Wildlife is also big business in the country. In addition to tourism revenue, the maintenance and management of the game reserves provide employment and work for contractors in various industries. In fact, Time magazine reported a few years ago that South Africa’s conservation policies have even made provision for the sale of animals that can no longer sustainably housed in their reserves to neighbouring countries – mainly in the case of herds that have grown too large to support themselves in those areas. This provides much needed revenue for the game farms to assist in upkeep, while ensuring that unnecessary culling need not happen.
However, there is a darker side to the business element of game reserves: poaching. Rhino horn, which is in high demand in the Far East, and to a lesser extent, ivory, provide millions in illegal trade for criminals.
1175 Rhinos were poached in South Africa in 2015 alone, bringing the total number of rhinos murdered since 2008 to over 5000. There are now approximately 29 000 rhinos left in the country today. To put this into perspective, 27 000 elephants were poached across 18 African countries in the past year, leaving the elephant population at around 352 271, according to the Great Elephant Census.
That means that the elephant population is falling by 8% while rhinos are being murdered at a rate of almost a quarter of their population each year. It’s no wonder that NGO Save The Rhino says rhino poaching has hit crisis point.
Poaching is nothing new on the continent. In a single decade between 1979 and 1989, half of all Africa’s elephants were lost to the ivory trade. However, when the world’s international wildlife trade body CITES banned all international trade in elephant tusks and countries like Kenya burned their stockpiles of ivory, or sold them at rock-bottom prices, they effectively removed the profits to be made from poaching elephants.
In order to further remove the incentive for poaching, many countries embarked on programmes of humanely removing tusks from their elephant populations. For the next decade, ivory trade lay dormant and African elephant populations began to recover.
Some South African conservation agencies have now started doing the same for local rhinos. One of these, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW), has started systematically dehorning the rhinos on its reserves.
According to a statement issued by EKZNW’s partner in the endeavour, STIHL South Africa, the dehorning process is an intricate one. Once the animal is immobilised using a dart gun, its eyes and ears are covered to minimise stimulation and stress as the immobilising drug causes depression of the central nervous system but does leave the animal sensitive to external stimuli. Using a chainsaw, the horn is sawed off about 5 cm from the base, taking care to ensure that the horn bed is not damaged so that the horn will grow back healthily.
Once the horn has been shaped and ground smooth, a topical antiseptic is applied to prevent infection, cracking and drying. The horns and shavings are collected and put into marked bags and DNA samples are taken to be sent to Onderstepoort for analysis and recording.
“The procedure is well co-ordinated, with each member of the team swiftly tending to their designated task. In all, the process takes about ten to fifteen minutes. Once it has been completed and everyone is a safe distance away, the veterinarian administers an antidote which completely reverses the effect of the anaesthetic. Within minutes the rhino is back on its feet, fully aware, with no after-effects whatsoever. It is good to know that the dehorning process is not painful at all and the rhino also has no memory of what happens from the time the immobilising drug sets in until the antidote has erased its effect,” they explain.
With initiatives like these, there is a new hope that South Africa’s rhinos can be brought back from the brink of extinction.