They come in the dead of the night, rappelling down from helicopters, armed with night-vision goggles and chain saws. They act quickly and ruthlessly. The target? Killing an elephant or rhino in order to score an ivory tusk or horn.
It's hard to believe an elephant tusk or rhino's horn can fetch as much as $1-million USD on the black market. They are the plum treasures in the $10-billion annual trade in illegal wildlife products.
Rhinos are big lumbering creatures, coloured a peculiar shade of sandy red (they typically turn the colour of the soil they eat). Although they can weigh up to several thousand pounds, poachers are only interested in that single horn. And despite their size, rhinos are gentle grazers, helping to keep the African savannah healthy.
From my spot in a Jeep on a rhino trek in Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, the savannah was looking pretty good. A few antelopes zigged by, and we were warned to be careful of the snakes. The ground was muddy from the recent heavy rains.
We hiked for maybe 40 minutes before we saw three rhinos: a massive male, a mother and her 10-month-old baby. Even at such a young age, the baby rhino seemed massively sturdy and unflappable. What struck me though wasn't their size (which was very large indeed), but rather their gentleness and slow-moving docility. Such ferocious looking creatures, but you're much more likely to be killed by a hippo, the deadliest animal in Africa.
The rhino has been around for 50-million years. It has only taken the past 40 years to eradicate 90 per cent of them. The horns are not even made of real ivory, but rather keratin. The majestic elephant, evolved around 5-million years ago, is unlucky enough to sport real ivory tusks. Although the ivory trade has been banned in most Western countries since the 1970s, demand for ivory in Vietnam and China has driven prices up and driven down the rhino and elephant populations.
Traditional Chinese Medicine holds that ivory can cure a wide range of maladies including cancer. The demand for unproven medical solutions led to 450 rhinos killed in 2011 in South Africa alone.
Jessica Hatcher, writing in the Daily Telegraph last year, wrote that hunted rhinos run nose-first into dense bush, burying their horn: "Some say it is an act of self-preservation and that the species has evolved with the knowledge that there is a new predator at large -- mankind and its ongoing obsession with a keratin snout." Whether or not rhinos and elephants are aware of their impending doom, the ivory trade could care less. It just wants the product.
At the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary in northern Uganda, the Ugandan Wildlife Authority is hoping to reverse the effect of years of poaching on the rhino population. With a population of 12 rhinos, the sanctuary employs over 50 rangers to keep a 24-hour guard on the rhinos. Although rhinos breed very slowly, it is hoped that someday, there will be enough rhinos to introduce to Murchison Falls National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park. At the moment, though, conservationists across Africa, particularly in Kenya and South Africa, are grappling with how to deal with the increased poaching. It is clear something needs to be done but what? One popular suggestion is to legalize the hunt in a controlled, sustainable fashion.
This is, clearly, a highly controversial method to regulate the ivory trade; it might be the only option but it is far from certain that it will be enough. For one, the demand for ivory far outstrips supply. Call it insatiable. Rhinos cannot reproduce fast enough at the moment to keep the species alive; hunting would have to be heavily restricted.
And then there is the reality that while sustainable harvesting sounds good, it is a grim and bloody business nonetheless. For elephants, tusks often have to be removed along with the entire face -- often by chainsaw in order to extract every last piece of ivory, far from a humane ending for an animal. It is a troubling trend we are witnessing across Africa but the governments need to enact stricter penalties for poaching.
Ironically, in China the killing of a panda was once punishable by death. Even today, it can land the poacher 20 years in prison. In Kenya, by contrast, poaching is punishable by as little as three months prison sentence. Additionally, education in Asia on the method of ivory extraction is badly needed; in 2009, a survey found that nearly 70 per cent of Chinese people don't realize that elephants must die for the ivory extraction; they think it is harvested from live animals.
While helicopters and night-vision goggles may seem like the stuff of Jason Bourne, poaching is exacting a deadly toll across the continent. And unless something changes, the future generation will never know the tough skinned but vulnerable rhino.