The war on rhino poaching

Environmental activists are fighting an uphill battle in the bloody war against rhino poaching. If nothing changes, the rhino could become extinct in this lifetime…

At the start of the 20th Century, there were 500,000 rhinos roaming in the wild throughout many parts of Eurasia, Africa and Asia. This number quickly fell to 70,000 by 1970, and today we are left with only 29,000 wild rhinos in the entire world.

This crisis has reached a point where, realistically, rhinos could go extinct in our lifetime. According to the International Rhino Foundation, in South Africa alone at least three rhinos are poached every day to “feed the demand for horn on the black market”. This colossal death rate shows no signs of slowing, and the race to find a solution is becoming ever more desperate.

The World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) said that, as the South African government turns a blind eye to poachers, it is up to community activists like Marc McDonald to fight for these precious animals. Marc founded the International Coalition of Rhino Protection in 2014 and travels to different cities all over the world, giving presentations to educate people of the war at hand.

“We also investigate wildlife crime, support rangers in the field with equipment and food, and assist in the training of rangers in the field,” Mr McDonald told The Newsroom.

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Marc McDonald with the Anti Poaching Union in Mozambique.

The coalition is based in Australia, but has an office in Johannesburg, where the fight to protect to rhinos is most vicious. “People need to understand that this war is real,” Mr McDonald said. “There are rangers dying in the field, and there are animals dying in the field.” He adds that just a couple of weeks ago, two rangers were shot by poachers while trying to do their job.

In 2014, more than 1,200 rhinos were killed in South Africa alone, according to the International Rhino Foundation. Disturbingly, this works out to be an increase of 9,000 per cent since 2007. Marc McDonald believes that the law and justice system in South Africa is heavily at fault for the soaring numbers.

“They need to step up and stop handing out such light punishments,” he told The Newsroom. “There should be no bail. Whether it’s $20,000 or $100,000, it doesn’t matter, it’s dirty money.”

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Information from the International Rhino Foundation.

While assisting in anti-poaching operations and reserve management in Mozambique, Mr McDonald was appointed park warden. “That’s when I got involved in the law enforcement side,” he said. These are “very well-organised crimes” and pulled off by “mafia-style gangs of poachers”, which places him in a very dangerous position. In spite of this, his passion for these animals motivates him and his team to place themselves on the firing line everyday to protect them.

These poachers are shooting animals with inadequate firearms, attacking mothers and babies with machetes, and leaving them in pain. “Seeing cruelty like this rips your heart out,” Mr McDonald said. Apparently, it’s all because “these people believe that the rhino’s horns have medicinal purposes which is absolutely ridiculous”.

According to the RhiNOremedy organisation, the use of rhino horn in traditional Chinese medicine has been around for centuries, and is inspired by the mythical unicorn. The unicorn was believed to possess curative powers which could heal anything from fever to devil possession. The unicorn, however, never existed – so many people throughout Asia turned to the single-horned rhino to provide them with the answer to cancer, impotence, and even hangovers.

Although scientists have concluded that the horn has no medicinal properties whatsoever, the rhino horn is still traded illegally and, in many cases, sold as an ineffective and expensive remedy to terminally ill people, desperately looking for a miracle. This is very frustrating to activists. “It is compressed hair… about as useful as biting your nails,” Mr McDonald told The Newsroom.

Despite all the rhinos in South Africa now being protected within reserves, Mr McDonald insists “no animal is safe” and that “we need well-equipped and well-trained people helping round the clock”. He said that in some cases, the poachers place moles into the anti-poaching teams, to gain the trust of the team and keep the criminals one step ahead. “I should know, it happened to me in Mozambique,” he said, describing an incident where he worked with a team of men he trusted with his life – but after several weeks noticed that whenever he planned an ambush, the poachers would enter the reserve elsewhere.

“After this happened a few times, I immediately knew we had a mole,” he told The Newsroom.

Eventually Mr McDonald’s men drew a confession out of the mole using talk of mutiny, a common way of fooling those involved with criminal activity into confessing dark secrets. After some weeks, he had enough evidence to dismiss the mole. “He threatened me with death and I handed him over to the police. A few months later he was caught poaching and arrested.” Because this is not rare, Mr McDonald has developed techniques to stop it – during his time in Mozambique, he “never allowed mobile phones in the field, re-designed and adjusted the frequencies of the radio communications, and searched every vehicle coming in or out of the Reserve”.

In response to the alarming poaching rates in 2015, WWF senior vice-president of wildlife conservation Ginette Hemley stated via the foundation’s website that stopping the killing would require a “multi-faceted approach that addresses poaching, trafficking, and demand”. She concluded that “only when demand for rhino horn decreases will we see a decline in poaching”, and this has become the main objective for many activist groups.

The activists behind the Rhino Rescue Project have even taken to dying the rhinos’ horns pink to ward off poachers. This controversial method consists of mixing a pink dye with harmful chemicals used to kill parasites. While harmless to the animal, it can make humans quite sick if they come into contact with it.

The rapidly declining rhino population is also a concern to the South African government, as these animals are a huge tourist attraction. According to WWF, they are on the “Big 5″ animal list for African safaris along with the lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, and leopard. “They are a huge income generator,” said Marc McDonald, who strongly believes in the idea that conservation keeps the economy alive.

However, this is not the only reason that he encourages people to get behind his cause. “They are a natural heritage for us. It is the same reason why you would want to keep koalas alive in Australia,” he told The Newsroom. “If they go extinct we would have lost a huge icon in South Africa.”

“If we do nothing, what are children left with? What are we left with?” – Photos by and courtesy of Marc McDonald, story by Holly Cormack

Top photo of white rhino from Mariska’s DeviantArt page.