For their incredible size, rhino have very poor eyesight. Relying mainly on their well-developed senses of smell and hearing to warn them of approaching danger, a rhino stands virtually no chance against experienced poachers who are able to stalk to within meters before opening fire.
Poachers are indiscriminate when it comes to taking horns, as has been proven by the number of pregnant cows or cows with calves that have been killed. Calves are either killed as well; the small sliver of horn hacked from their faces, or left to fate alongside their dead mothers. The loss of breeding cows and calves is one that no rhino species can afford.
This is where poachers, almost always on foot, armed with rifles and usually from poor communities enter known rhino reserves or game farms to shoot rhino. Shots include random fire to the head and chest area, and anchoring shots in the knee or foot region are often fired to slow the animal down / keep it from being able to run away. Random fire is indiscriminate and animals with gunshot wounds are often encountered and in need of treatment, or additional rhino mortalities are discovered a few days later, horns intact. These poachers take high risk for comparatively little reward (considering the end price) and will usually pass the horns to a pick up after the job is done. Horns are usually removed very roughly with an axe or panga. In some areas rhino have also been killed in steel cable snares.
EX-MILITARY / EXPERIENCED CRIMINALS
The same as for subsistence poaching, except that here the poachers form a more organised group, have acquired intel on the farms they intend to hit and appear to have military training. Ex-military trained poachers are behind the majority of poaching incidents at the moment. It has been noted that armed robbers are now also becoming involved in rhino poaching.
There have been incidents where rhino have fallen from a single shot – or well-placed kill shots – indicating that the poacher is a highly skilled or professional hunter. These poachers operate in a more structured manner, have logistical support in the form of a vehicle and horns are sometimes removed with surgical precision.
The kingpins behind these syndicates have masterminded a platform that will take wildlife poaching to new levels across the whole of Africa, posing a virtually un-policable risk to mainly rhino and elephant populations in wildlife areas across the continent.
The use of a helicopter (and fixed wing aircraft for scouting,) a dart gun and knock-down/immobilizing drugs has transformed the traditional method of “poaching on foot” to that of a high-tech aerial attack that is only noticed once the perpetrators have left the scene or are long gone without a trace. In some instances, an aircraft has been used to guide the poachers in to where the animals are, while keeping an eye out for signs of having been detected.
The most disturbing factor is that the methods being used by the syndicates mirror those used by wildlife capture operators for routine rhino management. The fact that a helicopter pilot – and there are a few implicated – could aid and abet such an appalling practice is beyond comprehension to pilots across the country. Further to this, the fact that highly scheduled veterinary drugs are used advocates the involvement of a vet(s) or black market drugs.
A helicopter allows for easy access and a quick getaway and latest reports have indicated that the registration numbers on the tail and/or belly of the aircraft are being covered up or falsified.
Where animals are immobilized they are either successfully darted or overdosed, depending on the syndicate. Overdosed animals are darted with a lethal cocktail which may kill quickly, but carcass evidence shows great stress before death. In incidents where animals are darted but not overdosed, the survival of the rhino depends entirely on the “compassion” of the thief. In some cases horns have been removed above the rootline, as would be done during a routine de-horning where the animal suffers no wounds and is successfully woken up again. Although still inexcusable, the rhino mercifully survives with its life.
In a few darting cases where the horns were brutally removed, drug dosages had been too low/inaccurate to kill, resulting in the rhino waking up. So far these animals have died or had to be put down due to the extent of their wounds.
Contrary to reports, chopper poaching has not been responsible for anywhere near as many rhino deaths as the other types of poaching encountered, although aircraft are used by poachers to recce farms and scout for animals.
DARTING FROM THE GROUND
A highly organised form of poaching involving professional people. Their involvement is considered low risk on the ground as they will have scouted the entire area beforehand and know exactly how many rhino are on a farm. Although highly organised, this type of poaching is not often encountered. There does however seem to be a turning trend in poachers being supplied a dart gun to conduct their poaching activities.
THEFT OF STOCKPILES
Armed robbers have on numerous occasions successfully made off with stockpiled horns. This security threat needs to be carefully mitigated by game farmers legally de-horning their animals.
This is where a rhino is immobilized and the horns are removed, but WITHOUT a permit. LEGAL dehorning has been recognised by some reserves and farmers as a potential deterrent to poachers. Once immobilized by a wildlife vet, the horns are removed humanely above the rootline, which enables the horn to grow back naturally at a rate of approximately 1kg per year. This procedure and its requirements are regulated by the Biodiversity Act and a permit must be obtained to conduct the procedure. Unfortunately the system has been abused by a few bad elements within the wildlife industry, with rhino being dehorned illegally for the purpose of selling horn into the illegal market. It is ILLEGAL to trade in rhino horn in South Africa as well as internationally.
Trophy hunting of rhino is legal in South Africa on the condition that a permit for the hunt has been issued the Department of Environmental Affairs. Single horns may not be exported, but a hunting trophy may. Only one rhino per hunter is allowed per year. Illegal hunting is when rhino are hunted without a permit.
To every person out there who has had the unforgettable experience of encountering a rhino. To each of you out there who has always longed to do so.
To anyone who calls themselves a lover of nature, a supporter of conservation, a human being, let’s stand together as a nation proud and DO SOMETHING.