Scientists estimate that between 150 and 200 animal species go extinct every 24 hours. This recent development has been brought about directly by our interaction with the natural world. Whether it be by habitat destruction, pollution, or poaching, humanity is having an adverse effect on our planet’s wildlife.
All is not lost, however, there are a number of environmentally-conscious people in the world currently working to stave off future extinctions. These brave souls are combating human criminality first and foremost and surprisingly, they seem to be making a difference.
A Tragic End
In March of 2018, a 45-year-old Northern White Rhinoceros named Sudan died in his enclosure, surrounded by armed guards. The rhino had been suffering from a severe infection on his back right leg and his age only made it worse. His death was met with international sadness by conservationists the world over.
The reason for this worldwide dismay and the armed guards around him prior to his death was that Sudan was the last male of his species. Today, only two female northern white rhinos remain at the conservancy. They are the last of their kind and the blame for their current state of near-extinction can be laid at the feet of mankind.
Killing rhinos for their horns is a practice that goes back centuries. Many cultures around the world believe that the keratinous horns that help protect these magnificent beasts are possessed of magical properties. Collectors, quacks, and shamans across the world still have a strong desire to get their hands on these horns.
South Africa is home to the largest population of rhinos in the world. As such, it is also an important nation when it comes to rhino conservation. This, however, may seem at odds with the statistics that show the country had experienced an increased rise in rhino poaching between 2007 and 2014. It was a growth of over 9,000% in those years. So what changed?
Most of this illegal activity took place in Kruger National Park, 7,523 square miles of protected habitat that lies on South Africa’s northeastern border with Mozambique. In the past, Kruger, which is among the largest game reserves in Africa, had suffered heavy losses. But a few years ago, the government decided to do something about it.
The South African government, in cooperation with international donors, have channeled more and more funding and resources into securing Kruger since 2014. As a result of this collaboration, poaching numbers for rhinos in the park have declined slightly, from 1,054 to 1,028. Though to be fair, 1,028 rhinos were killed in South Africa still amounts to three rhinos a day. It’s not much to celebrate.
Recently, there have been indications that poaching gangs have begun banding together to raid places like Kruger. They have even begun moving beyond the South African border and gaining footholds in other countries, countries with fewer resources available to protect their endangered wildlife.
South Africa has since organized a specialized unit to combat this spread. The aptly named Rhino 9 Task Team is a multidisciplinary team operating in Mpumalang which has been gathered together to fight poaching at the source. This is no ragtag bunch of untrained soldiers, however, but an organization with a single purpose: to apprehend poachers.
Rhino 9 is comprised of various government departments including members from various disciplines. Members of the team include those in the South African Police Service, Customs and Excise Department, the South African National Defence Force, as well as game rangers from Ezemvelo and SANPark.
Numbers Don’t Lie
Together, members of the Rhino 9 Task Team have had a dramatic effect on the poaching population working in and around Kruger National Park. Over the last six months, Rhino 9 has stopped a total of 365 rhino poachers. Many of whom have been convicted.
National police spokesperson Brigadier Vish Naidoo has spoken out about the effectiveness of Rhino 9. “Of the 365 suspects who were arrested, 165 remain in custody while facing court processes, six were deported to their native countries, 11 received fines and 57 are serving their various jail terms.” He added that the last 15 were caught during a sting in Mpumalanga.
In addition to the scurrilous scoundrels that Rhino 9 brought to justice, agents also uncovered a number of illegal firearms in their midst. They seized guns, ammunition, axes, tog bags, cell phones, and other incriminating evidence that would help seal their fates in the weeks to come.
Besides the poachers that had been put away in the past six months, the 15 individuals nabbed in the latest raid were charged with a multitude of things including: possession of dangerous weapons, trespassing, hunting of a protected animal, kidnapping, assault, possession of the remains of a wild animal, possession of stolen property, and being in the country illegally or without proper documentation.
Between January and June of 2018, the Rhino 9 Task Team has secured various convictions against the aforementioned poachers. Many of them received the maximum nine years’ imprisonment and a few were given at least three months’ imprisonment with the option of paying a significant fine.
In addition to jail time, fines, and the fact that they will now forever be on Rhino 9’s list of suspected poachers, the culprits all had their ill-gotten gains confiscated. All their hard-earned trophies will be locked away instead of sold on the black market. It may not help the rhinos they once belonged to, but it’s a powerful blow against the industry.
Vish Naidoo added that “these arrests should serve as a warning and deterrent to other potential poachers.” The strategies that Rhino 9 has put in place since they began will significantly reduce the chances that smugglers keep operating near ports of entry at national parks. Unfortunately, neither the rhinos nor their valuable animal cousins are out of the woods just yet.
As with any enterprise, the demise of one villainous organization will undoubtedly result in a temporary power vacuum. It is likely that many new smugglers and poachers will move into the area, bringing with them new tactics for hungry markets. This, of course, means that Rhino 9’s job is far from over.
This potential for growth is a deeply worrying development for many environmentalists. Still, the evidence of the effectiveness of organizations and programs like Rhino 9 is likely to have a positive effect on what other reserve parks do in the future. The outpouring of community support and assistance has been very positive and represents a more positive change.
Training and Results
The recent arrests and convictions of so many poachers have also brought to light the importance of having well-trained and well-equipped rangers in place to deal with potential brigands. Securing these remaining habitats is a good way to ensure that rhino numbers see an increase, rather than a decrease in the coming years.
One can only hope that Rhino 9’s example will minimize the risk to the still-dwindling rhino population. There are so few subspecies left today and it is our duty to keep them alive so future generations can enjoy them as much as we have. The goal in all this violence and retribution against these unscrupulous souls is to consign the barbarism of rhino poaching to the history books; where it truly belongs.