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Fighting Back in the New War on Rhinos

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 20, 2011

Here’s the story I reported from South Africa earlier this year.  It’s now out in the November Smithsonian:

Johannesburg’s international airport is an easy place to get lost in the crowd, and that’s what a 29-year-old Vietnamese man named Xuan Hoang was hoping to do one day in March last year—just lie low till he could board his flight home.  The police dog sniffing down the line of passengers didn’t worry him; he’d checked his baggage through to Ho Chi Minh City.  But behind the scenes, police were also manning the x-ray scanners on flights to Vietnam, believed to be the epicenter of a new war on rhinos.  And when Hoang’s bag appeared on the screen, they saw the unmistakable shape of rhinoceros horns—six of them, weighing more than 35 pounds and worth up to $500,000.

Investigators suspected the contraband might be linked to a poaching incident a few days earlier on a game farm in Limpopo Province, on the country’s northern border.  “We have learned over time, as soon as a rhino goes down, in the next two or three days the horns will leave the country,” said police Col. Johan Jooste of South Africa’s national priority crime unit, when I interviewed him recently in Pretoria.

The Limpopo rhinos had been killed in a “chemical poaching,” meaning that hunters, probably traveling by helicopter, shot them with a dart gun loaded with an overdose of veterinary tranquilizers.  As the price of rhino horn has soared, said Jooste, a short, thickly-built bull of a cop, so has the involvement of sophisticated criminal syndicates.

“The couriers are like drug mules, specifically recruited to come into South Africa on holiday.  All they know is that they need to pack for one or two days. They come in here with minimal contact details, sometimes with just a mobile phone, and they meet with guys providing the horns. They discard the phone so there’s no way to trace it to any other people.”

Police were not sure they would be able to send Hoang away for serious jail time, much less get to the professionals who had hired him. South African courts often require police not just to catch someone smuggling rhino horns, but actually connect the horns to a specific poaching incident.   “In the past,” said Jooste, “we needed to physically fit a horn on a skull to see if we had a match.  But that was not always possible, because we didn’t have the skull, or it was cut too cleanly.”

Taking the sample for DNA analysis

Police sent the horns confiscated at the airport to Cindy Harper, head of the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of Pretoria. Getting a match with DNA testing had never worked in the past. Rhino horn consists of a substance like compressed hair, and conventional wisdom said it did not contain the type of DNA needed for precise individual identifications. But Harper had recently proved otherwise.  In her lab a technician applied a conventional portable drill to each horn, sending up little ribbons of soft gray tissue that wrapped around a sterilized drill bit.  The technician then pulverized and liquefied these tissue samples, and ran extracts through what looked like a battery of fax machines.

Two of the horns confiscated at the airport turned out to be a DNA match with the rhinos killed on the Limpopo game farm.  The odds of another rhino having the same DNA were one in  millions, according to Harper, and on a continent with only about 25,000 rhinos in total, that constituted foolproof evidence.  A few months later, a judge sentenced Hoang to 10 years in prison.  It was a rare victory in a violent and rapidly worsening fight to save the rhino.


Rhino horn cache

Until recently, the epidemic rhino poaching of the late twentieth century seemed to have come under control.  Back then, tens of thousands of animals were slaughtered and whole countries stripped of rhinos, largely to supply horns for use as traditional medicines in Asia, and as dagger handles in the Middle East.  But in the 1990s, under strong international pressure, China removed rhino horn from the list of traditional medicines approved for commercial manufacturing, and Arab countries began to promote synthetic dagger handles. At the same time, African nations bolstered their rhino protection, and the combined effort seemed to reduce poaching to a tolerable minimum.

But that peaceful interlude ended abruptly in 2008, when rhino horn suddenly began to command prices beyond what anyone had ever seen–or even imagined.  Since then, poaching of rhinos, and trade in their horns, has gone out of control, in ways that at times border on the bizarre.  Police have reported more than 30 antique rhino horn thefts this year alone from museums, auction houses, and antiques dealerships in Europe, and at an auction in Moberly, Missouri, bidding for the antique horns of a single white rhino hit $125,000.

But most of the poaching is happening in South Africa, where the very system that helped build up the world’s largest rhino population is now making those rhinos more vulnerable.  Legalized trophy hunting of rhinos, supposedly under strict environmental limits, has always been a key part of rhino management there:  The hunter pays a trophy fee, typically about $40,000 for a white rhino.  The fees give game farmers an incentive to breed rhinos and keep them on their property.  That also creates a market for national parks to sell surplus rhinos, earning income to help pay for rhino conservation.

But suddenly the price of rhino horn was so high that the fees became just a minor cost of doing business.  Tourists from Asian nations with no history of trophy hunting began showing up for multiple trophy hunts in a year.   In one recent case, they even hired Asian prostitutes to pose as hunters—and provide their passports to make export of the trophies seem legal.  And wildlife professionals began to cross the fine line from trophy hunting rhinos to poaching them.

Vietnam seems to be the chief culprit in the new rhino horn trade.  In Pretoria, an investigative news team filmed the first secretary of the Vietnamese mission accepting a contraband rhino horn and placing it in the trunk of her car on the street outside the embassy; a Vietnamese trade attaché was also implicated in a separate incident.  Investigators from TRAFFIC, which monitors international wildlife trade, traced the sudden spike in demand to a rumor that rhino horn had miraculously cured a V.I.P. in Vietnam of terminal liver cancer. In traditional Asian medicine, rhino horn is credited only with relatively humble effects like relieving fever and lowering blood pressure– claims medical experts have debunked.   (Despite Western lore, rhino horn has never been regarded as an aphrodisiac.)  But fighting a phantom miracle cure was almost impossible.  “If it was a real person, we could find out what happened and maybe demystify it,” said Tom Milliken of TRAFFIC.   But no such person has turned up.  Meanwhile, poaching of rhinos has soared across the continent, and South Africa is on track to lose 400 rhinos this year, up from just 13 in 2007.


            The struggle to save the African rhinoceros has been in some ways a remarkable success story, until now.  Scientists generally count two rhino species, black and white, in Africa, and three species in Asia.  Because of intensive management schemes, both African species were actually increasing in number over the past 15 years, even as Asian rhino populations continued to plummet. To find out how that’s happened, and what may lie ahead, I set out one daybreak not long ago to look for rhinos at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park (that first word is pronounced shla-shloo-ee), in KwaZulu-Natal province, on South Africa’s eastern coast.

Now a 370-square-mile provincial park, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is beautiful country, and said to have been a favorite hunting ground for Shaka, the nineteenth-century Zulu warrior king.  Broad river valleys divide the rolling highlands, and dense green scarp forests darken distant slopes.

White rhinos once occurred in pockets across the length of Africa, from Morocco to the Cape of Good Hope.  But because of relentless hunting and colonial land-clearing, there were no more than a few hundred individuals left in southern Africa by the end of the nineteenth century, and the last known breeding population was here.  That remnant population was the reason colonial conservationists set this land aside in 1895 as Africa’s first protected conservation area.

Jed Bird and a white rhino

My guide was Jed Bird, a 27-year-old with an easy-going manner and a rugby player’s solid build.  Almost before we started, he stopped his pickup truck to check out a scraping at the side of the road.   “There was a black rhino here,” he said. “Obviously a bull.  You can see the vigorous scraping of the feet.  Spreads the dung.  Not too long ago.”  He imitated a rhino’s stiff-legged kicking.  “It pushes up the scent.  So other animals will either follow or avoid him.  They have such poor eyesight, you wonder how they find each other.  This is their calling card.”

You might also wonder why they bother.  The orneriness of rhinos is so proverbial that the correct word for a group is not a herd, but a crash of rhinos. “The first time I saw one I was a four-year-old in this park.  We were in a boat, and it charged the boat,” said Bird.  “That’s how aggressive they can be.”  Bird, who was thrilled, now makes his living keeping tabs on the park’s black rhinos, and also sometimes working by helicopter to catch them for relocation to other protected areas.  “They’ll charge helicopters,” he added.  “They’ll be running and then after a while, they’ll say, ‘Bugger this,’ and they’ll turn around and run toward you.  You can see them actually lift off their front feet as they try to have a go at the helicopter.”

But this fierce reputation can also be misleading.  Up the road a little later, Bird pointed out some white rhinos a half-mile off, and a few black rhinos resting nearby, placid as cows in a Constable painting of the British countryside.  “I’ve seen black and white rhino lying together in a wallow almost bum-to-bum,” he said.  “A wallow’s like a public facility.  They sort of tolerate one another.”  After a moment, he added, “The wind is good.”  That is, it was blowing our scent away from them.  “So we’ll get out and walk.”  From behind the seat, he brought out a .375 rifle, the minimum caliber required by the park for wandering near big unpredictable animals, and we set off into the head-high acacia.

The peculiar appeal of rhinos is that they seem to have lumbered straight out of the Age of Dinosaurs.  They are massive creatures, second only to elephants among modern land animals, with folds of thick flesh that look like protective plating.  A white rhino can stand six feet at the shoulders and weigh 6,000 pounds, with a horn on its nose up to six feet in length, and a slightly shorter horn just behind.  (The dinosaurian-sounding name rhinoceros means “nose horn.”)  Its eyes are dim little poppy seeds low down on the sides of its great skull.  But the big feathered ears are acutely sensitive, as are its vast snuffling nasal passages.  The black rhino is smaller, weighing up to about 3000 pounds, but compensates by being more quarrelsome.

Both black and white rhinos are actually shades of gray; the big difference between them has to do with diet, not skin color.   White rhinos are grazers, their heads almost always down on the ground, their wide, straight mouths constantly mowing the grass.  Hence they are sometimes known as square-lipped rhinos.  Black rhinos, by contrast, are browsers.  They snap off branches with the chisel-like

Black rhino teeth

cusps of their cheek teeth and swallow them thorns and all.   “Here,” Bird said, indicating an acacia scissored off at a 45-degree angle. “Sometimes you’re walking and if you’re quiet you can hear them browsing 200 or 300 meters ahead.  Whoosh, whoosh.”   Blacks, also known as hook-lipped rhinos, have a powerful prehensile upper lip for stripping foliage from bushes and small tree branches.  The lip dips down sharply in the middle, as if the rhino had set out to grow an elephant trunk but ended up becoming The Grinch instead.

We followed along the bent grass the rhinos had laid down in passing, crossed through a deep ravine, and came up into a clearing.  The white rhinos were moving off, with the tick-eating birds called oxpeckers riding sidesaddle on the backs of their necks.  But the black rhinos had settled down for a rest.  “We’ll go into those trees there, then wake them up and get them to come to us,” Bird said.  The ideas made my eyes widen.  We headed out in the open, with nothing between the rhinos and us except a few hundred yards of low grass.  Then the oxpeckers gave out their alarm call—“Chee-cheee!”—and one of the black rhinos stood up and seemed to stare straight at us.  “She’s very inquisitive,” Bird said.  “I train a lot of field rangers and at this point they’re panicking saying, ‘It’s got to see us,’ and I say, ‘Relax, it can’t see us.’  You just have to watch its ears.”

Coming to call on us

The rhino settled back down and we made it to a tree with lots of knobs for hand- and foot-holds, where elephants had broken off branches.  Bird leaned his rifle against another tree and we headed up.  Then he started blowing out his cheeks and flapping his lips in the direction of the rhinos.  When he switched to a soft high-pitched cry, like a lost child, a horn tip and two ears rose above the seed heads of the grass and swung in our direction like a periscope.  The rest of the rhino soon followed, lifting up ponderously from the mud.  As she ambled over through the grass, Bird identified her from the pattern of notches on her ears as C450, a pregnant female.  Her flanks were more blue than gray, glistening with patches of dark mud.  She stopped when she was about eight feet from our perch, eyeing us sideways, curious but also skittish.  Her nostrils quivered and the thick folds of flesh above them seemed to arch like eyebrows, inquiringly.  Then suddenly her head pitched up as she caught our alien scent.  She turned and ran off huffing like a steam engine.

Mama coming a little too close

A few minutes later, undeterred, two other black rhinos, a mother-daughter pair, came over to investigate.  This time, they nosed into our small stand of trees.  Bird hadn’t figured they would come so close, but now he worried that one of them might bump into his rifle.  The idea of a rhino shooting humans had a certain man-bites-dog logic, but Bird spared us the poetic justice by dropping his hat down in front of the mother to send her on her way.


Rhinos do not breed like rabbits.  Pregnancy lasts 16 months, and a mother may tend her calf for up to four years after birth.  Even so, conservation programs have managed to produce a steady surplus of rhinos in recent decades. The challenge has been figuring out where to put the extras once a population grows beyond what a fenced-in park or game farm can support.  It is particularly critical now for black rhinos.   Knocked down by the poaching crisis of the 1990s to fewer than 2500 animals, the population has rebuilt to about 4000.  Conservationists hope to accelerate that rate of growth as a buffer against further poaching, and their model is what Hluhluwe-Imfolozi did for white rhinos beginning in the 1950s.

South Africa was then turning itself into the world leader in game capture, the tricky business of catching, transporting, and releasing big, dangerous animals.  Rhinos were the ultimate test—6000 pounds of anger in a box.  As the remnant population of white rhinos at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi recovered, it became the seed stock for repopulating the species in parks in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and other countries.  In South Africa itself, private landowners also played a key part in rhino recovery, on game farms geared either to tourism or, under strict regulation, to trophy hunting.  The result is that there are now more than 17,000 white rhinos in the wild, plus another 3000 in captivity, and the species is no longer on the threatened list.

Doing something like that with black rhinos is more challenging today, because human populations have boomed, rapidly eating up open space.  Ideas about what rhinos need have also changed.  Not too long ago, said Jacques Flamand of the World Wildlife Fund, conservationists thought an area of about 23 square miles—the size of Manhattan Island — was enough for a founding population of a half-dozen black rhinos.   But recent research says it takes 20 founders to be genetically viable, and they need about 77 square miles of land.  Many rural landowners in South Africa want black rhinos for their game farms and safari lodges.  But few of them control that much land, or can afford to buy the rhinos in any case:  Black rhinos sold at wildlife auctions, until the practice was recently suspended, for about $70,000 apiece.

So Flamand has been working with KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Wildlife, the provincial park service, to cajole landowners into a novel partnership:  If they agree to open up their land and meet stringent security requirements, KZN will introduce a founding population of black rhinos and split ownership of the offspring.  In one case, 19 neighbors pulled down the fences dividing their properties.  They also had to build a better exterior fence to protect the perimeter against poachers.  “Security has to be good,” said Flamand.  “We need to know if the field rangers are competent, how they are equipped, how organized, how distributed, whether they are properly trained.”   Over the past six years, the range for black rhinos in KwaZulu-Natal has increased by a third, he said, allowing the addition of six new populations with a total of 98 animals.

The program can seem a bit like a spy agency moving fugitives from one safe house to the next in hostile terrain–big, belligerent fugitives, at that, and not too bright, either.  Conservationists have had to learn to think more carefully about which animals to move, and how to move them.  In the past, parks sometimes transferred surplus male rhinos without bothering to include females as potential mates.  It was a recipe for trouble (predictably, you would think). The males got mad–or madder–and often killed one another.  But moving mother-calf pairs was perilous, too.  The standard practice of calming captive rhinos by holding them in bomas, or corrals, for weeks at a time just caused the moms to become frustrated and restless.  Accidentally or otherwise, more than half the calves died, according to Wayne Linklater, lead author of a new study on black rhino translocations.  Mother-calf pairs now generally move directly to their new homes instead.

Catching pregnant females, another common approach, also caused problems.  The stress of capture could lead to miscarriages, sometimes resulting in an excess of male or female offspring, with unfortunate effects on future reproduction.  The emphasis on moving a lot of young females may also have depleted the literal motherlode, the breeding population protected within Hluhluwe-Imfolozi.  “We’re left with a whole lot of grannies in the population, and not enough breeding females,” said park ecologist David Druce.

Researchers have now come to recognize that understanding the social nature of black rhinos is the key to getting them out, and reproducing, in new habitats:  A territorial bull will tolerate a number of females and some adolescent males in his neighborhood.  So translocations now typically start with one bull per water source.  After he has walked around a bit and settled in, the females follow, and then the younger males.   To keep territorial bulls separated during the crucial settling process, researchers have experimented with distributing rhino scent strategically around the new habitat, creating “virtual neighbors.”  Using a bull’s own dung didn’t work.  (They are at least bright enough, one researcher suggested, to think:  “That’s my dung.  But I’ve never been here before.”)  Researchers are still trying to determine whether using dung from other rhinos is a way to communicate that this is suitable habitat and also that wandering into neighboring territories could be risky.

The release itself has also changed.  In the macho game capture culture of the past, it was like a rodeo:  A lot of vehicles gathered around to watch.  Then someone opened the crate and the rhino came busting out, like a bull entering an arena.  Sometimes it panicked and ran till it hit a fence.  Other times it charged the vehicles, often as the nature documentary cameras rolled.  “It was good for television, but not so good for animals,” said Flamand.   Game capture staff now practice “soft releases” instead.  The rhino is sedated in its crate, and all the vehicles move away.   Someone administers an antidote and also backs off, leaving the rhino to wander out and explore its new neighborhood at leisure.  “It’s very calm.  It’s boring, which is fine.”

If these new rhino habitats are like safe houses, the renewed threat of poaching means they can be astonishingly wired safe houses.  The animals are often individually identified (with ear notches), implanted with RFID microchips (for radio frequency identification), camera-trapped, geo-tracked, registered in a genetic database, and otherwise monitored by every available means short of a breathalyzer.

Early this year, for instance, Somkhanda Game Reserve, an hour or so up the road from Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, installed a system that requires implanting a GPS device the size of a D cell battery in the horn of every rhino.  (Somkhanda is a partner in the KZN black rhino program, and the first owned by a black African community.)  The device communicates with receivers mounted on utility poles around the reserve, transmitting not just an animal’s exact location but also every movement of its head, up-and-down, back-and-forth, side-to-side.

A movement that deviates suspiciously from the norm causes an alarm to pop up on a screen at a security company 250 miles away in Johannesburg, and the company relays the animal’s location to field rangers back at Somkhanda.   “It’s a heavy capital outlay,” said Simon Morgan of Wildlife ACT, which works with conservation groups on wildlife monitoring, “but when you look at the cost of rhinos, it’s worth it.  We have made it publicly known that these devices are out there.  At this stage, with nobody else doing it, that’s enough to make poachers go elsewhere.”


A few months after the Vietnamese courier Xuan Hoang went to prison, police conducted a series of raids in Limpopo Province.  Frightened by continued rhino poaching on their land, angry farmers there had tipped off investigators about a helicopter they had seen flying low over their properties.  Police traced the chopper and arrested Dawie Groenewald, a former police officer, and his wife Sariette, who had become game farmers and safari operators in the area.  They were charged with being kingpins of a poaching ring that traded in contraband horns and also targeted the rhinos on nearby game farms.  But what shocked neighbors more was the allegation that two local veterinarians, people they had trusted to care for their animals, had been helping to kill them instead.  Rising prices for rhino horn, and the prospect of instant wealth, had apparently shattered a lifetime of ethical constraints.

Conservationists were shocked, too.  One of the veterinarians had been a familiar face at wildlife auctions where parks parcel out their surplus animals.  He had been a go-between for the Groenewalds, who purchased 36 rhinos from Kruger National Park in 2009.  Investigators later turned up a mass grave with 20 rhino carcasses on the Groenewald farm.  The conspirators were allegedly responsible for the killing of hundreds of rhinos.  Twelve people have been charged in the case so far, and the trial is now scheduled for next spring.

Illegal trafficking in rhino horn does not seem to be confined to one criminal syndicate, or a single outlaw game farm.  “A lot of people are gobsmacked by how pervasive that behavior is throughout the industry,” said TRAFFIC’s Milliken.   “People are just blinded by greed—your professional hunters, your veterinarians, the people who own these game ranches.  We have never seen this level of private sector complicity with Asian wildlife gangs.”

Like Milliken, most conservationists believe trophy hunting can be a legitimate contributor to conservation of rhinos.  But now they are also seeing that hunting has created a moral gray zone.  The system depends on harvesting a limited number of rhinos under permits issued by the government.  But when the price is right some trophy hunting operators apparently find that they can justify killing any rhino.  Obtaining permits—or even ownership—becomes a technicality.   Rules designed to keep the trophy hunting system honest—for instance, the requirement that the trophy horn and head be exported intact—are merely inconvenient.  In South Africa, the epidemic of poaching by wildlife professionals has produced widespread outrage with the current system, particularly when the Groenwalds, out on bail, briefly received permits for additional rhino hunts.  The national government is now considering a moratorium on trophy hunting of rhinos.  But hunting advocates said that would just make the illegal horn trade more profitable.

The one hopeful sign, said Milliken, is that prices seem to have spiked too quickly to be attributable to increased demand alone.  That is, the current crisis might be a case of the madness of crowds—an economic bubble inflated by speculative buying in Asia.  If so, like other bubbles, it will eventually go bust.

For now, though, the rhinos continue to die.  At Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, poachers last year killed three black rhinos and 12 whites. To San-Mari Ras, a district ranger there, it is like robbing from Noah’s Ark:  “We have estimated that what we are losing would basically overtake the birth rate in the next two years, and populations will start to drop down.”  That is, the motherlode may no longer have any seed stock to send to other new habitats.

From the floor of her office, she picked up the skull of a black rhino calf with a neat little bullet hole into its brain.  “They will take a rhino horn even at this size,” said Ras, spreading her thumb and index finger. “That’s how greedy the poachers can be.”

San-Mari Ras and poaching victim

5 Responses to “Fighting Back in the New War on Rhinos”

  1. Excellent article, thanks!

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    […]Fighting Back in the New War on Rhinos « strange behaviors[…]…

  3. […] storia sembra incredibile, eppure è vera, ed è stata raccontata in un magnifico reportage da Richard Conniff sulla rivista Smithsonian. Nell’articolo originale, che vi consiglio di […]

  4. Tracy said

    Great article. As someone originally from that area it was wonderful to read such an in-depth account. I’m also glad that there is technology out there that can help curb poaching, I only wish there was more and that something like an RFID tag or bugging device could be used to track down these syndicates and furthermore, when they do get tracked down, that something can be done to prevent them from continuing.

  5. […] the end of my recent report on the new rhino poaching epidemic, I suggested that one park, which was once the motherlode for […]

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