Rhino poaching: inside the brutal trade
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Juliáo Chiburre, chief secretary of Magude town council, wears a neat stripy shirt, a khaki jacket and a mournful air: the 36-year-old Mozambican bureaucrat is at his wits’ end. Surrounded by files, he goes over the dilemmas familiar to officials in remote towns across rural Africa: erratic electricity, concerns about the harvest, potholed roads — before turning to the epic price and peril of his town’s speciality trade. “We try to tell the people not to do this,” he says. “They pretend to listen but once we leave, they do their business. The promised amounts are very attractive. When the youth come back here, they buy cars and spend money.”
And the risks? “Things are a little better now,” he says. “But last year we were talking of 10 funerals in two or three months.”
Magude in southern Mozambique is one of the poorer communities in one of the poorer districts in what was until recently one of the most benighted countries in the world. It is also a thriving entrepot in the multibillion dollar illegal wildlife trade. Magude is the first staging post in a global supply chain that ends in east Asia, where rhino horn has long been coveted for its supposed healing powers.
It is one of three Mozambican towns investigators cite as a recruiting ground for poachers behind the intensifying massacre of rhinos. Just 40 miles of straggly bush to the west is South Africa and Kruger National Park. A decade ago it was a haven: poachers killed an average of 14 rhinos a year in South Africa between 1990 and 2007. The number rocketed to 83 in 2008, and 1,215 last year, about five per cent of Africa’s total population.
An impoverished sliver of a country snaking 1,500 miles up the south-eastern coast of Africa, Mozambique was wracked by civil war until 1992. Now it is a booming frontier market, presided over by its formerly Marxist liberation movement, which is enthusiastically embracing capitalism. In Maputo, the capital, London-based lawyers tussle for the new-found riches in offshore gas. But the hinterland remains desperately poor. In Magude’s square, as in so many across rural Africa, a fringe of subsistence hawkers selling maize is the principal sign of commercial activity. Yet just a quarter of a mile along a track heading north, the road is lined with newly-built Romanesque villas. Some have pillars; some porticoes; most satellite dishes; all high walls. It is almost as if you have crossed into suburban Johannesburg or even Los Angeles.
For every rhino horn brought back across the border a poacher can expect around $5,000 — a Croesan sum in a country that last year increased the minimum agricultural wage to about $100 a month. Rhinos may have roamed the planet for millions of years but they are large, lumbering and myopic. All you need is a rifle, an axe and, if you are lucky, just a few hours’ tracking. In 2013, Magude’s first electronics shop opened, selling air-conditioning units, fridge freezers, wine glasses and the odd Samsung tablet. “Business is good,” says the young salesman from northern Pakistan.
As is the funeral trade. Since 2008, some 220 poachers, mainly Mozambicans, have been killed by security forces and rangers in Kruger. And still, they come. Ten potholed miles west of Magude is the scattered settlement of Timanguene. A “middleman” told me kingpins went there promising riches to would-be recruits. Horácio Nhatsave, a thickset young man with bloodshot eyes, denies the claim. But, he adds, every teenager likes to talk of the riches on their doorstep. “Young people here talk of having enough money to buy a gun to kill rhino and then to live their dreams. When they come back, they think this is a rundown place. They choose to go to Magude. That is the epicentre of showing off — they are heroes.”
Magude is just one small part of a global criminal network that feeds off and reinforces the fragility of institutions in emerging markets. Each year between $7bn and $23bn of protected species are butchered and traded, according to a report this month by the Royal United Services Institute. Rhinoceros horn is particularly enticing: it is easily smuggled and commands more per kilo than gold. There is also a voracious market — east Asia’s rapidly expanding elite. Conservationists argue you can track the ebb and flow of poaching in recent decades alongside charts of east Asian emerging markets coming on stream. Their increasingly affluent middle classes have the money to splash out on traditional beliefs, with dire consequences for endangered species. “Crazy new money and old ideas,” says Peter Knights, executive director of California-based conservation group WildAid.
The last time I reported on a migration of youth from Mozambique through Kruger was in the mid-1990s when tens of thousands risked their lives each year to cross to their more prosperous neighbour. Then, migrants were driven by the simple desire for a better life. As part of an investigation spanning continents, I returned to the region in 2015 to probe poachers driven by the same desperation. But they are mere pawns in a ruthless international endeavour. Their trade does more than threaten some of the world’s most noble species. It exposes a shadowy side of globalisation and the boom in emerging markets, while highlighting the difficulties of tackling organised crime in an age of high-speed trade routes. These are good times for poachers — and not just in Mozambique.
Chiburre picks his words carefully. A government crackdown will turn the tide, he says. But amid such poverty it is hard to persuade people to revere the rhino or to heed his warnings. “Most of the youth who get involved in poaching lose their lives . . . No one says goodbye when they leave for South Africa. If they said goodbye, their parents would tell them not to go but because they want an adventure, they go . . . and then come back shot. How do we change behaviour?”
It is a question vexing campaigners and policymakers across the world.
Supply: South Africa
The world has become grimly accustomed to the slaughter of Africa’s great game. When fresh footage of butchered rhinos or elephants hits the television screens it is all too easy to assume the atrocities are just another chapter in a long-running saga and that the threatened species will survive. But Robbie Bryden, battle-weary head ranger for a swath of Kruger, believes this time really is different. The rhino is facing its second existential crisis of the past 50 years and Bryden is starting to lose hope that it will be able to survive in the wild.
When we met one evening in June, he looked exhausted. He had been tracking poachers since dawn. By late afternoon he was just half an hour behind them. But sunset came and they escaped. Bryden, 36, son of a legendary conservationist, presides over 91,000ha of Kruger, including a 62km stretch of the border with Mozambique. It is one of the grander posts in conservation but he has little time for the extraordinary array of species and fauna; he is “99.9 per cent on anti-poaching”. Night after night, he is woken with news of an attack. In one year he came across 70 rhino carcases with a trademark wound to the head. This May alone he faced 35 “incursions” into his zone. “We can only do so much,” he says. “The fight needs to get outside the park. We can’t fight it alone.”
From the 1960s to the early 1990s there was an explosion of poaching in weak postcolonial states across sub-Saharan Africa. Numbers of the northern black rhino fell from 100,000 in 1960 to just over 2,400 in the early 1990s. Its larger, more affable, cousin, the southern white rhino, also came close to extinction in the 1960s. A particular stimulus was surging demand from Taiwan and South Korea as their economies soared. International pressure, including the threat of sanctions, and awareness programmes curbed consumption. A breeding programme saw numbers rise. Then, in 2008, poaching exploded again: a new acquisitive middle class in Vietnam was coming on stream. In recent years its economy has thrived on the back of cheap manufacturing, creating a nouveau riche who can now afford to indulge exotic traditional beliefs — that ingesting rhino horn can treat cancer, for example. Laos and Cambodia are also now seen as growing new markets for the trade.
Ellery Worth has witnessed the bloodbath at close range, first in South Africa and now in Mozambique. The lanky 35-year-old South African warden has a muscular tanned frame, a laconic manner and a host of compelling stories. In happier times he would have regaled visitors with stirring tales of close encounters with the big five (lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino). But now his stories are of encounters with Kruger’s number one predator, the poacher. “These guys are disciplined,” he says. “They run like the wind. They walk for kilometres and kilometres. They spend nights living off bread and two litres of water.
“Poachers used to come in at night, and we’d set up an ambush with four or five guys. We originally didn’t have firearms so we came up with a whole host of different methods. Paintball guns was one, pepper spray was another. The poacher walked down a track and we’d jump out, spray pepper balls and grab them. Then they’d change their tactics. Eventually we were allowed to carry guns.” Unfortunately, the poachers have upped their firepower too. Worth’s men were confiscating “very old-school Winchesters”. Now they are finding state-of-the art Czech rifles.
Kruger, founded in 1898 by Afrikaners shortly before their ill-fated war against Britain, stretches across 20,000km of lowland bush and is roughly the size of Israel. In recent decades, Kruger has been a sanctuary for the white rhino; some 90 per cent of the estimated 20,000 alive are in South Africa, mainly in Kruger. But now the haven is a killing field. A few years ago, visitors to Singita reserve, a privately-run 15,000ha expanse on Kruger’s eastern border, could expect to see dozens of rhinos. Since 2008, Singita has lost more than 50. Now there are just six or so left. Worth remembers seeing 35 in one drive a few years ago but I saw none on a three-hour excursion in June. The next morning, after several hours of searching, I saw one sheltering under a tree about 30m away. It was a 12- to 15-year-old male and had a magnificent half-metre-long horn. After a wary glance at us, it trotted skittishly away. The odds are it will not survive the year.
Southern Africa’s sweeping horizons have long encouraged conservationists to think big. Singita, which means place of miracles, is at the forefront of such visionary thinking. It has acquired a concession over the Garingani reserve, a tract of 148,000ha in Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park, which faces Kruger. The plan is to create a giant trans-frontier reserve of more than three million hectares. First, it will secure the eastern boundary, working with the Mozambicans to police it. Then, eventually, the fence may come down. “Fences are not the greatest deterrents,” says Mark Witney, Singita’s chief operating officer. “People will find a way to get over or under them. We don’t believe that even a fortified fence is really the answer. A proper anti-poaching patrol will do much more.” This is anathema to some conservationists and officials in South Africa. But a walk along the desolate border across which Mozambicans pour every night leaves you in little doubt it would require a Berlin Wall structure to have any effect.
Worth is in charge of security in Garingani. He already sees signs of a greater determination from Mozambique’s authorities, which have faced mounting international pressure to intervene. When he started in 2013, “there was free access to Kruger . . . My first day I saw Land Cruisers driving people up to Kruger . . . ” Now there is an elite new anti-poaching force with more modern equipment, a good relationship with South African forces, and new regulations; a law last year made the poaching and trafficking of rhino horn a crime.
The Mozambican entrusted with overseeing the promised crackdown is a confident, wiry officer in crisp fatigues. Commander Jorge Cebola tots up successes in intercepting getaway vehicles and boats. But Cebola’s mission is a version of whack-a-mole. In July, the authorities destroyed more than 2,400kg of ivory and 86 pieces of rhino horn but elephant numbers have dropped in Mozambique by 48 per cent in five years, mirroring a similar slaughter in Tanzania.
“Many young Mozambican men don’t have a job and see ‘hunting’ as the solution,” Cebola says. “Then there is this desire to get rich quick. They have nothing and just want to decimate the rhinoceros to get rich in one day.” Fernando Macanero, one of his lieutenants, describes shoot-outs with poachers almost as if describing a daily commute. One morning he was tipped off that a gang of poachers was heading back from Kruger. He had four men against 12 but his team had served in the army, so they ran in pursuit. “Because they [the poachers] had AK-47s . . . it was difficult . . . I had to give a call to my manager with a satellite phone. I told him we’re in the middle of the crossfire. He wanted to say something and I said, ‘Sir. I’ll call you another time because I’m busy now.’”
South African officials say they have arrested some 1,400 poachers in recent years. But the rangers know that to turn the tide they have to find the middlemen and kingpins; and that is proving harder. Worth knows many of the bosses by sight. He recalls how a speeding poacher ran over and killed one village leader. “At the funeral, the boss of the guy driving the car paid for the tombstone and the coffin. He arrived with Black Label whisky, so he was a hero!” He and Mozambican rangers once arrested a notorious alleged boss. “How it got to court I don’t know. He got five years. In an intermission, it was commuted to a fine.” Rangers say they have lost count of how many times they have caught suspected poachers and handed in their rifles to the police — only to confiscate the very same firearms in a subsequent raid.
Cebola concedes it is “a little delicate”. To date, he says he has never arrested a boss and no poacher has denounced one. “They have orders that if they are caught, they are not to say anything and not to say who has given them the orders. The poacher remains in custody and the boss is free and he only concerns himself with paying the bail to release the poacher.” He knows who the bosses are, he adds. But without evidence they cannot bring them to court. He stops short of citing what conservationists have long highlighted: the complicity of officials. In May, the government revealed that 12 rhino horns had disappeared from a police warehouse after the largest seizure on record. A few weeks later, the CanalMoz news agency issued an illuminating bulletin. Five policemen from Massingir, another poaching town, had been arrested. They had detained a poacher who had a rhino horn. They drove home with him, sold the horn to a “buyer” for $26,000 and split the proceeds. When the police were arrested, the poacher had disappeared.
South Africa’s justice system has more robust foundations than Mozambique’s. But the police’s record is also patchy, and the prosecutors’ challenge is the same: securing convictions. They tend to pursue charges of trespass or illegal possession of firearms but these can prove hard to stick and command light sentences. All the while, pressure mounts. Poachers have opened a new front on Kruger’s South African flank. Most attacks are now from the west. It is a reminder that the syndicates have links inside South Africa where villagers fringing the park are also desperately poor.
In recent years there has been some success against the smugglers who link the poachers with the syndicates and oversee the shipment of the horns. These are mainly from Southeast Asia. Colonel Johan Jooste, commander of a specialist South African police unit, says that in the past year or so “lots” of Asian middlemen have been convicted in South Africa. These include a Thai, called Chumlong Lemtongthai, a lieutenant of the so-called Xaysavang syndicate, who was jailed in 2012 for 40 years, later reduced on appeal to 13. He hired people — including young Thai women working in brothels — to pose as hunters in sham hunts of white rhinos. South Africa’s laws allow for limited hunting of rhinos to raise revenue for conservation. The trophies cannot be bought, sold or traded. Jooste, a burly Afrikaner, is a legendary figure in the rhino wars who joined the endangered species unit in 1992, two years before the end of white rule. He has doggedly pursued white farmers who have made a fortune facilitating the fake trophy trade. The key to success, he argues, is to treat each killing as a murder: find the weapon; find the killer. “It’s emotional but it’s a crime scene,” he says. Interpol is warming to his methods, he adds. “We see a turn of the tide in a subtle way.”
But catching the bosses of the east Asian syndicates is far harder. Julian Rademeyer, author of Killing for Profit, has investigated the trade for years. The “frightening reality”, he says, is that only one alleged rhino horn trafficking kingpin has been identified, Vixay Keosavang, in Laos. Chumlong was his deputy. The US has pledged a $1m bounty for information leading to the dismantling of Vixay’s network. “None of the others are known. None of the Vietnamese or Chinese convicted in South Africa is a kingpin in a transnational syndicate and Vixay is going about his business as usual,” says Rademeyer. “Catching top-tier traffickers is doomed to failure as long as they continue to operate with impunity in their home countries.”
Rademeyer has concluded that policing “supply” is a stop-gap solution. Local law enforcement agencies “simply do not have the resources or the manpower”, he says. With its high murder rate, South Africa has greater policing priorities than rhino poaching. “Look at the challenges the government faces — building schools, ensuring low-income housing — these are the real challenges. Poaching is far removed from that.”
In this context, campaigners have turned their focus from “supply” to “demand”. It has taken them thousands of miles to the east, to Asia’s emerging markets and, in particular, Vietnam.
Number 35 Lan Ong in the old quarter of Hanoi is in the style of the former French colonial capital. The ethos of the traditional healer’s shop on the ground floor, however, is steeped in the culture of an older overlord of Vietnam, its northern neighbour China. There are bottles of pickled snakes and scorpions, packets of longevity mushrooms and boxes proclaiming “white tiger balm”. The prize stock is kept discreetly out of the public eye.
The young shop assistant reached under her counter and fished out two plastic bags. The contents looked like gnocchi; the wording was unmistakable: pangolin scales, cooked and uncooked. You grind and mix the cooked one with soup, she said helpfully. They were $550 per kilo. The raw scales were $750. I was offered a small bag of the former for $150 — to the barely suppressed rage of my companion Nguyen Van Thai, a fiery young activist.
The pangolin, a prehistoric anteater the size of a small dog, is the planet’s most illegally trafficked mammal. With the three species of east Asian pangolins close to extinction, their African cousins are being shipped to feed demand — echoing the plight of the rhino. “People say pangolin can cure cancer, stimulate milk,” fumed Thai. “State hospitals sell pangolin scales. It’s crazy.”
Before 1990, when Vietnam was all but closed off from the global economy, its role in the illegal trade was limited to smuggling wildlife across its northern border to feed China’s huge market for traditional medicine. Beijing has clamped down in recent decades; in May it destroyed 662kg of confiscated ivory and called for new measures to tackle the illegal trade. But China’s appetite remains vast and Vietnam is, for many smugglers, the obvious overland transit route. Many horns are smuggled on commercial airliners, says Rademeyer, “as hand luggage . . . smeared in toothpaste or shampoo to hide the stench and the couriers bribing their way through”. Vietnam, however, is not just a “middleman”; it is also a market in its own right.
Vietnam is still a highly centralised one-party state. As a visiting journalist I was expected to inform the authorities of my meetings. Activism is frowned upon but Thai is not cowed. He strides through the market like an avenging angel of the pangolin. “Pangolins are all gone in China,” he declares. “Most people in northern and central Vietnam say they are already locally extinct.” In the northern hills of Vietnam, his NGO, Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, runs a sanctuary. There he looks after dozens of pangolins, most rescued after they were confiscated from poachers. His mission is almost too late. Pangolins have found their armour, a defence for millennia, is unavailing against man. Traditionally the pangolins rolled up in a ball but poachers just pick up the balls and sell the animals to traditional healers or restaurants.
At the Tiec Cuoi restaurant, a few doors from the residence of the US ambassador, it was clear that a government crackdown is only so vigorous. The head waiter offered me a menu with a range of pangolin dishes: steamed with ginger and citronella; grilled; stir-fried with onion and mushrooms. This was in the “Wild Animal” section, after porcupine and wild boar and just above crocodile. A picture of a pangolin illustrated the recipes. As the sound system pumped out Rod Stewart’s “Sailing”, the waiter could not have been more helpful. “Many customers come here and order pangolin. I think in one month 10-15 pangolin . . . Good for your health . . . makes you stronger.”
For the new Vietnamese elite, flamboyant excess is the order of the day, even as the ruling party continues to deliver communist homilies. One evening I found myself drinking three-tiered flaming $20 cocktails with an up and coming young party activist. In this atmosphere, rhino horn is prized not just for its supposed healing powers but also as a designer accessory for bright young things. When crushed into a powder and drunk with water, it does have palliative qualities akin to aspirin but it is made merely of keratin, the protein that makes up fingernails. “If you use it for a fever, you might as well use Panadol,” snorts Hong Hoang, a campaigner.
Hong dates the surge in rhino horn use to rumours in 2006 that a “famous top-ranking person” took it and was cured. She says fellow activists in her NGO Change, based in Ho Chi Minh City, all know someone who works for the government who uses rhino horn. “And the thing is they don’t only use rhino horns to cure their disease, they use it for fun. So, if they have a company retreat, a year-end party, they would have rhino horns that were out for everyone to use because they believe it has a magic . . . as a Viagra.” So what do they say when you say this is wrong? “They would say, Hoang, you are wrong. They would say it works. They would say, ‘Yes it cures our hangover. Yes it cures our fever.’”
NGOs such as Change, which is linked to WildAid, face pressure from the authorities. Officials are particularly incensed by Hong’s public rejection of their line that Vietnam is a transit route and not a destination in itself. “They come to me and say, ‘How dare you say Vietnam is like China as a top consumer?’” She laughs. “I know 10 people who use rhino horn. Everyone knows someone. I can’t just say Vietnam is a tiny country and rhino just passes us by. I have friends who use it. Of course they say they’ll stop. I know they don’t.”
In recent years, campaigning groups have turned to a host of high-profile figures to help change public opinion. Prince William has been in the vanguard. In an article for the Financial Times, he argues that tackling the trade is a test of the world’s collective will to confront a challenge, not least because confronting it is “more straightforward than we sometimes admit . . . We know on which roads and which ports — like those in Dar es Salaam and Mombasa — that criminals exploit to transport it from killing field to marketplace.” The Royal Foundation, Prince William’s and his younger brother Prince Harry’s charitable arm, has convened a “United for Wildlife” taskforce of business people and politicians. He has also helped to mobilise celebrities, building on the success of awareness campaigns in China, led by basketball star Yao Ming, which are credited with reducing the consumption of shark fin soup. The recruits include one of Vietnam’s most glamorous pop stars. I first encountered Thu Minh, known at home as the Queen of Dance Pop, looking slightly bemused at a charity cricket game at Windsor Castle.
Looking out from her veranda over Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, she concedes she once believed in the power of animal body parts — and was reluctant to speak out about it in her flashy circle. “I had never seen rhino horn or used it but I’d heard a lot about it from friends — successful and rich people. When we hung out they used to talk about it. The way they talked about it was that it worked. People would say, ‘Try to get a small piece of rhino, to keep in the family, just in case [you need it].’”
She was only persuaded to speak out after Otto, her Dutch husband, urged her to visit rhino sanctuaries in South Africa. “I was very nervous. I said this story is very strong in our society.” Her latest music video features a rhino cuddly toy. She tours schools to condemn the trade, defending her role against critics who accuse her of being unpatriotic by saying she is thinking of her children’s environment. “When I was in school I was taught that Vietnam is a rich environment with a gold forest surrounded by a silver sea, but now it’s not a rich country. Half that has been destroyed and people are not aware.”
The awareness campaign is still at its early stages. While a 2014 survey by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in Vietnam claimed a 77 per cent drop in the number of people who buy or use rhino horn in Hanoi, there are reasons to be cautious about these data. Scott Roberton, a British conservationist who has chronicled Vietnam’s stance on trafficking for 15 years, is sceptical of the chances of an imminent breakthrough. His branch of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society is on the 13th floor of a tatty apartment block on the edge of Hanoi. He warns me I have caught him on a “despair day” as he details cases of collusion by customs and police. His mood rallies a little as he recalls the denialism of a decade ago. The government is changing, he says, highlighting several state initiatives. Ten years ago the idea that there was a problem over illegal wildlife trade was “pushed under the carpet”. Next year Vietnam is to host a summit on it. But its record remains dire.
Roberton sees enforcement as the key. He cites as evidence a successful crackdown on firecrackers in 1995. “It was a tradition going back thousands of years. Overnight, it was an effective ban.” He believes international business and political leaders should put relentless pressure on governments in the region to implement the law. “Global leaders are probably the most useful when they are behind closed doors saying to the prime ministers, ‘Why don’t you just crack down on this? It is a few people. It’s causing a lot of harm to the country.’”
Quyen Vu is even tarter. She is executive director of Education for Nature, which investigates and runs awareness campaigns about wildlife crime. She is enraged by feuding between agencies, backsliding on legislation and prevalent corruption. When her investigators uncovered a syndicate presiding over a stash of butchered sea turtles, they told a particular branch of the national police rather than local officials. “The corruption is so big we don’t know who to give the evidence to,” she says. “As for customs, sea ports, airports, all the gates are open.”
Solutions? What the world can do now
The killing of Cecil, a Zimbabwean lion, by an American dentist in July sparked outrage over the lot of Africa’s big game and a debate over the role of hunters in conservation. But it overshadowed two far bigger questions over the future of endangered species: if clamping down on supply and demand is insufficient, what should be done? And what about following the example of the war against drugs elsewhere and opening a legal trade to try to undermine criminal networks and drive down the price?
Former British foreign secretary William Hague is heading Prince William’s taskforce, which is assessing the role of airlines, shipping companies and ports. Airlines such as Emirates and Kenya Airways, shipping lines such as Maersk, and the International Maritime Organisation and International Air Transport Association are on the taskforce. The prince’s aides cite as a parallel the “know your customer” initiative that many banks have embraced to crack down on money laundering. The taskforce met last week in Dubai, hosted by Dubai Ports International, to investigate the role of ports. “Ports are extremely important,” says Hague. “There are weak links down the east coast of Africa.” Airlines, too, are in the line of fire. The taskforce’s next target is the role of extractive industries. The past decade has seen a surge of Chinese businesses across sub-Saharan Africa. Investigators suspect these sometimes provide cover for smuggling wildlife parts.
Hague, who as foreign secretary last year hosted a summit on the trade, believes a solution is only possible with the commitment of the three principal “demand” countries: China, Thailand and Vietnam. Prince William, in his article, highlights his recent discussion with China’s president Xi Jinping as an encouraging sign of a shift of momentum in Beijing. But, as a rising power and the world’s second-largest economy, China has to be treated sensitively. The west has to treat it as a “shared problem” with China, Hague says, rather than attacking Beijing about it. “This is something that will seriously affect the world’s view of China and is a corrupt trade at a time when the Chinese leadership is cracking down hard on corruption in China. The story throughout history of terrible trades, from the slave trade onwards, is they’re only really eradicated when the demand is removed.”
Next year will revive the rancorous debate over whether to open up a limited trade in rhino horn. The pretext will be the countdown to Cites’ summit in Johannesburg in September. The pro-trade lobby argues that lessons can be learnt from, say, the Dutch decriminalisation of heroin: dealers were driven out of business and fewer people became addicted. Some African conservationists and officials contend you should open up the trade, “farm” rhinoceroses for their horns (which grow back), sell existing stockpiles of horn, and then plough back the proceeds into the local economy. Many veteran conservationists disagree. Witney, Singita’s COO, says this would be a terrible mistake. “The pro-trade lobby says you legalise the trade. You basically flood the market. You drop the price. You discourage the illegal trade by putting so much legal horn into the market. What that ignores is the huge number of aspirational users in Asia. You will create a legal trade which will run parallel with an illegal trade and no one will really be able to tell the difference.”
After the sun sets on the day of Bryden’s unavailing pursuit of poachers, we talk, as tends to happen in the bush, until late. We debate tactics from drones — deemed a distraction — to the development of a DNA database. But, as the campfire burns down, optimism dwindles. The shadows intensify the stress on Bryden’s face. “The influx is just so high,” he tells me, “that if we continue the way we’re going, we’re fighting a battle which is going to be very very difficult to get hold of. I know the last thing I want to tell my children is that I was there — on my watch the rhino was lost for ever.”
Alec Russell is the FT’s news editor and former southern Africa bureau chief. @AlecuRussell. There will be a private screening of the documentary at the FT’s Africa conference in London on October 5
Photographs: David Chancellor/Kiosk; Reuters; Corbis; Eyevine; Adam Dean/Panos; PA
Letter in response to this article:
Cruel trade in rhino horns needs a legal solution / From Michael Eustace