to nation. Numbers in Botswana are as high as 150,000 but in parts of central and west Africa the animal is highly endangered.
“Central Africa has been bleeding ivory but for the last few years there has also been an upsurge in poaching in Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique,” Mr Milliken says.
With a year ending and another beginning, hopefully the rhinos and elephants will also get a new lease of life and a safer future.