Life and Death in South Africa

Wildlife Conservation and the Poaching Crisis

Instead of the sound of traffic at night, you hear the roar of a lion. Rather than looking outside in the morning and seeing your neighbors next door, you see a magnificent sunrise peeping out from the mountains that stretch across the horizon. With its seemingly endless grasslands that stretch thousands of miles and exquisite starry night sky, South Africa is a country like no other. Along with its beautiful landscape, what makes the country truly incredible is the wildlife. With the current poaching crisis in South Africa, however, future generations may not be able to experience the beauty of some of these magnificent creatures. Many animals, particularly rhinos and elephants, are killed each year due to poaching.

The African Wildlife Foundation states that many endangered animals are killed so that a single body part can be illegally sold for profit. In various Asian countries, such as China and Vietnam, the rhino horn is thought to treat various illnesses, such as hangovers, fever, and cancer. In Asia, rhino horn sells for nearly $30,000 a pound. Gold is only worth about $22,000 a pound. Despite the fact that many rhinos that are killed for their horns, rhino horn has not been medically proven to cure any illnesses. According to Damian Carrington in The Guardian, “With the prices high and, until recently, the penalties very low, international organised crime networks mobilised to supply the illegal trade – wildlife trafficking is a multi-billion dollar enterprise only surpassed by the smuggling of drugs, arms and people.” He also states that “there has been a crackdown on poaching in South Africa, home to about 70% of all rhinos, but killings have spiked in Namibia and Zimbabwe as poachers seek easier targets.” Although there are fewer rhino deaths in South Africa than in the past, the Eastern black rhino is still critically endangered, so conservationists still believe that more is needed to be done for the rhinos to reach a safe population.

Similarly, ivory, derived from elephant and walrus tusks, has been used for centuries for jewelry, utensils, religious figurines, and trinkets. About 70 percent of illegal ivory goes to China, where it is sold on the streets for up to $1,000 a pound. This poaching is perpetrated by organized crime associations that use highly advanced technologies and weapons to kill many animals at once without being detected. The poachers use weapons such as snares, trap nets, pitfall traps, guns, arrows, and spears to trap and kill these animals. With the help of various organizations that help with intensive conservation efforts and spreading awareness of the cause, as well as international laws, the poaching crisis is slowly improving.

There was exponential growth in the number of rhinos poached in South Africa between 2007 to 2015. Image credit: Save the Rhino.

According to Save the Rhino, a British nonprofit charity whose goal is to collaborate with other organizations to save all five endangered rhino species in Africa and Asia, rhino poaching is currently at its crisis point. South Africa has by far the largest rhino population in the world. Therefore, it is crucial that these animals are protected in the country to prevent extinction. Since 2008, poachers have killed at least 5,940 rhinos. Although the crisis started in South Africa, it has spread to neighboring countries, such as Namibia and Zimbabwe. In 2015, Namibia lost 80 rhinos due to poaching. In Zimbabwe, at least 50 rhinos were poached in 2014. Of the five different species of rhinos, some are more endangered than others. All five remaining rhino species are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Redlist of threatened species, with three out of five species classified as critically endangered. The Western black rhino was declared extinct by the IUCN in 2011, the primary cause being poaching. The five remaining species are the white rhino, the Eastern black rhino, the greater one-horned rhino, the Sumatran rhino, and the Javan rhino. Thanks to intensive conservation efforts, the white rhino has recovered from near extinction. The current population estimate is between 19,682 and 21,077 rhinos, all located in South Africa. On the other hand, the Eastern black rhino population is smaller than that of the Western black rhino and is now critically endangered. There are only between 5,042 and 5,455 of them left in the world. Lastly, the Javan rhino is the rarest of the rhino species and is extremely vulnerable due to its small population. The Javan rhino can only be found in Ujung Kulon National Park in Indonesia. Overall, the Eastern black rhino is the greatest concern in South Africa and is the closest to being extinct of all rhino species.

Baby elephant at Madikwe Game Reserve, South Africa. Photo credit: Libbie Alexander.

Elephants are also a major worry when it comes to poaching in Africa. According to Paul Steyn in National Geographic, the yearly loss in the elephant population on the whole continent, estimated in 2016, was at 8 percent. That is about 27,000 elephants killed each year. The Great Elephant Census that was released at the World Conservation Congress in Hawaii in 2016 showed that Africa now has 352,271 savannah elephants left in 93 percent of the species’ range. The Great Elephant Census is the most advanced and thorough estimate of the elephant population ever and is executed by spotters in low-flying planes who look out of both sides of their planes to count elephants below.

The elephant crisis varies from country to country. The greatest declines occurred in Tanzania and Mozambique, with a combined loss of 73,000 elephants due to poaching over the course of five years. On the other hand, Botswana and Zimbabwe have the highest number of elephants; 130,000 and 83,000, respectively. According to Mike Chase, the principal researcher for the census and the founder of Elephants Without Borders, an organization dedicated to conserving nature and wildlife around the world, “The elephant poaching crisis has moved from East and central Africa and is now on [the] doorstep in southern Africa. In 10 years’ time we could lose fifty percent of Africa’s remaining elephants.” With the help of intensive conservation efforts and various organizations such as Elephants Without Borders raising awareness for the conservation of elephants, the population has increased in some areas of Africa, but conservationists still believe there is a great deal that can be done to save the elephants.  

Mother and baby Eastern black rhino at Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa. Photo credit: Libbie Alexander.

There are many worrisome factors when it comes to the poaching crisis in South Africa involving the environment and the economy of the country. As outlined by NBC news’ Elisha Fieldstadt, endangered animals often play a key role in our ecosystems. According to Smithsonian Magazine, both elephants and rhinos are keystone species, meaning that they have a relatively large impact on the environments in which they live. Elephants have the tendency to push over trees and shrubs, keeping the African grasslands from becoming overgrown. In a similar way, rhinos cultivate the diverse African grasslands by having specific grazing patterns in which they browse on certain types of grass, leaving room for other grazing species to move in as well. Fieldstadt says that if rhinos do disappear, the African savannah will become a less diverse land with less grass. Another concern is the devastation that the disappearance of these animals will wreak on the South African economy. Kelly Aylward, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Washington office director, states, “Widespread corruption keeps away foreign investment and makes finding a legitimate livelihood difficult for many poachers.” Also, South Africa depends on their wildlife to attract tourists. When President Barack Obama visited Tanzania in 2013, he stated that “wildlife is inseparable from Africa’s identity and prosperity.” Wildlife is a symbol of South Africa, and without it, it would not attract nearly as many tourists as it does now.

Despite all of these concerns, there are many laws and organizations that have been created within the past decade in Africa to prevent poaching. According to the African Wildlife Foundation’s wildlife trafficking booklet, the United States government released its National Strategy for Combating Illegal Wildlife Trafficking on February 11, 2014. This strategy introduces a whole-government approach to battling the crisis and bans the trade of ivory and rhino horn in the United States. The document, signed by former President Barack Obama, states, “The entire world has a stake in protecting the world’s iconic animals, and the United States is strongly committed to meeting its obligation to help preserve the Earth’s natural beauty for future generations.” More recently, on February 7, 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that states that the United States government will “strengthen the enforcement of Federal law in order to thwart criminal organizations,” which includes the illegal smuggling and trafficking of wildlife. Also, according to AWF’s wildlife trafficking booklet, AWF developed a continent-wide approach to fight illegal wildlife trafficking in Africa in April 2012. AWF teamed up with the Kenya Wildlife Service to create a Rhino Summit. People have even raising awareness in Asia, home to the largest importing countries of illegal ivory and rhino horns in the world. AWF has partnered with WildAid and Save the Elephants to create a multimedia awareness project that features appearances by popular Asian celebrities. By creating radio public service announcements, TV and Internet news, and billboards in large areas of China and Vietnam, these celebrities are using their power and influence to spread awareness and educate the general public on the crisis, ideally weakening the market for the illegal products.

The difference between rhino poaching and rhino poaching arrests in South Africa is enormous. Image credit: Bloomberg.

Despite this massive international spreading of awareness, there is a much greater amount of poaching in South Africa compared to poaching arrests. According to Paul Burkhardt and Alastair Reed in Bloomberg, 1,054 rhinos were killed for their horns in 2016, but authorities only made 680 poaching arrests that year. However, the government is on the right track; the number of rhinos killed in South Africa last year decreased by ten percent from the previous year, and arrests for the illegal hunting of rhinos has more than doubled. Despite this, a tremendous amount of these animals are still being killed. In terms of poaching arrests, there were 680 poaching arrests in 2016, as opposed to the 317 poaching arrests in 2015. Overall, the South African government is taking a step in the right direction, but there is still much to do to prevent illegal poaching in the country.

In 2015, I was able to visit Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa with my family. While we were there, we were able to not only witness the beautiful landscape and scenery of the country, but the incredible wildlife as well. We were able to witness the Big Five, a term hunters use to describe the hardest animals to catch and hunt. The Big Five are the lion, elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros, and leopard. It was an incredible experience that everyone should have in their lifetime. Hearing the roar of a lion or watching two wild baby elephants play are unforgettable memories. However, experts say that future generations may not be able to experience the beauty of some of these magnificent creatures unless the poaching crisis is stopped.

Adult and baby elephant in Zimbabwe. Photo credit: Libbie Alexander.

Various experts on the crisis state that there are many ways people in countries such as the United States to help out to eradicate poaching. “The requirement for inspiring urgent action towards the safekeeping of the planet cannot be overstated,” states the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, “This responsibility should transcend all levels of industry, business and society as we strive for a generation of people that give, not take.” One major step in spreading awareness is getting people to talk about the crisis by just having educated discussions. Anyone can become more directly involved by becoming active in organizations such as the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, the African Wildlife Foundation, Save the Rhino, and Elephants Without Borders, and more. There are dozens of organizations that are free to join by donating or subscribing to their newsletter. Overall, the most important thing to do is to be informed on the topic of wildlife conservation in South Africa to help lead future generations in the fight to preserve these incredible species.

RELATED: Read Caroline Baber’s Honors feature article about the end of the Ringling Bros. circus and the use of trained animals for entertainment. 

Featured image courtesy of Libbie Alexander.

About the author

Libbie Alexander is a junior at Collegiate.