Rhino Summit – can new measures to combat rhino poaching save the rhino

Rhino Summit – can words be put into actions that will save the rhino from extinction at the hands of poachers?

Representatives of the conservation community from across Africa have announced a comprehensive response to combat the continent’s alarming rhino poaching crisis.

These recommendations, which incorporated both short- and long-term suggestions, were developed at summit hosted by the African Wildlife Foundation and Kenya Wildlife Service.

The Rhino Summit, which was held at the AWF’s Conservation Centre in Nairobi, brought together stakeholders from 25 organisations from across the continent to develop a far-reaching course of action to end the killing of rhinos for their horns. “Wildlife authorities, private land rhino reserve owners, conservation organizations, and others have made valiant efforts to halt the rhino poaching crisis, but these disparate actions have sadly been no match for this epidemic that is plaguing Africa,” said AWF president Helen Gichohi when she appealed stakeholders to develop a comprehensive strategy to ensure the survival of rhinos in the continent.

Rhino poaching in Africa has in the past few years rapidly reached crisis levels, with a record-breaking 448 rhinos poached in South Africa alone in 2011, a 33 per cent increase in a single year. According to KWS director Julius Kipng’etich, Kenya lost 24 rhinos last year. Demand is said to come from several Asian countries, where rhino horn is purported to cure cancer and other diseases. While scientists have proven that rhino horn has little to no medicinal value-and moreover is made of keratin, the same protein found in human hair and fingernails-these outsized myths, combined with surging Asian economies, have put rhino horns in high demand. Horns regularly sell for $50,000(Sh4.1 million) per kilogramme, more than the price of gold.

Meanwhile, several sophisticated criminal syndicates are said to have risen in response to this demand, giving poachers on the ground access to tremendous resources, from night-vision goggles and veterinary medicines to helicopters. The African black rhino is currently listed as “critically endangered” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List; the White rhino is listed as “near threatened.”

While some brought up the method of dehorning rhinos as a measure to safeguard the animals, the KWS director Julius Kipng’etich pointed out it has not proven to be as successful as hoped, “Based on experiences from the states covered, when you dehorn and poachers see the dehorned rhino, in frustration they still kill it.” He said Kenya’s position has always been ‘No Trade’ in the commodity, and said that Kenya ‘does not have that much ivory and rhino horn in the stockpiles. What we have is well hidden.’

Participants at the summit agreed that, to effectively address the crisis, the African conservation community needed to target efforts along four tiers, with specific actionable items that can be addressed within the next six to nine months. These include assisting surveillance and anti poaching units, strengthening law enforcement, using campaigns to curb the demand in rhino horn and reaching out to policy makers. Kipng’etich said the success Kenya has had in sealing air-travel exit points by incorporating the use of sniffer dogs, which will also be integrated at the Eldoret and upcoming Kisumu airports. He said the weak penalties in Kenya’s laws were being part of the problem in fighting the crisis.

Wildlife officials say rhino poaching in Africa has reached crisis levels with nearly 1,000 animals killed in the last five years.

Wildlife experts from across Africa said in a Tuesday statement they would lobby for harsher penalties and fines for people involved in illegal rhino horn trade. In a meeting in Nairobi, wildlife experts and private conservation groups also resolved to reach out to the governments of countries where there is demand for the rhino horn and work with them to create stringent laws against the trade.

China and Vietnam are some of the destination markets for the horn, where they believe the horn has medicinal qualities.

Last year 448 rhinos were killed in South Africa which has the highest rhino population in the world. Conservationists say this year poachers have killed 135 rhinos there.

As the numbers of rhinos left alive decreases then of course the value of the horn will increase exponentially. With the potential rewards so high, harsher penalties and fines for those involved in rhino horn trade will have little effect and as is so often the case, it will be the foot soldiers that receive these penalties not the people that are organising the illegal trade. The focus of the conservation community should be on China and Vietnam where the main demand for rhino horn exists. There should be hard lobbying of these governments to make a stand and educate their people that using rhino horn is not acceptable. Tour operators also have a role to play in this education process. If we can convince Chinese and Vietnamese people to join ethical wildlife holidays then they will fully comprehend the consequences of buying rhino horn or ivory and will finally appreciate the importance of keeping endangered animal alive.