The Rhino Files – a Condensed History

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World War I and World War II left an indelible mark on the psyche of the world. Nations were destroyed, then formed, and countries, borders and international laws were created in the aftermath of these historic events. The world we live in today was shaped by these events. As those times live on in the collective memory of mankind, we are currently experiencing comparatively catastrophic (to animals) and historically important events in Africa. A conservation conflict is currently being fought between nations across the world. A war with human casualties on both sides – but without anyone truly realising what is at stake. We are in the midst of what can loosely be termed the Second Rhino War (We don’t like using this terminology – yet in many ways it is an apt description). World Rhino Day is annually on the 22 September, it is apt to have a quick look at what rhinos have had to endure. The Second Rhino War is mankind’s third attempt at eradicating rhinos from our planet.

Know your rhinos
There are five species of rhino worldwide – two in Africa and three in Asia. They are all being targeted and many of the sub-species have already become extinct. According to the IUCN Redlist of threatened species, three of the five remaining species of rhinos are critically endangered. Our work is in Africa – and part of that is supporting the brave, tireless, undermanned, under-equipped, and under-supported rangers who put their lives on the line every day for these magnificent and gentle animals. The two rhino species found in Africa are the White rhino and the Black rhino.

Black rhinos are divided into four sub species (types) of which one is extinct. Despite being the most numerous of the rhino species during the 20th Century, and numbering possibly as high as 850,000, their decline has been dramatic. By 1960 there were an estimated 100,000 left and by 1995 this had dropped by almost 98% to stand at a mere 2,410. Conservationist worked very hard and by 2010 had grown this number to almost 5,000 yet they remain critically endangered.

White rhinos are divided into two sub species known as the northern white rhino and the southern white rhino. There are only 2 known northern white rhino left in the world, and none of them can breed. They are considered extinct. The southern white rhino though, has an interesting story to tell.

Colonial Hunters

By the end of the 19th century, southern white rhinos were believed to be extinct. This first massive decline in rhino species was largely due to relentless hunting, and land clearance for settlement and farming during the colonial expansion, similar to the fate of bison in North America. But once humans begun to understand the need for wildlife, protected areas started to be formed and animals were afforded some breathing room.

The Greatest Conservation Success Story in History

Then a small population of 20-50 individuals were discovered in Zululand, South Africa. What followed is one of conservations greatest success stories. The Hluhluwe Valley reserve and the Imfolozi Junction Reserve were proclaimed as game sanctuaries in 1895 and were the precursors to what is now known as Hluluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve, considered Africa’s oldest national park. The southern white rhinos were protected and as a result, the population started to grow. By the 1960’s the population had recovered to an extent that the then Natal Park’s board (now Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife) embarked on an ambitious project to move rhinos to other parts of South Africa, bringing rhinos back to regions where they had previously ranged. It was at a time when the techniques to capture and transport rhinos was till  in it’s infancy, and despite a few early setbacks, many of the methods and drugs developed then are still used today. “Operation Rhino” was spearheaded by renowned conservationist, Dr. Ian Player (brother of the legendary golfer Gary Player). As a 25-year-old game warden, he personally undertook a mission to save African rhinos from extinction. He worked systematically to capture and transport these massive prehistoric creatures, sending them to repopulate other reserves and game parks in Africa (as well as zoos and parks internationally) to ensure that they had a better chance of survival. By 1965, the southern white rhino was declared to have been “saved”. By December 2010, rhino numbers had grown to an estimated 20,170 in the wild and 750 in captivity. Although not considered a rhino war, this was man’s first attempt at destroying rhinos, and man’s wonderful story at saving them too. However, the Rhino Wars that were to follow are a far more sinister affair that pits man against man, trying to protect a species that has no idea that it is even under siege.


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The First Rhino War 1965-1995

The First Rhino War was fought between 1965 and 1995. Rhino numbers in most countries, with the exception of South Africa and Namibia, plummeted. The demand for ceremonial dagger handles made of rhino horn was high in Yemen, particularly during the 60’s and the 70’s. Due to the Saudi oil boom, Yemeni people became more affluent and purchased the horn largely as a status symbol. The CITES ban came into effect in 1977, and in 1994 civil war broke out in Yemen, both of which contributed to a decline in demand for rhino horn, and thus a drop in poaching. Many Asian countries also banned the use of rhino horn in medicines and added stricter controls. Good had once again triumphed evil.

The Lull

From 1995 to 2007 poaching incidents were negligible and rhino numbers were increasing. The CITES ban was working. It has also been suggested that stockpiled horns existed and could be distributed to new markets after key Asian markets banned rhino horn which led to little need for obtaining new horns. Once stockpiles were depleted, new product was needed. It all changed when a rumour was spread in Vietnam that rhino horn cures cancer. Demand increased drastically and once again rhino poaching started to become a serious issue. The Second Rhino war had begun.

The Second Rhino War 2007 – ?

Just in the region we live and work in, reports come in daily of another rhino being butchered and often left alive. As a write this, rhino 107 in Zululand has just been killed for 2016. Crime syndicates supported the illegal trade and prices up to $100,000/kg (USD) have been reported (large rhino can have up to 10kg of horn on its head). In 2010, 93% of white rhino were in South Africa, and >96% of black rhino in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya only. These are traditionally better funded and well trained conservation sectors and the rhino well protected. These are also the countries targeted especially South Africa. This has led to professional, organised poachers, well trained and funded, usually with military backgrounds and intelligence gathering capabilities. Teams often enter reserves with members armed with AK47’s whose role it is to engage anti-poaching teams, while the large calibre shooter remains behind, protected and ready to escape if needed, or pull the trigger on the life of a majestic, defenceless rhino.

The emergence of the current wave of poaching is linked to rising wealth in Vietnam. Despite the rumour of curing cancer, rhino horn is being used for many other purposes in Vietnam. From curing a hangover, being given as a gift, to simply owning a horn as a status symbol. Once again it appears to be tied to economics and increased disposable income, as well as unsupported archaic beliefs.

More recently figures released in 2019 by the Kruger National Park, a bastion of rhino conservation, have increased the concern for conservationists. The population has declined by 59%, with only just over 3 000 left of the almost 9 000 from a few years ago. This is in a well armed, organised, record-keeping reserve – what is happening in others with less resources? It is quite frightening.

The figures below showing a decline in poaching since 2015. This is likely partly due to the tireless work being done by on the ground teams to prevent incidents, partly due to the hard lockdown during the Covid 19 pandemic, but sadly also largely due to their simply being far less rhino to find to poach.

What can be done?

 Stategy 1: Dehorning

Dehorning has been the most recent conservation gamble. The idea is to remove as much of the rhino horn as possible and thus devalue it as a poaching target. Once one reserve started to de-horn, everyone had to follow as any rhinos not dehorned become a greater target. In any event, whatever may help is worth trying. Almost everyone involved hates the thought of having to remove the part that makes a rhino a rhino, but if it gives it a chance, then we have to try – this is the space we find ourselves in right now. In our region it has led to a 96% increase in survival from poaching incidents. So much money and manpower that is needed for conservation in general is being pumped into protecting rhinos, and it is a war we cannot win unless ordinary people around the world begin to stand up and take notice – and do something.

Dehorning is a painless exercise for the rhino. In some reserves they have gotten so professional that from the time the dart goes in to when the rhino is running back with its group can be between 13 to 20 minutes. The effects are constantly monitored and studied by every rhino reserve and so far there has been little observed negative impacts. Rhinos use their horns as tools, for defending themselves and their young, and for territorial battles. There has been no noticeable increase in calf mortalities, rhino behaviour appears unaffected, and they can fight and defend themselves. One precaution is often taken in that black rhino in the same area are usually dehorned simultaneously to prevent one having an advantage over another during territorial disputes. All this will be constantly monitored.

It is worth noting that the two reserves most hit by poaching are the two which cannot easily dehorn. They have the largest populations and by the time they have dehorned a fraction of their rhino, the horn has started growing back. The expense is astronomical.


Rhino work is not an easy task with the animal’s welfare always coming first.
Removing horns are another desperate attempt to give rhinos a fighting chance. In some cases even the young are not spared.

Strategy 2: Trade

The debate rages on about whether the trade in rhino horn should be legalised or not. My personal view leans slightly towards anti-trade, however there are many sides to this argument and with so many unknowns it is not difficult to understand why conservationists are so split on this subject.

Ultimately both sides of the argument want to save rhinos – they just differ in approach. I’m not an expert in this area – but I will share some thoughts around both concepts.

Pro-trade people believe that trading in rhino horn will bring important revenue into the system. Running a single reserve is extremely expensive, with continual costs, and almost every reserve runs on a fraction of what their budgets should be which leads to multiple negative knock-on effects and diminishes the reserves’ ability to protect their areas. Rhinos generally do well in captivity, and the argument is that if they are commercially farmed and the horn removed and sold – it is a sustainable approach. Rhinos don’t have to be killed to do this and the horn grows back after around 18 months. This would potentially lead to healthy wild populations as well as many in captivity being farmed and turn marginal areas into buffer zones for wildlife. The idea is that it feeds into a system that resembles the diamond trade set-up and is heavily controlled. With the huge stockpiles that exist, the market could be flooded, and prices and the status side of horn purchase would drop, hopefully leading to a drop in demand. Private rhino farming would be encouraged as they can turn a profit, and this would lead to many more rhinos in the system as well as money coming in to manage these systems as well as reserves. It must be noted that currently many private rhino farmers and some reserves have removed their rhinos permanently because the costs of security and the threat to staff are simply just too high to sustain.

Anti-trade people are concerned that the system will be too easily corrupted and illegal horns slipped in amongst the traded horns. That many of the pro-trade cheerleaders are commercially motivated over conservation, and that a similar flooding of the systems was tried with ivory in the past and it didn’t work. The primary concern, and a truly relevant one, is that the market is extremely unpredictable. Currently only a fraction of people use rhino horn, but once it becomes a commodity it will be marketed and advertised – and this will lead to a massive increase in demand. The complexities around market forces, a mixing of the legal and illegal trade, and the impact this will have on both farmed and wild populations is a scary unknown and once this route is opened up, can it be controlled, and could it ever be closed again if it doesn’t work? How much money and time has been invested in fighting poaching, and in education trying to prove the horns are not medically useful? How many rangers have died, how many poachers have left families behind, and how many conservationists already suffer from PTSD? What message would we be further sharing in selling horn?

Both government and private reserves stockpile their horns. When a dehorning takes place, the horn and shavings are collected, weighed, and microchipped. DNA is taken from the rhino and sent to a National Data base that is used in track and trace work and to strengthen trial cases.

The stockpiled horns are secreted away to private and government locations and stored. The thought is if the trade does open, having the stockpile of horns will bring revenue in to the system as well as allow for the market to be flooded. (I guess that’s the two different views within the pro-trade group – one is we can make money, the other is this could be our Hail Mary pass and we need to make sure it works). There is a strong call for these stockpiles to be burned – but is this really the solution? Isn’t that just driving the price up, and a system that is also open to corruption? If we get to that last chance scenario – isn’t this removing the last trick we have up our sleeves – going pro-trade? Some of the most dedicated rhino people, many of those on the frontlines of poaching and conservationists I respect with unimpugnable track records, are now starting to become more pro-trade. Is this purely because they have gotten to a point where they are desperate and willing to try anything – and who knows – perhaps it is (or isn’t) the answer.

To put it all in perspective, the average front horn of a white rhino alone can fetch up to R6 000 000 or almost US$400,000.00.

An adult male rhino is currently pricing around R60 000 – R80 000 or US$ 4,000 – US$5,300.00. This just doesn’t make sense.

One thing is clear, until a rhino is worth more than its horn, this issue is not easily going away.



If only my toenails were worth as much?

Strategy 3: Legislation, Condemnation, Prosecution, Pressure

One of the best ideas I heard of was an attempt to apply pressure on the Chinese and Vietnamese governments by a South African citizen, Mark Wilby. He started a campaign where people around the world collect their toenail clippings and post them weekly or monthly to the closest Chinese embassy until something more drastic was done. No disrespect was intended to Chinese culture, but the use in Chinese medicine is a key driver of poaching, and should likely be sent to the Vietnamese embassies too. This is currently the primary driver of illegal horn sales – status. Unfortunately, like many great ideas, it just didn’t take off. But pressuring governments and making rhino horn illegal everywhere with strictly enforced, serious consequences both at the source and at the areas of demand are critical. Arrests must lead to long term jail time. No more corruption.

Strategy 4: Supporting those who are making a difference daily

Behind every story and every sad event, there are great people and conservationist putting their lives on the line. In the horror, they are the ones who make a small difference. They are the heroes no-one knows about. And they are the ones that need support. More boots on the ground, more funding for equipment, strengthened K9 units, more training, and spreading awareness of what is truly happening are really what is needed.

We live in a world where Kimojis make a million dollars a minute (and well done to her – it’s an indictment on us), individuals need to write-off millions of dollars per year for tax purposes, bombastic politicians are worth billions of dollars, and a painting sells for over 100 million dollars. And yet, the greatest threat to the persistence of mankind on this planet is denied by thousands, and only 3% of all donation in the US during 2015 went to the environment (and only a tiny portion of that to wildlife – the UK has similar numbers). Shame on us. If we as protectors of this world, cannot save such a huge, iconic, prehistoric animal as a rhino, then what can we save, what does it say about us as a species, and what does it mean for our children’s future?


A rangers vehicle with multiple plugs for punctures is a common sight. Where do our priorities as the human race lie?

“This must be one of the most brutal fortnights yet in the history of the rhino poaching war, in our province. At least 14 deaths were discovered in various protected areas in as many days. (I can’t go into detail at this time but it’s getting even more savage, as if that’s possible.)
Yesterday honestly rates as one of the lowest points in my life as a wildlife vet, pretty much an emotional breaking point – but it’s not the first time; it’s something that is happening far too …often. 

I don’t think it is possible to explain to someone to someone who hasn’t experienced this nightmare, what even one death scene does to you. It’s traumatic and haunting, and cannot ever be erased from your mind. I’ve attended over 400!!!

So, how was yesterday even worse than all the others? Well – at first light on Saturday I flew out to do a post mortem on a dead rhino discovered the previous day. (I had been at other poaching scenes on Thursday and Friday already so this had to wait till Saturday. While flying we discovered a second body. Then a third. Then a fourth. FOUR! Can you even try and imagine what it’s like to experience so much death and destruction, all the time?! Thank God for Rowan’s veterinary help because it’s practically impossible to keep up anymore, physically OR mentally Thank God for Rowan’s veterinary help, because it’s practically impossible to keep up any more, physically OR mentally.

And then just as I arrived at our friend’s home at midday, the phone rang again with news that there as a tiny orphaned calf, from one of those murdered rhinos. And so another mad race back to the game reserve to get him in time, all the while thinking this was going to be number five! The poor little guy is only about three months old, small enough to load in the helicopter. It’s always touch and go. But thankfully, with the devoted attention of my colleague Dumi Zwane all night at our bomas, (and with 9 orphans, THAT’S a full time job too), the calf has started drinking and looks like he’ll be okay. If he hadn’t made it I am not sure what I would have done. I just cannot describe how utterly hellish yesterday was for all of us out there. This is just TOO MUCH now! “– Wild Vet (Dr. Dave Cooper, 18 September, 2016)

Black Rhino living its good life.

It is impossible to forget the trauma of a poached rhino crime scene. The first one I was exposed to was in one of the parks in northern Zululand where we work. Rangers had discovered a carcass of a female who had been shot a day or two before. Piecing together the events from evidence on site told a harrowing tale. Poachers had tracked the female and shot her in the spine. She didn’t die immediately. Not wanting to shoot again and perhaps be discovered, the poachers used machetes to hack at her spine to try immobilise her so they could cut the horn off without her moving. Multiple wounds attested to this as well as the soil and ground churned up in her death struggle. After realising it didn’t stop her moving her head, they turned their attention to the back of the neck – and carved a huge “v” shape into her neck through the hump (chopping out a piece the size of a beach ball) until they hit her spine. They then chopped off her horns and left her there alive. She died shortly before rangers discovered her. Her young calf was not found and a helicopter was sent into the air to try find signs of it, as well as rangers sent to track for the helpless orphan. It was never found and presumed killed by lions. Once an autopsy was completed it was discovered she was pregnant. Three rhinos were lost that day in a brutal inhumane onslaught. And this is not a unique story. We hear of rangers at crime scenes, shaken to see rhinos staggering over a ridge towards them with their horns hacked off, young calves beaten to death to prevent interference while removing the horn of its still living mother, and rhino orphanages brimming with new intakes. Not long ago all the known rhinos (>10) in a reserve in Zululand were dehorned. We were buoyed by a report of poachers coming in and tracking a rhino only to leave after seeing its stub of a horn. However, just a few days later it was reported that one of the few remaining rhinos just dehorned in an attempt to make it safer, was poached. And it was not the adult, but the young calf – butchered for a stubby piece of keratin (same as your hair and fingernails) of a baby rhino. This reserve today, once home to almost 80 rhinos and mostly black rhinos, no longer has a single rhino left.

Rhinos have no voices. We on the ground fighting the fight on their behalf are all they have. I am not sure this is a war that rhinos can win. This prehistoric, gentle, magnificent animal will likely end up confined to the annals of history with a few stuffed individuals on display in the Smithsonian. Unless the world speaks up.

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