Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

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No end to rhino poaching

No end to rhino poaching

ABOUT 60 000 rhinos or 85 percent of their global population have been wiped out since 1970, says the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), one of the world’s largest conservation organisations.

Efforts to stop poaching in Zimbabwe have been partially successful, but the future of the world’s most wanted animals, is still under serious threat.

During the summer season in the South East Lowveld of Zimbabwe, human beings are not the only ones to scurry for shelter from the sweltering heat.

Even the formidable looking rhinoceros seek cool temperatures under this savannah vegetation. Unfortunately, sometimes they fall into the hands of poachers ever on the lookout for the prize catch.

Zimbabwe is one of the countries in Africa which boasts a fair number of black and white rhinos.

In 1980, the country boasted 2 000 black rhinos – the world’s largest population of the species at that time. However, their number has declined steadily over the years. At last count in March this year the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority said the country had 700 rhinos remaining (400 black rhinos and 300 white).

Rhinos are still threatened with extinction with poaching being the main culprit in reducing the world’s population from 500 000 at the start of the 20th century to around 20 000 individuals surviving in the wild today a deep decline in a single century.

Both species have suffered dramatic declines in numbers to the extent that without focused conservation interventions, they were going to be driven into extinction, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), one of the world’s largest conservation organisations.

Also, both species of African rhino were listed in 1977 in Appendix 1 of the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species for Flora and Fauna (Cites), which prohibited all international trade of rhino parts and products.

Black rhinos currently number 4 840 (up from 4 240 in 2007), whilst white rhinos are more numerous, with a population of 20 150 (up from 17 500 in 2007), according to IUCN-The World Conservation Union.

The most distinguishing feature of the herbivorous animal, its horn – a compact mass of agglutinated hair – has made the rhino a most sought-after animal.

The rhino horn is a prized ingredient for traditional Chinese medicine. Its supposedly aphrodisiac qualities when taken in powder form bring it a fabulous price in the international market today, around US$70 000 or more for a single rhino horn, mainly in the South Asian countries, says TRAFFIC, the wildlife monitoring network.

Sexual prowess attributed to the horn could be due to its shape as it resembles the linga or phallus which is worshipped as Lord Shiva in India. Moreover, copulation between rhinos lasts much longer than between other animals and hence perhaps the association.

Containing poaching in Zimbabwe and saving the animal from extinction is proving difficult.

The areas where the rhinos live are surrounded by human inhabitants, providing ample opportunity for villagers to collude with poachers. Poachers also exploit the rhino’s fondness for wallowing in marshy land and the habit of always following same track. In addition, they have on their side vast financial backing through international smuggling rackets.

While personnel from the National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority are trained, there is inadequate funding to access resources such as patrol equipment, says Geoffreys Matipano, National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority’s National Rhino Co-ordinator(Biological).

In addition, the parks authority does not get any grants from the Government for rhino conservation. But under these difficult circumstances, anti-poaching rangers have done commendable work to contain the problem and compared to some African range states, the track record has been good.

But the poachers are getting cleverer by the day. The newest threat to the survival of the rhino is that the poachers have networked into well-resourced organised criminals who use sophisticated equipment. Sometimes the poachers cut off the horn even when the animal is still alive.

Zimbabwe has undertaken extensive dehorning projects together with Kenya and Namibia, with mixed results. But this exercise is expensive and presents logistical challenges.

It has been argued that stricter laws making it easier to convict poachers would be a more effective solution. Says one observer: “The law at times puts us at a disadvantage. Unless the poacher knows he is going to be mortally wounded if caught, you can’t put fear in his heart and make him desist from his nefarious trade.”

Little has been done to encourage research. Independent researchers are treated with suspicion and few are prepared to follow their advice.

However, conservationists are encouraged by the recent efforts by the Government to involve the judiciary to understand the economic and environmental losses resulting from rhino poaching. Even more, officials and conservationists are calling for Cites to allow Zimbabwe to trade in rhino horn so as to generate income to protect the endangered rhino.

Currently, the country is stuck with five tonnes of rhino horn in its stockpiles.

Perhaps due to its unusual amour-plated body, and poor sight but acute sense of smell, the animal has always evoked wonder among people.

The rhino is associated with Western mythical animal Unicorn and can be found in the earliest Mesopotamian pictorial art. A Chinese 27 BC prototype is called Ch’i Lin.

In India, a seal of the Mohenjodaro civilisation of the third century BC shows a rhino. In later Hindu mythology it is projected as a powerful animal fit for carrying around the supreme god, Vishnu.

Even now, in parts of India, Nepal and South East Asia, it is thought that eating rhino flesh or drinking its blood is the surest way to go to heaven. In Nepal, consuming its urine is supposed to cure diseases like asthma.

Cups made of rhino horn were in great demand among medieval royal families of Assam and nearby countries. It was thought to be capable of absorbing venom and in palace intrigues, poisoning was a constant threat.

But what about the future of the rhino? “Every ecologist knows that all animals and plant life in an ecosystem are closely linked,” says an ecologist with the national parks authority. “If the rhino goes, our extermination will not be far.”

Conservationists believe that unless serious steps are undertaken at national and international levels, there is a danger of this unique species becoming merely a beast of splenderous tales of the past.


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