Life on a Knife Edge; The Battle for Legal Trade in Rhino Horn

In the first of two posts about our recent field course in South Africa, second-year Animal Biology student Louise Chiverton writes about the complex issues around rhino poaching…

UGlosBioscience students with (in the background) rhinos Courtney and Sweet Chilli (photo: Emma Atkin)

“How emotional can it be? We all know what happens; poachers take the horn, rhinos die – circle of life and all that.” These were the naïve words which escaped my mouth just an hour before my eyes were opened to the blinding truth of South Africa’s poaching crisis. In a sense, I was right; we do all know that rhinos are being killed for their horn but never did I imagine the intensity of commitment that private rhino owners have shown in order to save this precious species. During our recent Bioscience field course trip to Mankwe Wildlife reserve, Operations Manager Lynne MacTavish spoke to our group about her experiences with poaching, the trauma of losing a rhino and the battle she now faces to ensure their protection.

Two of Mankwe’s Rhino; surviving peacefully after being dehorned (photo: Lynne MacTavish)

The things we take for granted every day; sitting on the sofa to read a book, meals out with the family, going to see a movie – things we all do to relax are a luxury the Mankwe staff cannot afford. Christmas dinner, New Year’s Eve and even birthday celebrations are put on hold because those are the times poachers hit knowing that you’ll be distracted or busy. “You just learn to get on with life,” says Lynne, “but every single one of the Mankwe staff has some stress related illness; whether that’s stomach ulcers, migraines and we’re all sleep deprived.” But how can you blame them, knowing that their rhinos and their own lives are always at risk.

“If they have a horn on their face; it doesn’t matter if they’re in a zoo in France, on a museum wall, in a national park or a private reserve – they are dead.” Lynne has witnessed first-hand just how traumatic the poaching of a rhino can be. South Africa is currently home to 95% of the world’s White Rhino population and since the introduction of a poaching ban in 2008 both National parks and private reserves have faced a relentless battle to protect their beloved gentle giants. In 2014, Mankwe Wildlife reserve lost two beautiful breeding females; Cheeky Cow and Winnie. Weakened by bullets, both animals were mutilated for their horns, unable to fight off their poachers after having their spinal cords slashed before being left for a slow death. The staff of Mankwe put their lives on the line to protect these special animals, working every hour of every day to ensure their safety and ultimately – the survival of a species.

Only now; the kilometres of high voltage fencing, the scheduled daily patrols, the anti-poaching squads and attack dogs isn’t enough. Action has to be taken both on the ground in South Africa and on the worldwide political stage.

The discovery of two poached rhino at Mankwe shook the confidence of the entire team – they had survived 6 years since the introduction of the poaching ban, watching neighbours and friends suffer the horrendous attack from the poaching syndicates, yet their little reserve had remained untouched. But now they had been found and they were faced with the choice; dehorn them and carry on or give up like the 30 other private rhino owners that did last year? Many people sold their rhino a few years ago and invested in buffalo. No risk, high returns, happy days. Should Mankwe do the same?

“I couldn’t do it; it was like giving up on your children” Said Lynne “We didn’t know where they would end up – maybe a rhino farm in China?”

“I had fought dehorning these rhinos because I thought rhinos need a horn. What right do we have to remove their horn?” Lynne explained. Yet the minute Cheeky Cow and the cruelty of her poaching discovered, she knew that dehorning was their only hope. By removing the horn, rhinos stand an 85% better chance of survival. After the week – long camp out to prevent further poaching, Mankwe received its dehorning permit.

Dehorning is a huge process. First, the rhino must be found by helicopter before being shot with the anaesthetic dart by the vet. As the drugs take effect, the ground team move in to reduce the impact of that huge body weight hitting the earth and instantly begin monitoring the rhino’s vitals, regulating its heat by spraying them with water whilst the horn is removed by chainsaw. Rhinos recover surprisingly quickly once they are injected with antidote and live long healthy lived without their massive horns.

Mankwe has been lucky to lose just one rhino during the dehorning process. Patrol was 32 years old; the most beautiful rhino bull you’ve ever seen and he had a huge horn. “He was such a character” reminisced Lynne “After the poaching he marched up and down the fence line where the poachers had entered, guarding the rest of the herd from them”. The vet gave him every possible chance; he would be the first rhino to be dehorned, early in the morning to avoid the heat. But soon after the first horn had been removed Patrol slipped away quietly. After 45 minutes of CPR (which on a bull rhino consists of 3 adult men jumping up and down on his ribcage) the vet called it and Patrol was gone. Later it was discovered that Patrol had internal injuries from the earlier poaching which prevented his recovery, but at the time it was hard to believe that all of Mankwe’s rhino weren’t set to face the same fate.

“We’ve lost. No matter what we do, we’ve lost – That was just the general feeling. The first rhino we tried to dehorn had died.”

There was no time to mourn as there were more rhino to dehorn; thankfully all younger and recovered quickly after the removal of their horns. “It was just a really, really awful day. It was extremely traumatic; one moment they’re peacefully grazing next you’re darting them and the chainsaws going and the smell of burning keratin.” Lynne recalls how difficult it was to then find somewhere to store the removed horns, “The risk had been removed from the rhino and been passed straight on to us. People have been attacked, raped and killed for less horn than we had that night. You can’t burn it, you can’t throw it away; every single horn is DNA microchipped and you have to be able to account for it when Nature Conservation come to do their audits.” Shaking her head at the absurdity of the situation, she explained how rhino horn is quickly becoming the most valuable commodity in the world. More than diamonds, cocaine or gold; there is nothing more valuable so nobody wants to touch it because it’s a death sentence. “We eventually found a vault that would take it at a huge premium; they’re the only place in the country that will store rhino horn. The horn is sitting in a vault in a box costing us 10,000 Rand a month to store”.

“There is no rhino horn at Mankwe; on an animal, in a safe, anywhere”

So what is Mankwe’s situation now? The rhinos are bankrupting the whole reserve; to protect a rhino costs £25,000 per rhino, per year.  There must be a solution to make this outrageous cost feasible. Lynne’s answer? Legalise the trade of rhino horn.

Many people will disagree with this proposal, believing that a legal supply will only increase the demand as well as exploiting this beautiful animal for its key defining feature. But crocodiles were going extinct until crocodile farming became legal in South Africa. A certain percentage now has to be released back into their natural environment by the farmers, which has been done and there are more crocodiles than the country know what to do with! There are multiple examples of species where trade was illegal, they nearly went extinct, you bring in legal trade and they bounce straight back.

“Do you know what would happen if I could even sell two horns?” Lynne is passionately fighting for the legalisation of rhino horn trade and speaks regularly at CITES and rhino stakeholder conferences.  “Just two horns could buy us anti-poaching staff to be with every rhino 24 hrs a day. I could have drones, 24h hour camera surveillance. We can’t afford any of that now and nor can the national parks; they’re going bankrupt because of rhino too. Yet they have stockpiles of horn; natural mortality, poaching scenes where the horn’s been recovered –we would all benefit by selling it.”

Another successful dehorning, June 2017 (photo: Lynne MacTavish)

Alterations to the judicial rules in South Africa need to change too. As it stands, rangers can only shoot a poacher once they’ve been shot at themselves – but these people are trained soldiers and when pitted against a field guide it’s an easy fight. The risk needs to be higher than the reward – In other words it’s not worth killing the rhino, because it’s only got 2cm of horn on due to dehorning, the rhino has anti-poaching staff with it and if you get caught, you go away for life. Until we can establish that, the rhino are fighting a losing battle.

Most private rhino owners quickly came round to the suggestion of legalising the trade, seeing the economic benefits and safety for themselves and their rhino. Even National parks in South Africa are backing this movement due to the high cost of keeping rhino and trade being the only logical way to make a profit from them. At a stakeholders meeting Lynne spoke a, she recalls that only 15% disagreed with trade legalisation; rhino charities.

“They make money off dead rhino because they need an iconic species to be in crisis,” says Lynne. Rhino charities legally only have to give 40% of their income to the cause. The high flyers in these organisations are earning $700,000 a year. You might think that every time you donate £20 to the rhino cause that it’s coming to us but Mankwe hasn’t ever received one cent of funding from those big NGOs.

“I feel that until you’ve walked the path that we’ve walked you don’t know what’s going on and you have no right to tell me what to do with me rhino and nor does the rest of the world.” Lynne’s plea for us to spread the word of just how hopeless their hard work will have been without a change in trade legislation really hit home and thankfully word seems to be spreading.

In April 2017, the South African government legalised the domestic trade of rhino horn. By setting up a central brokerage, rhino horn gains a market value per gram the same as any other commodity. Permits will be granted to trade via a private auditing company and as it becomes more accessible, rhino horn will lose its power. In China and Vietnam, business deals are sealed with rhino horn. When the status symbol is lost, the value and allure is gone. And if it doesn’t work? Worst case scenario and the demand increase; at least rhino owners will have the money to help protect their rhino.

“We’ve let this whole industry fall into the hands of poaching syndicates, terrorists and criminals for too long” Lynne is determined that the change in South African legislation will act as a catalyst for the rest of the world.  “Legalise it and let the trade me run by economists, conservationists and scientists…let the horn be removed humanely and let the rhino survive in peace”.

If you would like to make a difference in rhino conservation and help the people on the ground at Mankwe Reserve, you can donate via this Just Giving page set up by Anna Jones, who will be running the Cheltenham half marathon to raise awareness and money for rhino conservation.

Louise Chiverton, BSc Animal Biology second-year student


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