Life-saving Mission Across Borders | Rhinos on a Plane

By Daisy Carrington, for CNN | September 11, 2014 — Updated 1406 GMT (2206 HKT)

STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • The black rhino population has plummeted 97.6% since 1960
  • Poaching is on the rise in South Africa. Over 1,000 rhinos were hunted last year
  • Charity Rhinos Without Borders is planning to populate Botswana with rhinos
  • Botswana has the lowest poaching level in Africa

(CNN) | It’s been a bad year for the African rhino, particularly for those that call South Africa home. In 2013, over 1,000 rhinos were poached in South Africa alone. It’s a dangerously high number, when you consider there are only 5,000 black rhinos left on the continent (a 97.6% reduction since 1960). The white rhino story is a happier tale. Rescued from the brink of extinction, the species now numbers 20,000 — though conservationists worry they too are in danger, as rhino horn continues to sell for a hefty sum on the black market.

A rhino is killed every seven hours, and when you mention rhinos to anyone, they tend to shake their head in desperation,” says Dereck Joubert, who, along with his wife Beverly set up Rhinos Without Borders, a charity that has recently come up with a novel approach to saving one of Africa’s most iconic creatures. In 2015, the charity will move 100 rhinos from South Africa — which holds 80% of Africa’s rhino population — to Botswana, which has the lowest poaching rate in the continent. The rhinos are mainly donated from private sellers and the South African government. “It’s a bad idea to keep all your high-value assets in one place. Ecologically and genetically, it makes a lot of sense to spread them around, so if there’s a catastrophic event in one place, you don’t lose everything,” he explains.

Botswana: ‘Shoot to Kill’

One of the reason’s Botswana’s poaching levels are so low is that they have zero tolerance when it comes to poachers. Anti-poaching is handled by the Botswana Defense Force, who have a “shoot to kill” policy.

“If poachers are apprehended, and don’t immediately put down their weapons, the military basically treats them like an aggressive military threat,” Joubert notes.

“The risks are very high for poachers, and the rewards are very low.”

Botswana is also more remote and less populous — two factors that he says helps keep poaching at a minimum.

“A group of foreigners walking through with AK47s are very quickly identified,” he explains.

Making the Move

Rhinos Without Borders has partnered with tourism venture and Beyond, who moved rhinos from one of their private reserves to Botswana in 2011. Rhino candidates are sedated and their blood samples studied to make sure they’re strong enough to make the trip.

The rhinos then recover during a six-week quarantine before they’re moved by plane to a secret location in Botswana.

“They won’t be going in reserves near the borders either, because the president and the Botswana Defense Force don’t want to attract poachers,” explains Beverly Joubert.

Because rhinos’ first instinct is to seek out other herds, and Botswana has a low density of the species, synthesized rhino dung is used to help the relocated animals establish their territory. The process costs about $45,000 per rhino.

Busting the Horn Myth

Rhinos are killed almost exclusively for their horn, which currently sells for $65,000 per kilo (2.2 pounds). The demand is driven primarily by buyers in East Asia, who (inaccurately) ascribe various medicinal cure-alls to the horn.

In addition to running their charity, the Jouberts are also filmmakers and photojournalists for National Geographic. Together, they have made several films dispelling the myths concerning rhino horn’s supposed medicinal properties, in the hopes of changing attitudes abroad.

“It’s been claimed that rhino horn cures cancer, reduces fevers and is an aphrodisiac, and it’s been proven that none of those things are true,” says Beverly.

“Really, it’s like chewing your own finger nail. It’s carotene, that is all.”

The Ivory Link

The history of the rhino horn trade is closely intertwined with that of the ivory trade. In 1989, the Contention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) succeeded in implementing an international ban on ivory. The price for the material crashed overnight and poaching of elephants mainly came to a halt. In 2002, trade opened back up when a handful of nations, including South Africa, were allowed to sell their ivory stockpiles.

“The minute that happened, we saw an influx of poachers. At the same time, the market shifted straight across to include rhinos as well,” says Dereck.

Some conservationists have proposed farming elephants and rhinos to meet the global demand — an idea the Jouberts view as hopelessly misguided.

“If the strategy is to flood the market, the economics don’t add up,” he says.

“Maybe you could produce 6kg of horn a month from farming, but the market is over a billion strong.”


 NB • • Life on the Brink | Africa’s Dying Species

CNN

Poaching Pangolins | An Obscure Creature Faces Uncertain Future

BY RICHARD CONNIFF | YALE 360 ENVIRONMENT

The pangolin does not make headlines the way elephants or rhinos do. But the survival of this uncharismatic, armor-plated animal is being threatened by a gruesome trade in its meat and its scales.


 

  • Pangolins produce only one offspring a year, not enough to replace the population being lost to poachers.
  • Two of the four species in Asia are now categorized as endangered on the IUCN red list.
  • What’s needed are programs to reduce demand for pangolin parts in East Asia, a conservationist says.

Early this year, a Chinese fishing vessel ran aground in Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Philippines. The 12 crewmen were already in trouble for damaging the protected coral reef. But then the Philippine Coast Guard crew working to re-float the vessel got a look at the cargo: 400 boxes of what may be the world’s most heavily trafficked wild mammal contraband — pangolins, carefully butchered and frozen to be served up as a status symbol on the dinner plates of the nouveaux riches in China and Vietnam.

If you have never even heard of pangolins, much less pangolin poaching, you are not alone. Even conservationists tend not to know much about these armor-plated animals that are commonly known as scaly anteaters, perhaps because they are small, uncharismatic, and nocturnal. The headlines tend to focus on bigger and seemingly more immediate problems, notably the slaughter last year of 35,000 elephants for their ivory and 810 rhinos for their horns. But almost unnoticed, the illegal trade in pangolins has raged out of control, to meet demand in East Asia for both their meat and their scales, which are roasted and used, like rhino horn, in traditional medicines.

Within the Last Year Alone:

  • French officials seized 110 pounds of pangolin scales, said to be worth $100,000, being transshipped via Charles De Gaulle Airport from Cameroon to Vietnam.
  • Customs officials in Vietnam discovered a cargo of 6.2 tons of frozen pangolins being smuggled in from Indonesia.
  • Police in India stopped a shipment of scales taken from 300 pangolins.
  • Police in Thailand stopped a pickup truck carrying 102 pangolins.

Annual seizures run to about 10,000 pangolins, according to Dan Challender, co-chair of the pangolin specialist group for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But that number is almost certainly a small fraction of what gets through to the marketplace. Notebooks seized in 2009 from one trafficking syndicate, for instance, revealed that 22,000 pangolins had been killed over 21 months just in the northern Borneo state of Sabah.

All eight pangolin species are in dramatic decline and Challender says the specialist group is currently reviewing their conservation status on the IUCN red list. Two of the four species in Asia are now listed as endangered, and in Africa, two are near threatened. Until now, the African species have mainly been hunted for bush meat. But demand from China and Vietnam has recently pushed prices there as high as $7,000 for a single animal, according to Darren Pietersen, who tracks radio-tagged pangolins for his doctoral research at the University of Pretoria.

The name “pangolin” comes from the Malayan dialect word “pengguling,” meaning “something that rolls up.” It’s an apt description of the pangolin’s primary means of self-defense. When threatened, a pangolin will tuck its head under its tail and ball itself up in the shelter of its armor plating – it looks a bit like a basketball crossed with an artichoke. In this posture, it’s “too big for a lion or hyena to get its mouth around and get a grip,” says Pietersen, and the scales are too tough to penetrate. “Most often a lion just chews on them for a few hours and gives up.”

The pangolin’s way of life has also generally provided it with protection against predators and hunters. A pangolin is usually active for only about four to eight hours a night, when it heads out to raid ant nests and termite mounds. Its long, pencil-thin tongue can extend up to 16 inches for probing into a nest, and it is coated with a sticky substance like flypaper to catch and retrieve insects. The ants defend themselves by spraying formic acid, says Pietersen, but a pangolin generally feeds and moves away from a nest in a minute or two, before the noxious spray can have much effect. Otherwise, arboreal pangolins spend most of their time in nest holes high up in tree trunks, and ground-dwelling species hide out in burrows as much as 11 feet beneath the surface.

But hunters now use dogs to locate arboreal pangolins or they spotlight the animals as they forage. Then they take down the nest tree or set snares outside burrows. The basketball-like defensive posture that lions can’t handle turns out to be perfectly suited to human poachers, who can pick up a pangolin and bag it without even a struggle.

That makes pangolins “the new rhinos,” says Lisa Hywood, who manages the Tikki Hywood Trust, an animal rescue and conservation facility in Zimbabwe. But she says the hazard for pangolin species is more urgent than for bigger, better known species: Zoos at least know how to breed elephants and rhinos in captivity. So even if every last one were to be hunted out, it would still be possible to save those species and reintroduce them to the wild.

But so far, she says, captive breeding of any of the eight pangolin species has proven extraordinarily difficult. Moreover, captive breeding wouldn’t solve the problem: Pangolins in the wild produce only one offspring per year, not nearly enough to replace the population being lost to poachers. (In a horrific twist, presenting a pangolin fetus for dinner is regarded as a particularly impressive status symbol in China.) The bottom line is that if a pangolin species goes extinct in the wild, it will be gone forever.

In July, the IUCN sponsored a meeting in Singapore of 40 conservationists from 14 countries to develop a global plan for pangolin conservation. Laws banning the trade are already in place in many countries, and it is also forbidden under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. But enforcement is minimal, often with only token punishment for poachers. When they seize a pangolin shipment, some countries simply auction it off again, moving it back into the illegal market at a profit.

What’s needed, says Jonathan Baillie of the Zoological Society of London, are programs to “reduce demand for pangolin parts in East Asia” and also to create “pangolin strongholds where we can ensure the viability of populations in the wild.” One likely initiative is a social marketing campaign, with celebrity support, to make dead pangolins a symbol of shame rather than status in East Asia. The campaign would also inform people that pangolin scales, which are made of keratin, like fingernails, have no medicinal value whatsoever.

Raising public awareness also means introducing pangolins to the public as living creatures rather than simply as meat on a plate. Despite their obscurity, says Lisa Hywood, pangolins do in fact have their charismatic qualities. Her facility in Harare rehabilitates rescued pangolins for return to the wild. Part of the routine is a daily walk, she says, with the pangolins doing “what an animal does, digging, rolling in the dirt, investigating.” They aren’t on a leash. The handler walks a few steps behind, she says, and the pangolins don’t ball themselves up or run away because “they are very intelligent animals, and they can tell the difference between a person who is trying to kill and eat them, and one who is caring for them.”

Hywood has one pangolin she has been rearing for the past 18 months named Chaminuka. She says he recognizes her when she comes home, makes a soft chuffing noise, and stands up to hold her hand and greet her.

It can of course be deeply moving to work with elephants, she adds, speaking from experience. But she has discovered that working with pangolins can be even more powerfully emotional, especially as these curious creatures rapidly vanish from the face of the Earth. 

Yale environment 360

POSTED ON 19TH SEP 2013 IN BIODIVERSITY BIODIVERSITY BUSINESS & INNOVATION OCEANS POLICY & POLITICS AFRICA EUROPE 

The War on African Poaching | Is Militarization Fated to Fail?

BY ADAM WELZ | YALE 360 ENVIRONMENT

African countries and private game reserves are engaging in an increasingly sophisticated arms race against poachers, yet the slaughter of elephants and rhinos continues. Some experts argue that the battle must be joined on a far wider front that targets demand in Asia and judicial dysfunction in Africa.


The War on Poaching: Is Militarization Doomed to Fail?

  • A key failing lies in the continent’s judicial systems, where judges don’t take wildlife crime seriously.
  • Unmanned aircraft and two companies of soldiers have been deployed in Kruger National Park.
  • A well-crafted social awareness campaign in Asia could drastically reduce demand for rhino horn and ivory.

Every two weeks or so, the South African Department of Environmental Affairs publishes a rhino poaching update, a running tally of rhinoceroses illegally killed for lucrative Asian black markets, along with a summary of arrests of poachers and rhino horn couriers. The latest, dated August 7, lists 553 rhinos poached so far this year and 147 arrests. South Africa is on track to lose 900 to 1,000 rhinos to poachers in 2013, smashing last year’s macabre record of 668. The epidemic of rhino poaching that broke out in 2008 shows no sign of dying down.

Africa’s elephants are also being shot in extraordinary and rising numbers for their ivory, now a hot-selling status and investment commodity in China. Experts estimate that a mind-boggling 25,000 to 40,000 elephants are being killed annually across the continent, which could be close to 10 percent of the total number remaining, and significantly more than are born each year.

Rhino and elephant protectors have sprung into action in an increasingly militarized effort to stamp out this carnage. Governments have given game rangers better weapons, engaged intelligence analysts, and put spotter planes, helicopters, and unmanned drones into the air. Some have deployed their national defense forces into national parks. Private wildlife custodians have spent millions on their own armed anti-poaching guards, sniffer dogs, mini-drones, and informants.

But as the response to rhino and elephant poaching has become progressively more militarized, a stubborn reality remains: The continental-scale slaughter of rhinos and elephants continues to intensify, despite rising arrests and killings of poachers and increasing interdiction of illegal shipments of rhino horn and ivory. And although the toll would no doubt be worse without the anti-poaching efforts, experts say that other aspects of the battle to save Africa’s wildlife — including improving justice systems and launching efforts to reduce consumer demand for wildlife products — have been given short shrift.

“You’re not going to just enforce your way out of this,” says Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid, a California-based conservation group that focuses on the consumer side of the illegal wildlife trade. “You’re never going to stop [poaching] by just putting new boots on guys in Africa because it’s a [game of] whack-a-mole.”

Knights believes that illicit wildlife products “always find their way out” to consumers who are willing to pay for them. That view is echoed by some drug policy experts, who liken the uphill battle against African poaching to the war on drugs, where the militarized enforcement-and-interdiction approach has been an extraordinarily expensive, bloody failure. “Where there is persistent demand for an illegal substance, there will be supply,” Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based group that advocates for drug policy reform, told me.

The effort to stem the tide of rhino and elephant poaching has become a global concern. Saying that wildlife crime undermines security — a thinly disguised reference to terrorism — U.S. President Barack Obama last month announced a new Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking.

No place better illustrates the challenges of protecting pachyderms than South Africa’s Kruger National Park, which has lost far more rhinos than any other African park in recent years. It has come under siege by poachers working for criminal networks that smuggle the horns — used in traditional Chinese medicine — through neighboring Mozambique to illegal markets in Asia.

South African National Parks’ (SANParks) first response to the outbreak of poaching in 2008 was to ramp up conventional ranger patrols in Kruger, home to thousands of rhinos. Poachers, mainly from Mozambique, responded by coming in larger groups, a “triggerman” with a heavy-caliber hunting rifle and “guards” carrying AK-47s. They weren’t shy about shooting at rangers, and many firefights ensued, some with fatal results. SANParks began retraining and better arming its rangers, who arrested and shot more poachers, but it wasn’t enough — the poachers kept coming in even greater numbers.

In 2011 the South African National Defense Force deployed two companies of troops, 265 men, in and around the park to help with the fight. Park enforcers got more air support, including more helicopters. A new spotter plane was donated by a South African arms exporter in late 2012, and various unmanned aircraft — including sophisticated military drones made by South African arms manufacturer Denel — have recently been deployed over the park on a trial basis. “Many arrests are now made with air support,” a spokesperson for SANParks told me.

SANParks has an annual anti-poaching budget of about $7.5 million, much of that spent in Kruger, and support worth millions more is provided by other government departments and private donors. More poachers are being arrested than ever before, and at least 23 have been shot dead by rangers since 2008. Nevertheless, the rhino slaughter is intensifying: So far this year, 345 rhino have been poached in the park, more than double the number killed in the first seven months of 2012.

Scores of rhino charities now collect millions of dollars annually around the world for public and private anti-poaching efforts across Africa. South Africa’s large private game farming and wildlife safari industries also now collectively spend millions of dollars annually on new armed guards. Most anti-poaching companies offer military-style training, and some are operated by South African soldiers of fortune who have worked for U.S. security contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq.

One company, Diceros, is marketing an integrated system made up of U.S. and South African military and security industry technology that includes high-definition radar, in-earth microphones, communications interception, long-range cameras, and drones. The company says that its gear currently monitors cattle rustlers and other smugglers on and around Lake Victoria in central Africa’s Rift Valley, with great success.

WWF is researching integrated high-tech, drone-centered surveillance systems in the arid north of Namibia. Funded by a $5 million grant from Google, WWF’s aim is to find reliable ways of integrating imagery from unarmed drones with real-time information about the location of poachers, armed ranger patrols, and electronically tagged rhinos so that rangers can be optimally deployed to protect the animals. Crawford Allan, a seniorWWF/TRAFFIC wildlife crime expert, said that the project had been approached by dozens of drone manufacturers because “their military contracts are depleting and they’re looking for civilian applications” for their aircraft.

Kenya, which has lost a steadily increasing number of elephants and rhinos in recent years, has also entered the arms race with poachers, increasing its government budget for armed ranger patrols and just last week announcing a new, elite anti-poaching unit.

Many other African countries, including Botswana, Gabon and Cameroon, have deployed military units to conservation areas in recent years in response to increased poaching, including high-profile mass killings of elephants in central Africa by poachers with links to Janjaweed militias in Sudan.

Still, the epidemic rages on, prompting many experts to argue that a wider effort is needed. A key failing, conservationists say, lies in the continent’s justice systems, where evidence collection is often botched, prosecutions poorly handled, and judges often don’t take wildlife crime seriously, which sends the message that poaching is no big deal. Although some low-ranking “triggermen” have been caught and jailed in South Africa, cases against higher-level kingpins have dragged out for years.

In Kenya, conservationists were outraged when two guards implicated in a recent, brazen theft of ivory from an allegedly secure government stockpile were fired but not prosecuted. On July 1, a former U.S. defense attache, David McNevin, was caught at Nairobi airport with illegal ivory in his luggage. Despite the case’s high profile, his only punishment was a fine of about $350.

Incidents like these have amplified calls for poaching to be treated as seriously as drug smuggling and terrorism, with which, criminologists point out, it is often linked logistically and financially. President Obama’s new task force on wildlife trafficking is heavily populated by representatives from the departments involved in anti-drug and anti-terror efforts.

But, like the war on drugs, there are early signs that the war on poaching is plagued by the so-called “balloon effect.”

“When you suppress drug production in one area, it pops up in another” because consumer demand persists, said Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance. The South African rhino crisis, for example, was preceded by a little-publicized wave of poaching in neighboring Zimbabwe, said Jo Shaw, WWF-South Africa’s rhino policy expert. Conservationists responded by relocating the country’s remaining animals into relatively small “intensive protection” zones, after which poaching took off in South Africa.

Wildlife traffickers are already shifting illicit transport routes in response to interdiction efforts through countries with weak controls, such as Togo. Some of the largest illegal ivory consignments recently interdicted in Asia, involving thousands of tusks, have originated at Togo’s port, Lome. Since Togo probably has a population of fewer than 65 elephants, the ivory clearly comes from elsewhere. In southern Africa, smugglers now avoid going through Johannesburg’s international airport, preferring the nearby, more poorly policed airport in Maputo, Mozambique.

If enforcement and interdiction is not sufficient, what else night work? Nadelmann cites a case from the drug world involving the club drug Ecstacy, popular in the 1990s. Its popularity declined rapidly after dealers began adulterating its main ingredient with other substances, thus destroying its reputation among users. Nadelmann suggested that “creative interventions in the market” designed to create distrust among Asian buyers about the quality or value of rhino horn and ivory might lower demand.

Some South African rhino owners are already attempting to degrade the value of rhino horn by injecting a combination of toxic insecticides and indelible dye into live animals’ horns. The toxic dye concoction will likely sicken (but not kill) consumers and will also make the horns more visible on x-ray machines. It’s too early to say if this has reduced demand, but owners are confident that it at least inspires poachers to avoid shooting animals with tainted horns.

Some media-savvy conservation groups say that well-crafted public relations and social awareness campaigns in Asia could significantly reduce demand for rhino horn and ivory, pointing to recent successes by a campaign to cut shark fin use. WildAid, which has produced slick video spots featuring celebrities to persuade Asians not to consume shark fin soup, said that shark fin imports into Hong Kong, a major hub for the trade, dropped by more than 70 percent from 2011 to 2012 as the campaign took effect.

WildAid’s Peter Knights said that the group has recently produced spots against rhino horn and ivory consumption, but had struggled for over a decade to fund them. It’s extremely difficult to raise money for campaigns to reduce demand, said Crawford Allan of WWF/TRAFFIC, because “donors like to see boots on the ground and technology.” Other conservationists say that donors, politicians, and the media find images of armed anti-poaching patrols, drones, and military equipment “sexy,” lamenting that the multi-faceted nature of the struggle to save rhinos and elephants is often glossed over.

Knights told me that policymakers have recently shown greater interest in targeting demand in Asia. Meanwhile, the stakes for rhinos and elephants get higher by the day, as ever-stronger groups of poachers continue to reap their harvests across Africa. 

Yale environment 360

POSTED ON 12 AUG 2013 IN BIODIVERSITY BIODIVERSITY CLIMATE FORESTS POLICY & POLITICS SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY AFRICA EUROPE 

 

 

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