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Developing Story:

Saving Rhinoceros

Over the past decades, we have already lost up to half of all animals who shared the planet with us. Unlike previous mass extinctions, this loss is man-made. As a result of increasing human expansion and its collateral effects, wild animals have become refugees on our planet.

In this developing story, we’re looking into the case of the iconic species of the rhinoceros, which – living for 50 million years on earth – is now at the forefront of extinction for various reasons, but poaching in particular.

Without determined anti-poaching measures, a significant decrease in demand for rhino horn and efforts to transform the socio-economic environment in regards to wildlife and communities, rhinos will very likely be extinct within the next decade.

Throughout the next year, FAIRPLANET will tell this developing story from all angles. We will follow the work of the non-profit organisation RHINO FORCE on the ground in South Africa and Zimbabwe as it faces the complex task of saving the rhino and of developing opportunities for local communities to get involved in conservation.


The Anthropocene: Age of Genocide

“Unlike past mass extinctions, caused by events like asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions and natural climate shifts, the current crisis is almost entirely caused by us — humans.”

Center for Biological Diversity

We're used to this: fossils of prehistoric animals. What if this is happening just now, and we're not realising it?

The good news is: we have experienced it before – and survived. Not us as humanity, but us as planet earth. Indeed our planet has been through mass extinctions of flora and fauna before.

The bad news, however, is: for the upcoming mass extinction we, humans, are entirely at fault.

In fact, human activity is the driving factor behind 99% of species currently at risk of extinction: habitat loss, the introduction of exotic species, global warming and toxic waste are all at play here.

We are facing the sixth mass extinction of species on our planet, and as it stands, hardly anyone is aware of its scale or phenomenon at all.

So, what exactly is a mass extinction?

The scientific definition of the term is that in a geologically short period of time, at least 75% of all animal and plant species die out. In the history of the earth, this has occurred five times so far:

The first mass extinction

At the End-Ordovician age, 443 million years ago, a severe ice age caused sea levels to drop by approximately 100 meters, wiping out up to 86% of all species – at that time this consisted of predominantly ocean dwellers. After the ice melted once again, the species existing at the time died from the shortage of oxygen in the oceans.

The second mass extinction

In the Late-Devonian age, 360 million years ago, earth suffered a prolonged climate change event, hitting life in shallow seas again, killing about 75% of species, including almost all corals.

The third mass extinction

During the Permian-Triassic age, 250 million years ago, the third mass extinction, namely ‚the big one‘ affected more than 96% of all species, including trilobites and giant insects. It was linked to large-scale volcanic eruptions in Siberia, causing a savage period of global warming.

The fourth mass extinction

In the Triassic-Jurassic age, 200 million years ago, 80% of species were lost, again most likely due to another large volcanic outburst, leaving earth clear for dinosaurs to flourish.

The fifth mass extinction

And in the Cretaceous-Tertiary age, 65 million years ago, 76% of the species disappeared after a giant asteroid impacted the land we now know as Mexico, following large volcanic eruptions around India, which led to the end of the dinosaurs, resulting in ammonites, mammals – and eventually humans – taking advantage and thrive.

The sixth mass extinction

It is said that there is a sixth mass extinction already underway – or on the brink of beginning. (The question, whether it has already started or will start shortly is at the centre of serious discussions among scientists.)

Disputes regarding the timeline of the sixth mass extinction are abundant, but as for its cause, there is widespread agreement. Volcanism, ice ages and climatic changes, lack of oxygen, the impact of asteroids, or – most likely, a concoction of them all – was to blame in the past, but it is mankind that is to blame for what will come next.

Why are we responsible?

Mankind with its overindulgent attitude: rising populations, high consumption, infrastructure dominance is dangerously restricting the habitat land and resources for other species. It is the responsibility of human beings, as the current dominant species, to ensure the fate of all living beings on our planet. This is the geological era of the Anthropocene (deriving from the ancient Greek word ‚Anthropos‘ which means ‚man‘).

We have reversed our role on planet earth by 180 degrees: in the beginning of mankind, tens of thousands of years ago, animals were both feared of and worshipped. Animals were portrayed as can be seen in the Chauvet Cave. Back then, nature dominated us. Today, we push nature to its boundaries for our own convenience and profit; we domesticise the wild, we – if at all – tolerate its existence.

We dominate the world and its wilderness; we treat nature and animals as our property – not as creatures that cohabitate our planet.

As the human population grows, our infrastructure and consumption need to expand alongside, nature and the animals living within it are forced to exist for our catering and supply. We breed them, farm them, kill them in industrial scale, we sacrifice them for our beliefs, and we enclose them in wildlife conservations if the mood strikes compassion.

„Today, wild animals have become refugees on our planet, they will soon have nowhere left to go.“

From the documentary „Terra“ by Yann Arthus-Bertrand and Michael Pitiot. A Rhinoceros being relocated to a safe area as being seen in the documentary.

We are disrupting a process that has taken billions of years to evolve. Unlike past mass extinctions, the speed at which species are disappearing from the terrain plays a crucial role.

In the first four extinctions, death came over a period of 20,000-100,000 years, which in geological terms is just a wink of time. For longterm condition changes like those nature seems to be able to adapt through mutations or migrations.

In the case of the asteroid, on the other hand, disaster came overnight, so to speak. Animals that survived the direct impact only had a period of a few weeks or months left. As vegetation was erased on the darkening earth, the large herbivores were left with no food to survive, leaving large carnivores without prey. The delicate food chain finally collapsed.

Although today’s situation is far less dramatic in terms of natural disasters, with mankind spreading around the globe, sealing soil, polluting air and water, claiming natural habitat for cultivation food shortage is a crucial factor. But is the current situation really comparable to the previous five mass extinctions?

Humans claiming almost earth’s entire habitat


The iconic species of Rhinoceros

Woolly Rhino And A Marmot by Daniel Eskridge featured on

Once upon a time when God made all the animals he had them all make their own skins. To this effect, he gave them all a needle to sow them with. But the Rhino, being a bit clumsy, lost his needle and had to use a thorn instead. This is why his coat is so badly fitting. Tragically, he thought he might have swallowed the needle and this is why he can often be seen kicking his dung about. He is looking for his needle still so he can make a better coat.

Zambian Folk Tale

Most of us will say, yes, I’ve known rhinos since I was a kid, I grew up with stories of them, they played a part of my childhood, just like the elephant, the lion, the tiger and the giraffe. It’s hard then to imagine, that at some point, maybe even during our own lifetime, they might not be here anymore. It’s the iconic character embodied by the rhino that makes it so special. It has always been here, as long as I can possibly think back.

The presence of the rhino is also ample in the figurative historical sense. When Marco Polo encountered rhinos on Sumatra in 1292, he was disappointed at first, thinking he had finally discovered unicorns. But the appearance of the Sumatran rhinoceros – with its hairy skin, feet like an elephant, and a thick, black horn on a ”pig-like head“, as he wrote – did not at all fit to that idea of a pure, white mythical creature.

However, it took until the 16th century to show the world a portrait of a rhino, which should henceforth be part of our collective memory and influence all further displays and imaginations of the rhino. When the German Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer introduced his work ”Rhinocerus“, a woodcut, in 1515, thanks to the then recently developed new printing methods, it quickly became a mass-produced art display with large runs. Today, the ”Rhinoceros“ is one of the most recognisable Renaissance works of art.

Dürer’s work, however, was by no means the first display of a rhinoceros in history. The earliest rhino depiction known today was found in 1994 by French researchers near the southern French town of Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, in the Chauvet Cave. The cave paintings found there, which also include the displays of woolly rhinos, were backdated to be up to 37,000 years old; they are therefore the third oldest known cave paintings in the world (after the El Castillo Caves in Spain and the Leang Petakerre Cave in Indonesia). The rhino pictures in that cave in France go back to the nursery of humanity itself, the Stone Age.

In Pete Clemence’s memories, the rhino is always present, too, and not only from children’s books. When he grew up in southern Africa about sixty years ago, rhinos were a ubiquitous part of the wildlife. He recalls:


In his childhood, there were many black rhinos in southern Africa. Today, there are only about 5250 animals left, most of them living in Namibia and South Africa. In Zimbabwe, where Clemence currently inhabits a tent in the middle of a national park, alone, among all the wild animals, he is a legend in the fight for the survival of rhinos.

Pete Clemence rescues a baby orphan whose mother was just killed by poachers

We met Pete Clemence in Zimbabwe through Hemmersbach RHINO FORCE whose founder Ralph Koczwara introduced us to him. But first things first, we will talk more about both in forthcoming episodes of this developing story.

Thirty years ago, Clemence was part of a team of wildlife conservationists who evacuated the last Black Rhinos of the Zambezi Valley on the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia and brought them inland in a successful bid to save them from extinction.

But what about today’s rural communities in southern Africa? The iconic species, like elephants, lions and leopards largely roam highly protected areas, guarded in hopes of saving them from poaching and extinction. The locals, who only a few decades ago shared their habitat with the animals, now have to visit a park, like the many tourists from overseas; sometimes they even have to pay entrance fees. But many African children cannot afford that, especially in poor rural areas. Instead, they grow up next to these great, wonderful wild animals, without ever having seen them in real life. They have lost touch with their local, hereditary wildlife.

A ranger in South Africa once described the case of a boy who, together with his classmates, went on a school trip to the Kruger National Park, where he saw a rhino for the very first time in his life. He put his hand on its thick skin – and backed off in alarm, shouting

“It’s breathing!“

Local communities could play an important role in sustaining such iconic animals while benefitting from it – if they are closely involved in the transition processes – from trophy hunting to sustainable tourism.

It seems paradoxical, but for many of us who know these iconic creatures only from books, movies, and from the zoo, the rhino, at times feels more tangible than for those who grew up in proximity to them. And it seems just as paradoxical that although we are so close to this species, so familiar; perhaps even taking their existence for granted, we may not be able to save them from extinction.

This archaically iconic animal, a living being who doesn’t have any natural predators except ourselves – needs that we shine a light on its story, and the many stories of those who are working to protect its life on earth, alongside those who poach it for survival.

We should reach our hand to those who do, or, as the children of the Underberg School in South Africa put it:

Anthem for the Rhino

They say for everything there is a season

The ring of life revolves as time goes by,

But Rhinos are dying for no natural reason!

It makes us hang our heads in shame and cry.

Protecting our rhino is our duty

We can’t afford to stand idly by,

Gotta stop their horns becoming Eastern muthi,

Why, oh why should rhinos die?!

It’s because of man’s greed and because of man’s vanity

Come on now Asia, stop this insanity!

Why, oh why should rhinos die?!

Our wildlife is the pride of our nation

Come on now, stop this exploitation!

Why, oh why should rhinos die?!

They can’t survive without us intervening

They won’t survive if we turn a blind eye!

Does the sanctity of life have no meaning?

Why, oh why should rhinos die?!

The Underberg School Choir’s Anthem for the Rhino

The story of the Rhino has many facets and challenges, but the gain of saving this creature will go far beyond its species

The story of the rhino has many facets and connects to global politics and local activism in more ways than might be visible to the onlooker.

It is no coincidence then, that we have dedicated FAIRPLANET’s first long-term constructive journalism project to the rhino, although there are currently more than 1.7 million other endangered species on our planet. But how are we going to protect the Sowbug Rice Rat, the Swazi Rock Snake or the Smooth Dainty Frog from extinction, whose appearances (or disappearances) are much less spectacular? As Pete Clemence put it:

„If we lose the rhino, we will lose them all.“

If we can not save such a unique animal, a close friend from childhood, a living dinosaur that has populated the globe for over 50 million years, we can not save any other species. The demand for rhino horn already far outweighs the supply. If the supply is exhausted and the rhinos extinct, the demand will turn to the next wild animal, and it in this economy it seems that the more threatened creature, the better.

There are already hints that in the future, teeth from hippos could find a market or generate it. Hippos are still relatively abundant in Africa, even in the wild, but the demand for rhino horn skyrocketed only about ten years ago, and today they are on the brink of extinction. The more threatened, the more attractive. The more lucrative for the poachers. And the Red List is growing steadily. But the list is not endless. If the current mass extinction of species is not stopped, the party on our beautiful blue planet will eventually be over, even for us humans. Then there would be no one left to remember animals like the rhino, not even from children’s books.

Let’s not get this far!


Woolly Rhino digital artwork by Daniel Eskridge

Albrecht Dürer’s „Rhinocerus“ image of woodcut print by Wikipedia

Chauvet Cave painting by Wiki Commons

Running Rhino by Creative Commons

Pete Clemens saving a baby Rhino in the bush by Bryce Clemens

Volunteer from Bambisanani project with a South African child and rhino book

Rhino horns, Tsavo, 1976 by DSWT


Time is running out – Can we save the Rhino?

Time is running

Looking at the numbers, there is no reason for optimism. According to recent estimates, no more than 30,000 rhinos are left on earth, including about 20,000 white rhinos and 5,250 black rhinos in Africa, as well as about 3,500 Indian rhinos and no more than 100 Java and Sumatran rhinos in Indonesia respectively.

Extrapolating the numbers of casualties by poaching, with demand for rhino horn skyrocketing in the last ten years – especially in China and Vietnam – rhinos could disappear from our planet within a decade.

A Glimpse of Hope?

Is there a glimpse of hope left for these archaic creatures? Or will they fall victim to human greed after surviving more than 50 million years on the planet?

Although they have no natural enemies, rhinos have been on the verge of extinction before, during the middle of the last century. That time it was the commitment of a South African conservationist named Dr Ian Player that saved the rhinos from extinction. Player launched his now famous ‚Operation Rhino‘ in 1952, evacuating the last Southern White Rhinos – during which time there were only 200-300 of these animals left – from the Umfolozi game reserve to various national parks in southern Africa, especially the Kruger National Park, but also to zoos worldwide.

Operation Rhino

Two important elements of ‚Operation Rhino‘ were crucial: the fact that not single animals, but breeding colonies of rhino were distributed, and secondly, that he was allowed to sell the animals to national parks and zoos instead of giving them away for free; so there were buyers, who therefore had a monetary interest in preserving the animals. The results proved him right, the stocks were constantly recovering. Today’s population of about 20,000 Southern White Rhinos in Africa is inextricably linked to the work of Ian Player and his ‚Operation Rhino‘. Player died of a stroke in 2014.

Could the strategy of a new ‚Operation Rhino‘ continue to be successful, even today? Then as much as now, South Africa is in under pressure and global limelight to save the rhinos. Of the 20,000 white rhinos in Africa, 18,000 live in South Africa, about 7,800 in the Kruger National Park, which is by far the largest population in the world.

On the ground, there is a complex and intertwined conflict taking place heavily armed private security forces and special units of the police alongside the military on the one side and on the other, gangs of poachers, equally heavily armed by the Asian syndicates.

Whether the fight for the rhino in the Greater Kruger can be won by military means is questionable. The boundaries of the 20,000 square kilometre area appear to be too patchy, despite the use of the various anti-poaching units and latest surveillance technology.

A RHINO FORCE anti-poaching ranger shows the areas of defence in Greater Kruger

The strategy to make rhinos a private asset – following in the footsteps of Ian Player during the time of ‚Operation Rhino‘ – is considered by many Conservationists, including the World Wildlife Fund, as a successful model.

Ralph Koczwara, a German IT-entrepreneur and founder of Hemmersbach Rhino-Force, a private anti-poaching and direct-action preservation organisation, operating around Greater Kruger in South Africa and at the Lower Zambezi valley in Zimbabwe, is currently preparing what could be called a ’new Operation Rhino‘. He says:

„The task is complex. We need to protect and preserve the animals, work with communities and authorities to achieve the sustainability of wildlife. All that buys us time until we break the demand.“

Koczwara’s plans: to bring back the black rhino into the Lower Zambezi Valley. 2,000 Black Rhino Minor once lived about 30 years ago. Almost all of them were killed by poachers during the 1980s, 30 animals were then evacuated further inland of Zimbabwe in an attempt to save the bulls from their nearing fate of extinction.

The social entrepreneur will own the returning rhinos, buying them from Southern African breeders and bringing them to Zimbabwe, into a well-protected zone inside a wider area of recreational land.

We will accompany Koczwara’s „new rhino operation“ during its implementation. You’ll find our story in a forthcoming episode of „Saving Rhinoceros“

Ralph Koczwara on the idea of transforming Lower Zambezi Valley from intense hunting to a safe place for rhinos

In the area, according to Koczwara’s plans, the group of rhinos will find a safe place to mate and to prosper, and – from a wider perspective – to create a genetically viable and diverse population of black rhinos.

Lower Zambezi Valley, Zimbabwe

View from a RHINO FORCE air patrol flight over Lower Zambezi Valley

Legalisation of Horn Trade?

The world’s largest private rhino breeder, South African John Hume, sees another, more controversial approach as more promising, though it would be quite a breach of taboo and a departure from previous anti-poaching strategies: the complete legalisation of horn trade. He says: “We need to encourage everyone in the country to breed rhino and the only way to do that is to legalise the trade.”

Hume and other private breeders at the Cape say the big expenses faced by breeders today – high-security fences, security guards, veterinarians, medicines, food – cannot be covered in the long run if they’re unable to sell their horns – which they get legally as part of their breeding and farming activities – to Asian buyers. Up to $800,000 for a ten pounds horn is the current price on the Asian market.

This sum, breeders argue, should not be left to the syndicates, but to them, the breeders themselves, to invest the money in the expansion of their stocks, thus ensuring the conservation of the species.

Whether poaching can be stopped by legalising trade seems questionable. The demand in Asia might prove to be too large to be legally matched by private breeders. The price of horns is therefore likely to remain high, and thus the incentive for the syndicates to get hold of that huge amount of money continues to be equally high.

Legalization in a context of state-controlled trade, comparable to the legalisation of marijuana in some countries, with horn DNA samples and authorised issuers and traders, could be an alternative. But there are certain natural limits to any legal offer of the horn because a harvested horn takes about a year or two to grow again. So, whether the breeders can meet the enormous demand from Asia, has to be cautiously analysed.

Local Communities – Key to Success?

Many organisations, including the World Wildlife Fund, believe local communities are key to the success in protecting rhinos. Rural communities, even those in close proximity to the National Parks, have in many places lost contact with the wildlife in their neighbourhood; many children have never seen a Rhinoceros in their life.

And even worse, children whose fathers are convicted and arrested as poachers might ultimately blame the animal for their fatherless childhood. An empathic connection to the animals is unlikely to grow within such a vicious cycle.

However, if the communities are integrated, for example in the transition process from hunting to sustainable tourism, and participate in the profits, they might recognise the value – if only a monetary one – of wildlife. Some conservation activists even suggest that the communities themselves should become owners of the animals in order to tackle the attraction of easy poaching money with an alternative legal and long-term perspective. But here, too, the question remains: if the potential income of eco-tourism could compensate for the temptations that the immense price for wild horn offers.

Also, one should not underestimate the importance of schools and children. Educational projects such as the Chirundu School Project – we visited this school in Zimbabwe and will report about this project in a later episode –, which involves children in conservation programs can play an important role in raising awareness among them, their families and communities.

Breaking the Demand

Therefore, many consider the approach of breaking the demand for horn in Southeast Asia to be the most promising. But what could such a strategy look like?

For the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC), an NGO based in Amsterdam, it is clearly a social solution that is needed in those demand countries, like China and Vietnam in particular, and it requires a multifaceted solution. The WJC is using intelligence from undercover operations in order to provide support for national and international law enforcement on the ground.

But the organisation is also trying to incorporate initiatives seeking to change behaviours in these countries. The aim is to reduce demand for endangered animals for medicinal purposes, but also as a status symbol. It’s a long-term mission for behavioural changes, but if it ever pays off, it would possibly be the most elegant way of getting hold of the poaching problem. No demand for rhino horn, no rhino poaching.

Cryopreservation of the Gene pool

If everything fails, the ice might save the rhino: minus 196° Celsius is the temperature at which nitrogen freezes. It’s called Cryopreservation.

The idea is to freeze male semen and female ovules, but also embryos, so that they can be kept – theoretically for eternity. With such a genetic reserve, a biobank of endangered species, the future of the three remaining Northern White Rhinos might have looked a little more promising than it does today.

They’re now inevitably facing extinction, although researchers are trying to save the species with some stem cell-based reproduction methods.

In a forthcoming episode, we’ll publish our interview with Dr Imke Lüders

Yet this elaborate method is still in its infancy and is, therefore, seen sceptically by many reproductive researchers, such as the German veterinarian Dr Imke Lüders, an expert on assisted reproductions of large mammals.

Whether the final successful method will be the latest laboratory high technology or a return to a harmonious coexistence of communities on the ground; whether it will demand another armed campaign against poachers or a social media campaign against horn as a remedy or jewellery in Vietnam and China, saving our rhinos remains a race against time, with an outcome filled with uncertainty.


Lower Zambezi Valley by Rohan Nel

John Hume on his rhino breeding farm by Fight for the Rhino

Hong Kong customs seized a large amount of rhino horn by Bobby Yip / Reuters

Rhino Force Chirundu School Project by FAIRPLANET

Traditional medicine using Rhino horn Vietnam animalrescueblog/Flickr, CC-BY-NC

The Cincinnati Zoo preserves cryo of endangered species at -196 degree Celsius. CryoBioBank by Cincinnati Zoo


Rhinos and Humans - Victims and Perpetrators of Organised Crime

Rhino horn confiscated at Hong Kong customs; Credit: Government Hong Kong

Africa’s rhino poaching problem is multifaceted. The interplay of its demand and supply side is fueled by poverty, greed, superstition, corruption, social injustice, ruthlessness and ignorance.

As the demand is mainly originated in Vietnam and China, wildlife crime is controlled by international syndicates. These syndicates are the reason for the significant increase in rhino poaching in Africa since 2007. Although there are also other factors such as climate change and the expansion of human habitat, the organised killing and selling of horn in Asia is the driving factor why conservation of wildlife, in particular, the protection of rhinos have become a fight against crime and race against time.

For that, we’re looking into the structure of organised poaching. One investigative source is Al Jazeera’s documentary “The Poacher’s Pipeline“ which is based on undercover research carried out in November 2016. In it, they unfold a rare inside view of the structure of the syndicates that are behind the current rhino poaching crisis in Africa and Asia.

FAIRPLANET spoke with Vince Barkas and Sarah Stoner about the complexity of the poaching problem and trafficking of rhino horn, examining the findings of Al Jazeera’s research.

Barkas is a South African an entrepreneur with a military background who founded ProTrack, a private anti-poaching unit operating mainly around Kruger National Park in South Africa closely collaborating with Hemmersbach Rhino Force.

Stoner is senior intel analyst at the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC), a NGO based in the Netherlands, which describes its mission to help disrupt transnational, organised wildlife crime by exposing criminal networks and the corruption that enables them to flourish by empowering – or, if need be, pressuring – governments to enforce their laws.

How is the structure of the supply-and-demand-chain between Africa and Asia? What does the ‚Poacher’s Pipeline‘ look like from your perspective?

VINCE BARKAS: “For giving a brief overview of the situation, that structure is fine. However, if you’re on the ground to tackling those syndicates things get a little more complicated, of course.

At Kruger Park, for example, you’re in an environment of different types of poachers. You’ve got the – let’s say – big game poachers, with the rhino currently being their main target. This is indeed pretty much controlled by the big syndicates. But at the same time, you have a lot of meat poaching as well. Meat poachers basically hunt in order to feed themselves and their families and to sell some meat at the local markets to make a living. They usually go for Impala or kudu or those kinds of animals. Most of them are not involved in rhino poaching, although they might have a certain knowledge of the terrain and the local settings.“

So, at Greater Kruger Park you’re presumably dealing with level 1 and 2 of the poacher’s pipeline?

VINCE BARKAS: “That’s right. At level 1 for instance, you usually have a team of two or three poachers, sometimes more, some of them are trackers or putting up snares, some guards, others work as drivers and so on. Some of these groups are exceptionally well equipped, not only in terms of guns but also high tech gadgetry. We recently found quite modern night vision goggles in a bag a poacher threw away when we went after him.“

Is it a phenomenon of the poor in the local communities around the National Park?

VINCE BARKAS: “Most of the poachers come from communities that are directly adjacent to the Greater Kruger, but not only on the South African side. Many poachers come from Mozambique. Since today, the border of the Kruger to Mozambique is somewhat better guarded, they now try to bypass the Kruger and get in from the west, at the private game reserves, which adjoin the Kruger national park and conjointly form the Greater Kruger. Between those private concessions and the national park, there are no more fences, the animals move freely.“

Why there exactly?

VINCE BARKAS: “We have not always had access to all private reserves in the past. Some landowners didn’t allow us to get in, so we had to let go of the poachers we were chasing. Some suspect that a number of them are actually cooperating with the poachers.“

After the poacher on the ground, who’s next?

VINCE BARKAS: “There’s a link between the poachers and the syndicates, a contact person who’s in touch with the local communities, a middleman, if you like, who supplies the gangs with weapons and ammunition and who, on the other hand, passes on the poached horn and pays the poachers. He is called level 2.“

And he’s assumably followed by level 3…

VINCE BARKAS: “That’s right. Level 3 is the exporter that gets the poached goods out of the country. From South Africa, the pipeline currently passes through Mozambique, and from there on to Vietnam. But that can change quickly, depending on how individual countries adapt their law enforcement.

„Already in Mozambique, it is mainly Chinese or Vietnamese nationals who control the pipeline.“

Several organisations have recently discovered that the syndicates are trying to get around the export hurdles imposed by the law enforcement authorities, especially customs, by processing the horn in South Africa before sending it to Asia. They process it to small pieces of jewellery or to powder, which they then mix, for example, into toothpaste in order to fool customs.”

In Southeast Asia, it is level 4 of the pipeline that receives the goods. Sarah, how is it going on then?


“We at the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) understand how organised the transnational trade in rhino horn is and that offenders operating higher up the trade chain (levels 4 & 5) have the resources and influence to smuggle goods from Africa to Asia. These individuals should be targeted as it will have a much greater impact on illegal trade.“

A great deal of trust plays a vital role. Horn, which is destined for the Vietnamese market, will be forwarded to the respective regions as soon as it arrives in Vietnam. For the WJC as well as for the law enforcement it is very difficult to track. For goods that are to be forwarded to China, however, we have identified the Vietnamese border town of Nhi Khe as a hub.“

Do we have to look at China and Vietnam as two different markets, or is it a common market?

SARAH STONER: “The situation in Nhi Khe is quite a unique one due to its proximity to the Chinese border, which reduces efforts required from both buyers and sellers to come together to do their business. The market appeared to be dictated by a drive to supply Chinese clientele, with processed rhino horn goods in particular. Although Vietnam is known to be a primary destination for rhino horn, it is also clearly a highly significant transit area for products ultimately bound for China.

We found out that research relying on a review of trafficking patterns and expatriate involvement in Africa may have overstated the significance of the domestic Vietnamese market. In addition, the importance of traditional Chinese medicine might be overstated as well, since only 5 pieces (from about 8,000) of illegally traded wildlife parts we documented were offcuts of rhino horn. To the contrary, the use of horn as a status symbol seems to play a much bigger role than previously thought.“

„The importance of traditional Chinese medicine might be overstated – the use of horn as a status symbol seems to play a much bigger role than previously thought.“

What else do these two markets have in common?

SARAH STONER: “Unsurprisingly, corruption is a significant influencing factor facilitating illegal wildlife crime on both sides of the border – and all along the pipeline. Indications of corruption were apparent during our investigations, including the reported bribery of local and provincial government officials by traders in Nhi Khe to ensure protection; the bribery of Vietnamese Customs officials to allow the smuggling of wildlife into China, and traders happening to have prior knowledge of police inspections. In such a surrounding, the absence of effective law enforcement intervention is a crucial enabling factor. Without truly tackling this issue of corruption, the situation is likely to persist.“

Sounds like a very complicated setting.

SARAH STONER: “It is complicated indeed, especially when you look at the details. For example, translators appear to play a key facilitating role, as they are actually enabling communication between sellers and buyers. In our case, they were mostly women of Vietnamese origin. And since they usually have family bounds to the offenders, they seem to have a profound and in-depth knowledge of the syndicate’s activities. If we could take these translators out of the system, that would be a severe blow to the pipeline.

In general, family bonds are very important to the illegal trade of wildlife goods between China and Vietnam. For example, many shops in China are owned by Vietnamese nationals associated with family connections to Nhi Khe, which helps legitimise transport of those goods. Or the use of Chinese bank accounts by Vietnamese nationals to circumvent Vietnamese financial monitoring systems. Not to mention the use of Chinese social media platforms, which turned out to be very difficult to monitor.“

Nevertheless, the WJC handed over a massive file of evidence to the Vietnamese authorities last year.

SARAH STONER: “During our undercover investigation in Vietnam over a period of 12 months, our team of investigators witnessed widespread illegal trade of ‘raw’ rhino horn and ‘worked’ products. We observed rhino horns and products estimated to equate to 579 rhinos, with an estimated street value of $42 million.

How the Wildlife Justice Commission operates

This evidence was forwarded to the Vietnamese authorities. In addition, we recently had an open hearing in The Hague about these issues, and we published our WJC report “Black Business: Illegal Rhino Horn Trade Dynamics in Nhi Khe, Viet Nam, from a Criminal Perspective”, which describes the dynamics of rhino horn trafficking in Vietnam and the fluctuations of the value of raw rhino horn presented to our undercover operatives during the course of our field investigations.“

Do you think you can handle the poaching problem with law enforcement alone?


“No, this phenomenon is too complex. Therefore, the solution must be complex as well.“

This is why WJC also works with grassroots NGOs like „Education for Nature“ in Vietnam, but also with other organisations elsewhere. Our goal is to disrupt organised crime that is facilitating transnational illegal trade. Law enforcement alone cannot solve this problem, but bringing offenders to justice is crucial to creating much-needed deterrence, which should ultimately result in behavioural change.“

„We need to reconnect local communities with their original wildlife, a connection which they have lost through the influence of colonialism and neocolonialism. People need to see their wildlife as their heritage again.“

Vince Barkas

VINCE BARKAS: “We have a similar goal in South Africa. We need to reconnect local communities with their original wildlife, a connection which they have lost through the influence of colonialism and neocolonialism. People need to see their wildlife as their heritage again. If you live in bitter poverty in the villages around Kruger Park and you don’t have enough money to feed your family, you do not see the rhino as a wonderful animal to protect, but as an opportunity to get yourself and your family out of poverty – with just one shot. Who knows, if I grew up in one of those villages in Mozambique, where people are living in poverty to an extent we cannot even imagine, and someone offered me a few thousand dollars for a horn, then maybe I would have become a poacher, too.“

FAIRPLANET: ”Sarah Stoner, Vince Barkas, thank you for the interview.

How the Al Jazeera undercover team penetrated the network of dealers, agents and traffickers who profit from the multi-million dollar trade in Rhino horn.

Creidts: Rhino horn images by USFWS


Recognising the social deprivation and cultural disruption is key to preserve wildlife

Anti-poaching rangers arresting a poacher in South Africa; Credit: UVM

Tumi Morena has become one of South Africa’s best anti-poaching rangers – but this also come at a price. People from Tumi’s community see him as an intruder because he works for the white man.

He was once locked up in jail and left to share a cell with the poachers he arrested. The poachers started making noise, folding blankets, using them as drums and singing all at once – the racket is made to blur the sounds of cellmates being beaten or tortured. Tumi was sitting in the corner and waiting for it to happen. He was lucky that night, it didn’t happen due to a paper bag with Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Communities hardly see the benefit of wildlife and consider anti-poaching as threat and the white man’s thing

Tumi Morena, Anti-Poaching Ranger at RHINO FORCE and Vince Barkas, Founder of ProTrack Wildlife Protection

Tumi has come a long way from growing up in a small village in the bush with no school education, no books, no literacy. Ten years ago he joined ProTrack, the anti-poaching organisation that trained him until he moved on to Hemmersbach Rhino Force, which also works closely with his previous employer.

These years of education and everyday practice in wildlife, living with the animals as well as finding their carcasses changed him. It might take a whole new generation to pass on until they understand why Tumi is doing what he does.

In a way, he impersonates the gap between the poor in his community who worry about food for the next day, and the privileged, mostly white, who simply purchase meat. Tumi should be considered a role model but he is not – at least not for the young black men in South Africa’s rural areas. He remains an inspiration only for the white young men, who would like to become anti-poaching rangers like him.

Poaching is an immense temptation for young men who have nothing. Even for a ranger who earns 4,000 Rand a month, it’s hard to resist the 500,000 Rand reward by simply guiding a poacher to where the rhinos are.

It takes a lot to change as an individual. To transform the mindset of communities is even harder – will it happen fast enough?

When asked what the rhino means to him, Tumi pauses for a long moment. Ten years ago when he aspired to become an anti-poaching ranger, Tumi admits he didn’t think of protecting wildlife a priority, but considered the other rangers in their uniform, with their guns, as soldiers. For years he trained, experienced wildlife, learned to read and educated himself. His relation to wild animals changed and developed an emotional connection. He stopped seeing them just as food or tools; he finally saw why protecting the wildlife is essential. Having spent ten years in the wilderness – risking his life to protect the rhino – has transformed Tumi’s mindset in regards to Africa and his country.

„It’s my heritage! It’s our animal! It’s The last dinosaur left in Africa. It’s ours! Of us Africans. It’s mine! It means Africa. Without them, what are we? If they all go away, what then?“

Tumi Morena

Africa holds an unimaginable asset. What has been marginalised in almost all continents of the earth, still exists in Africa – wildlife. It could be an endless resource of cultural heritage, income from tourism, and maybe most importantly, a progressive way to cultivate a lifestyle that is based on harmony between wilderness and civilisation. A mindset and a way of living that the modern world lost a long time ago.

But Tumi’s culture was broken by invasion, colonisation; of plundering of Africa and enslavement of Tumi’s ancestors for centuries.

„Everything is up for grab. Africa is being raped again. You Europeans have come in and colonised Africa and raped it. Everybody has had a turn – now it’s the Chinese. that’s been in the history of Africa. And it’s the exact same thing with the rhino horn. It’s nothing new.“

Vincent Barkas

The issue is not just about the rhino, it’s a much bigger cause, linked to Africa’s traumatic history and crucial for its future

Vince Barkas about the extinction of wildlife, its causes and significance

In South Africa, the state of colonisation as the deprivation of black people was frozen through apartheid until 1990. The release of Nelson Mandela marked the beginning of a new era with high hopes, which seemed to fulfil in the early days of the Rainbow Nation. Conditions partially changed in urban areas, but the promises to improve black peoples‘ lives in rural areas are still waiting to be realised. The frustration of people is the breeding ground for crime, corruption – and poaching.

Black people have been alienated from conservation, and there is a lot of frustration in communities – how can we expect them to embrace anti-poaching?

Vince Barkas about the need and the difficulty to involve communities at the borders of reserves in wildlife conservation

People in black communities have been, and continue to be deprived. Dreams of a better future are met with scarce opportunities to develop real ambitions. In rural areas jobs are rare. Stagnation, poverty and powerlessness manifest in a society of injustice. The difference between privileged and deprived people – particularly in rural areas – is still marked by the colour of skin, an arduous precondition to conduct wildlife conservation, a task that is regarded as the ‚white man’s business‘.

Without social justice and equal opportunities for black people in rural communities, conservation of wildlife will be very difficult

It’s not just about the guns, the training and having rangers in the field to protect wildlife, social injustice, as in any society, needs to be addressed urgently and comprehensively to provide opportunities to people, especially those who live next to reserves. This means to develop models that involve communities in conservation and support and promote the ones who have jobs regardless of their colour.

„Mandela coming out of jail made me feel much better as a white racist because he forgave me, but it hasn’t done much of a difference for a black person.“

Vincent Barkas

In South Africa’s rural areas, up to 14 people depend on one person’s income. Arresting one poacher causes a sinkhole-like loss in communities‘ economical chain, and poachers who are killed, quite rightly, worsens the situation and creates resentments beyond the economic disruption.

The widespread shoot-to-kill attitude in South Africa adds a burden to any attempt to raise awareness for conservation. Law enforcement is dysfunctional due to corruption and lack of resources, especially in rural areas. Properly done it requires sufficient coverage, skilled, well-equipped and law-abiding officers who are disciplined when it comes to pulling the trigger – all of which are absent from the law enforcement in the country.

Shoot-to-kill creates resentment and aggravates social conflicts – how can this mindset be changed?

Vince Barkas about the need for differentiated awareness on the poaching problem

If anti-poaching, conservation and wildlife business worked together and involved communities as much as possible, the effect could be turned around. Instead of economic deprivation, people could make a living; instead of alienation and resentment, communities could embrace wildlife and conservation.

An intact wildlife is a basis for income from tourism. Premium lodges hire up to ten staff members per guest. A lodge with 30 guests would employ up to 300 in staff. 300 people making a living and supporting a number of others can make a big difference for communities in rural areas.

In contrast to poaching, wildlife tourism is a sustainable economic model. The challenge, however, is that people are hungry today. How long will it take to deploy such a strategy, and equally important, will wildlife survive until then?

As the experienced anti-poaching undertaker Vince Barkas said: „This is Africa’s lost end. If we don’t solve the extinction problem in my lifetime, wildlife will be lost forever.“

With the loss of its wildlife, Africa would lose a much larger battle of heritage, cultural identity and uniqueness.

Photos: Rohan Nel, Frank Odenthal, Murat Suner, Imke Lüders