Rhino Poaching in Southern Africa is Reaching The Point of No Return

The poaching of rhino across Southern Africa is a complex ecological problem which paints a terrifying picture of the growing encroachment on wildlife by human avariciousness. A century ago there were estimated to be 500,000 rhino across Africa, Southern Asia and the Indonesia. By 1970 that number decreased to 70,000 and today stands at 29,000. The precariousness of the rhino is increasingly threatened by an international network of wildlife trafficking described by the President of the United States as the “coordinated slaughter commissioned by armed and organised criminal syndicates.”

It is a problem for which a number of causes can be attributed. Some argue from a Marxist perspective that poaching is simply the exploitation of a natural resource by capitalist enterprise. But others go beyond this materialist beyond argument and see it as a political and cultural complex of global proportions between criminal cartels satisfying a foreign market’s demand for rhino horn by raiding another country’s territories and the response being the increased militarisation of Southern Africa’s wildlife areas. Ultimately the moral weight over the cost to human lives and the multiplex precedent set over conservation efforts pays the price.

I try reach a middle ground between these two extremes and argue from a political ecological perspective that rhino poaching is a persistent and intensifying crisis upon the species but perhaps more so against interests that want the rhino preserved. These interests constitute a composite group that is all together domestic, international, public and private but overall they are considered legal. The intentions of these bodies however varied are aligned towards intercepting and locking down on illegal entities that likewise form a global network of foreign, local, governmental and civilian groups. This interception is clearly spelled out by the motto of the Global Institute Against Transnational Organized Crime: “A network to counter networks” (Rademeyer, 2016). The existential rally point between these contending forces is the rhino population as a finite resource, and the nature reserve its battleground. This protection however comes with an expense and ultimately leads to the reproduction of the rhino’s own scarcity; a scarcity which only breeds more insatiable demand and profit, leading to a possible point of no return. Such is the paradox of rhino conservation.

I will not go to great lengths to prescribe practical solutions to this problem, nor delve into moral judgements over who are the real enemies in this situation. My intention is to reach an overview of the crisis that is true to political ecology, but with a slight sociological bent. To explain this point of view, political ecology is as a vast field of research whose subject matter is as diverse as it is multi-disciplinary2. Combining the political and ecology we find at its nexus an approach which explains environmental conditions by way of studying the interrelations between society and nature (Robbins, 2012: 12). Giving bias to either side tips the balance towards either an analysis that is overly political, divorced from the falsifiable claims of natural science3 or otherwise too caught up in the numbers that it forgets the epistemological complexity of the human relationship with the environment and the collective potential we have to effect change in such a relationship — for better or for worse.

I looked at the history of the rhino poaching crisis in Southern Africa from its emergence in the early 2000’s up to the present. In particular I looked at the Kruger National Park situated along the South African and Mozambican border which accounts for roughly 60% of Africa’s total rhino poaching losses. Using the numbers given in Rademeyer’s 2016 report: Tipping Point: Transnational organised crime and the ‘war’ on poaching4, I will briefly outline the extent of the crisis in terms of how many rhinos have been killed each year, the rate at which these incursions occur, estimates of the remaining rhinos left along with the cost to human life’s due to anti-poaching ‘contacts’. Next I will approach the matter which really concerns me, who are the people and groups involved in this crisis from both ends. What roles are they playing and what can be speculated about their motives? Owing to the lack of access to illegal perspectives, except through stories told by poachers in custody from one case study, I resort to the data and arguments launched by the legal groups.

In my attempt to find some kind of neutrality, I will critique the militarisation of the parks and especially decrypt the position of moral high-ground taken by them. This is not done to rebut their claims nor their efforts on the ground. Rather what interests me most is the logic of power behind their claims and where it stems from. I will end with a reflective glance on the next steps to be taken in this “War on Poaching” and the debate over farming rhino as a plausible solution.

Outlining the Crisis

Rhino poaching started becoming a considerable concern in 2000 when seven poaching incidences were recorded in South Africa. A decade and a half later more than six-thousand rhinos have been killed on the continent by poachers seeking rhino horn which is bought and sold on the black market, particularly in Southeast Asia and China. It is commonplace knowledge that the commodity of rhino horn is used in traditional medicine or else considered an aphrodisiac and aesthetic symbol in some of these countries. But according to scientific studies at Ohio University rhino horn is merely composed of keratin with dense mineral deposits of calcium and melanin which makes it similar in structure to horse’s hooves, turtle beaks and cockatoo bills (PBS, 2010). Researchers elsewhere at The Chinese University of Hong Kong found that although large doses of rhino horn extract could slightly lower fever in rats that amount is far more than that prescribed by traditional Chinese medicine specialists.

A certain ecologist5 of the Zoological Society of London sneered that “you’d do just as well chewing on your fingernails”. All this goes to show that beyond the economic rationalizations and scientific debunking the demand for rhino horn is derived largely on cultural grounds; in the subjective tastes and fancies of a select market. So, though in concrete terms these poachers may actually be acting in their own interest of receiving money in return for their efforts, this narrow interest I argue is subsidiary to these latent cultural tastes in far off markets that lead to the proliferation of a vast organised criminal network for rhino horn trafficking which hires or coerces these people into poaching. Thus the eradication of individual poachers simply places a band-aid over the cancer. It is this insatiable demand and the criminal syndicates which supplies it that is the root cause of the rhino poaching.

Today there are estimated to be about 25,000 rhinos left in Africa, a fraction of the tens of thousands that existed just half-a-century ago. The Kruger National Park in South Africa — which is lamented as the “eye of the storm” — contains the world’s largest rhino population, constituting 79% of the continent’s rhino. In the last decade at least 5,460 rhino were killed in South Africa accounting for 84% of Africa’s total rhino poaching cases (TP, 2016: 6). Broken down between the two species there are left an estimated 18,413 white rhino and 1,893 black rhino in South Africa, respectively 48% and 20% of which are located in the Kruger alone. The chart below (Figure: 1) shows the reported incidents of rhino poaching in South Africa between 2000 and 2015.

This indicates a low but relatively constant amount of cases at the initial stage before 2008 which ranges between 25 and 6 incidences a year, an average of 15.2 incidences a year. There is then an exponential rate of climb which only bends off in 2015. The extent of this upsurge ranges from the highest tally of 1,215 incidents over the year 2014 down to the start of the upsurge in 2008 with 83 reported incidents. That is an average of 553 poaches a year at a growth rate of 4.6% annually.

These numbers clearly indicate that rhino poaching in South African experienced a constant exponential rate of growth in the increase of poaching incidences over the last decade with 2015 showing the first signs of a slow decrease in numbers since the initial start of the upsurge back in 2008. This however it is argued is offset by the increase in poaching elsewhere on the continent, notably Namibia and Zimbabwe — the latter experiencing an increase in twenty kills from 2014 to a total of 51 in 2015 . We can speculate that syndicates may be plotting these raids strategically based on a host of factors; for example the use of different times of the year and selection of different areas to infiltrate based on the easier access to weapons, the military presence of a given area or simply the movements of rhino themselves. All this goes to show is that there is some kind of social logic behind these incidences, an intelligence and savvy which plots poaching as the work of a wider network of organised syndicates.

Mobilization, Militarisation and Moralities

The efforts to confront rhino poaching in South Africa were slow to start. The reason for this inefficiency to act was largely due to a deficiency and confusion caused at the level of mandate between conservation groups, governmental departments and policing bodies. Having to re-build after the devastating aftermath of a disbanded Endangered Species Protection Unit in 2002 by a notorious former police commissioner6 who later turned convict in a corruption scandal, alongside a national police service (SAPS) with no specialised capacity to investigate wildlife crime, The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) in collaboration with South African National Parks (SANParks) was the first ‘fighting’ force against poaching.

It was not until October 2010 that the first fully co-ordinated strategy was established to stop poaching in South Africa — the National Strategy for the Safety and Security of Rhinoceros Populations in South Africa. The main stakeholders behind this new offensive were the EMI’s7 nicknamed the Green Scorpions — game rangers and officials employed by SANParks — along with SAPS and other bodies like the National Prosecuting Authority who were supported by a judiciary with courts specialised in environmental crime .

Rhino poaching was only later classified as a ‘priority crime’ in 2011 which saw the emergency appointment of a National Wildlife Crime Reaction Unit co-ordinated by SANParks themselves to tackle the spate of incursions. This received hostile response from police management which they saw as an overstepping of the DEA and SANPark’s mandate. This priority unit ceased operations in 2012 but was replaced by NATJOINTS8, the centralised operational arm of the government’s justice, crime prevention and security cluster which set up the national project dubbed “Operation Rhino”. From here on we see a much stronger offensive co-ordination against poachers; the character of this assertion being that of an increased militarisation of wildlife parks. A veteran of the defence force (SADF), Johan Jooste, was appointed as head of ‘Special Projects’ by SANParks in 2012; and he adapted military doctrine to its anti-poaching strategy. Here see the rhetoric of ‘war’, ‘insurgency’ and ‘battle’ used to describe the situation of the parks.

Numbers show that between 2010 and 2015, one hundred to two hundred suspected poachers were believed to be shot and killed during anti-poaching encounters; seven defensive force soldiers lost their lives, two field rangers and also a policeman. There have been civilian causalities as well, and these incidences have led to deep-seated anger felt towards militarisation by villagers surrounding the parks. In one case the father of a man shot by rangers during an anti-poaching contact questions why his son’s life was valued less than an animal’s. Reports of ill-disciplined soldiers on the border, illegal supplying of firearms, corruption and pseudo-hunting implicates civilians as well as public servants. These corrosive factors of management alongside the difficulties that come with needing to cover the vast expanse of the protected territories from poachers who are more readily making use of rifles with silencers — makes the actual enforcement on the ground a troublesome feat to navigate. “It is a war of attrition” says Jooste, and poaching cannot be defeated “with force on force”. Resolution it seems will only occur at the breakdown of the criminal networks at its source, where victory “will only occur in the courts”.


What does this crisis look like from a political ecological perspective? In my analysis the crisis comes off as a battle of competing human interests over a finite natural resource namely the rhino population. The difference in this context is that one interest group wants to preserve the rhino and allow its numbers to grow ‘naturally’ free from irresponsible human interference, while the other with disregard to the rhino’s precariousness seeks to appropriate its horn through mutilation and killing. Critically speaking, both interests seek to consume the rhino, albeit the distinction is all together qualitative. One wants to benefit from the rhino’s fruition, the other through its demise. And it is the motivations behind these forces which have a direct impact on the course the natural environment. But this ‘natural’ environment is not separate from the society which dwells on its territories; and otherwise it is ‘nature’ turned perpetual warzone which floods in ammunition, vehicles and militarised technologies; a vast change to the landscape than the serene scatterings of wildlife with the odd 4x4 packed with tourists motoring by.

More so what is happening in the parks is not far from what we know, see and hear in today’s internet-connected, media-saturated world. These technologies proliferate the moral rhetoric passed through these interests, making the rhino crisis a battle for moral support. The rhetoric which substantiates the anti-poaching militarisation of parks stems from the logic of the ‘fortress conservation’ approach which reserves the place for nature in the pristine wilderness and separates this from society. It holds the moral high-ground in dominating fashion and singles out foreign invading bandits and deluded consumers supplied by evil kingpins of the black market abroad as the existential threat to our pristine wildlife. This is what the power behind the anti-poaching interests proliferates, but will it be effective in bringing the crisis under control?

Such a question of control puts onto the table the plausibility of actually farming rhino and regulating the trade of rhino horn to curb the predatory tactics of poachers. But how exactly this will correlate in a lowering in the demand for rhino horn in the first place is an unclear. Building more banks does not lower the chances of bank robberies. It in fact widens the scope for theft, making the target more selective and accessible. However the reverse is also problematic: one big bank, like the Kruger is at the moment. My conclusion is that we need to be aware of the complexities at hand, and in order to think critically about these problems we need to look at the intersection of nature and society. This breeds meaningful insights and lays the foundation for purposeful action. Merely studying the ‘economics’ of rhino poaching is helpful to understand the phenomenon to a certain degree, but to combat this problem requires a range of strategies that are all together political (for example: negotiation across interest groups), cultural (intervention between different culturally embedded attitudes and behaviour) and social (manipulating the relationships that persist, remain latent and have real perceptible effects on the physical environment, between ourselves and our partial, subjective states towards these conditions).