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…with reports for 2008 ranging from 71 to100 illegal killings.  Having just concluded a series of meetings with senior political, scientific and conservation experts during the last two weeks, I can sadly but confidently confirm that the number of rhinos poached for their horn is at least in the mid- 90s.

WILD has a personal and organizational history with this special, prehistoric-looking animal which exists in Africa as (generally) either the White or Black Rhino.   Ian Player, WILDs founder and patron, is 80 years old now but still plugged into the national conservation scene from his many years as a game ranger, a past member of the (former) Natal Parks Board, the (currently named) KwaZulu Natal Ezemvelo Wildlife,  and South Africa’s National Parks Board (SANParks).  Ian has a very singular and accomplished relationship with rhino.  He initiated and lead Operation Rhino in the early 1960’s, during which he and the team developed the modern science and practice of darting large mammals (in this case, white rhinos) with tranquilizing drugs, and relocating them across the country and around the world to create dispersed, safe breeding groups. Operation Rhino is still regarded as the pioneering effort in this regard.  It successfully saved the white rhino (southern species) from extinction, taking it from one group of 600 in 1960 to 11,000 today in numerous populations in many countries  (both in the wild and in wildlife parks). In fact, in South Africa alone with its relatively well-managed, public and private wildlife areas, today there are 8000 white rhino.  (Ian tells the dramatic story himself in his early book, The White Rhino Saga, which is out of print but which is still obtainable from us)

Andrew Muir, a WILD  Director, and Executive Director of our sister organization, the Wilderness Foundation Africa, is also Chairman of the Eastern Cape Parks Board, the provincial authority with management and financial responsibility for all provincial parks and coordinating oversight of wildlife on private game ranches. (Andrew, and our collective work for AIDs orphans in South Africa, was one of five international recipients of the prestigious Rolex Award for 2008)

From Ian, Andrew, and many others I pieced together an alarming picture. Especially hard hit are the iMfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu Natal (in 1897 the first game reserve declared in Africa; in the early 1960s the location of Operation Rhino; and in 1958 the first game reserve in Africa that declared a wilderness area within its boundaries). The world famous Kruger National Park has lost over 40.  The losses have occurred in many of South Africa’s nine provinces, including in Limpopo with the killing of a 2 year old rhino calf to steal its tiny, button-sized horn, and in the Eastern Cape where two rhino were killed (in separate incidents) at carefully-patrolled private game reserves (on both occasions the poachers fled before removing the horn.).  One of the most recent and alarming single incidents was in late December during the Christmas holiday, on a large private game ranch in the Northwest Province, where a poaching gang was placed remotely by a helicopter, which then quietly darted 11 rhino with tranquilizing drugs and killed them before removing the horns and fleeing. The ultimate tragedy of this is that they did not have to be killed.

This type of activity is clearly the work of well-financed and professional gangs. Intelligence points to the main market for the horns being SE Asia and China, where the consumer demand is rising for the purported but mythical medicinal properties for various ailments, and to increase sexual prowess.  For example, a very senior counselor at the Embassy of Vietnam in South Africa was just declared persona non grata and deported after being caught with rhino horns in the diplomatic pouch.

At the provincial level, meetings are planned in January to review this serious issue. WILD urgently calls for a national strategy that includes input and coordination between all provinces, SANParks, the Ministry of Environment, and local/national law enforcement.   If this poaching continues to escalate it will destroy a critically important success story in conservation history, and eliminate a special species and beautiful beast whose prehistoric links, cultural importance, and ecological role in Africa cannot be replaced.

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