By the turn of the century, the uncontrolled
killing of southern white rhinos for sport or for
their horns had reduced the population down to
only 20 animals located in the Umfolozi Game
Reserve in KwaZulu/Natal. These thrived under the
protection of the Natal Parks Board, and by 1961
there were enough to allow translocation (moving
rhinos from one area to another) of white rhinos
to new reserves. Known as "Operation
Rhino", more than 3 500 white rhinos have
since been moved to other areas within their
former range and elsewhere in the world. The
increase in population that followed
"Operation Rhino" resulted in the white
rhino being removed from the IUCN's Red Data Book
of threatened species. Today, surplus animals are
sought after by hunters as trophy animals.
Today, white rhino numbers are
still increasing, largely because more than 90%
of the animals are found in South Africa where a
relatively effective infrastructure (e.g.
policing, legislation, communications), and sound
conservation management are able to control
poaching and provide conditions suitable for
The recent history of the black rhino is rather
different. In 1970 there were approximately 65
000 black rhinos in Africa. Today there are less
than 2 500, with numbers decreasing. Although
formerly widespread throughout South Africa, by
1930 only 100 - 150 black rhinos remained in the
Hluhluwe-Umfolozi and Mkuzi Game Reserves. As
with the white rhinos, numbers increased under
protection, so that by 1962 the Natal Parks Board
was able to translocate animals to reserves
within its former range. By the end of 1992,
almost 200 black rhinos had been relocated to
eight other reserves and onto private land. While
black rhino numbers in South Africa have
increased steadily in recent years, the overall
African population has decreased by 83% since
Poaching for horn is largely responsible for this
massive decline. The southern African countries
of Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, where 90%
of Africa's remaining black rhinos and white
rhinos are conserved, are coming under increasing
pressure. These animals provide the only means of
satisfying the illegal trade in rhino horn, which
now appears to be driven by stockpiling for
investment purposes in addition to the
traditional demands of eastern medicine and
Yemeni dagger handles.
The first substantial poaching
in Zimbabwe was recorded in 1985, and since then
the numbers have declined from about 1 950 to 674
animals in 1992. Namibia experienced increased
poaching in the late 1980s, but this is now under
control. More recently, during 1991 and 1992
Swaziland lost 45 white rhinos to poaching.
Rhino horn is highly valued in certain parts of
the world for medicinal and cultural reasons. In
the Far East, especially China, people believe
the powdered horn can be used as medicine to
reduce fever. In Yemen, the curved dagger, or jambia, epitomises manhood. Rhino horn is the
most sought after type of handle for this dagger
and many people are prepared to pay the high
price (US$ 580 for new, and US$ 1200 for antique
rhino horn) it fetches. Alternative dagger
handles are water buffalo horn (US$ 8), and amber-coloured plastic (US$ 5).
* International pressure is being applied to a
number of consumer countries to control the
illegal importation and subsequent sale of rhino
* Yemen has agreed to stop
importing rhino horn, however, there is no
internal prohibition, i.e. ownership and trading
in rhino horn within the borders of Yemen is
* Chemical tests on rhino horn
have shown that it may have some fever-reducing
properties, but only at far higher dosages than
are found in current medicines. Alternative
medicines are being promoted in countries of the
Far East to reduce the demand for rhino horn, and
hopefully the value of the horn will fall and
remove the incentive to poach. Unfortunately the
current high prices paid for rhino horn encourage
an illegal trade.
* South African reserves
practise intensive conservation management
programmes which include anti-poaching patrol and
intelligence activities, rhino population
monitoring, translocation and maintaining genetic
* South Africa currently
provides the chairman for the IUCN's (World
Conservation Union) African Rhino Specialist
Group, and has followed this group's
recommendation that all countries with more than
100 rhinos draw up a national plan to direct
rhino conservation efforts.
* A special police unit, the
Endangered Species Protection Unit, investigates
illegal activities (such as poaching and trading)
relating to endangered species, including rhino.
* A TRAFFIC (Trade Records
Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce) office
was recently established in South Africa. The
object of the international TRAFFIC network is
the conservation of wildlife by monitoring and
reporting on trade in wild animals and plants.
DID YOU KNOW?
* Rhino horn is made of a mass of fibres attached
to the skin of the rhino's snout. The fibres
consist of a protein called keratin, which also
forms the basis of human hair and fingernails,
and the hooves of horses.
* In South Africa the penalty
for anyone caught poaching rhino is R100 000 or
10 years in prison, or both. All cases of
poaching in KwaZulu/Natal in the last two years
have resulted in the offenders being brought to
* In 1992 the Natal Parks Board
sold 5 black rhino for R2,4 million!
* South Africa has about 819
black rhinos and 5297 white rhinos. This
represents 74% of Africa's total rhino
* CITES (Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild
Flora and Fauna) lists black rhinos and white
rhino on Appendix I. This means that trade in
rhino products is illegal.
TOPICS FOR DEBATE
* Why bother conserving rhinos? What value do
these animals have?
* Some people argue that trade
in rhino horn should be legal. They maintain that
this would encourage people to protect, or even
breed rhino and sell the horn, thus removing the
pressure of wild populations, and increasing
rhino numbers. With increased supply of rhino
horn, the price would probably drop, and the
incentive for poaching would be removed. In
addition, legal trade would be easier to control
than illegal trade. Funds derived from sales
could be ploughed back into rhino conservation
programmes. What is your view?
WHAT YOU CAN DO
* Report any signs of illegal trade in rhino horn
to your local conservation agency, the National
Parks Board or the Endangered Species Unit,
* Support a conservation
organisation concerned with rhinos.
E. Martin. WWF, Hong Kong, 1983.
RHINOS - ENDANGERED
Penny. Christopher Helm Publishers, United
E. Martin. Chatto and Windus, London, 1982.
Rhino. D. Balfour. Struik, Cape Town, 1991.
All books are available from
Russel Friedman Books, PO Box 73, Halfway House
1685. Tel. 011-7022300/1.
Rhino and Elephant Foundation. PO Box 381, Bedfordveiw, 2008. Tel. 011-882 0606.
Trust. P/Bag X11, Parkview, 2122. Tel.
Natal Parks Board.
PO Box 662, Pietermaritzburg, 3200. Tel.
National Parks Board.
PO Box 787, Pretoria, 0001.
X11, Parkview, 2122. Tel. 011-486 1102.
Protection Unit. P/Bag X302, Pretoria,
0001. Tel. 012-370 3735.